Put to the Test: Alfresco Enterprise Content Management - InformationWeek

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Software // Information Management

Put to the Test: Alfresco Enterprise Content Management

Alfresco is a scalable and well-architected open source alternative for ECM, but lacking industry-specific, out-of-the-box applications, its best appeal is to developers and ISVs.

• Sticks with accepted standards including J2SE 5.0, JSR-168, WebDAV and JSR-127 (Java Server Faces)
• Incorporates Java-based open source packages including Lucene and Spring
• Modular and scalable repository architecture
• Lacks vertical-industry solutions and prebuilt content applications
• Limited process modelling capabilities
• Official support and training are expensive

Founded in 2005 as an open source enterprise content management system provider, Alfresco has in a short time garnered more than its fair share of (mostly favorable) attention. Its notoriety stems in part from its impressive pedigree. The system was architected by a founder of Documentum, and the firm is staffed largely by ex-Documentum and ex-Interwoven employees. Alfresco has also made a substantial investment in professional public relations, rare for an open source vendor and a good clue that Alfresco is well funded (another rarity in the open source world).

Alfresco sees itself as a challenger to commercial vendors such as EMC, IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft as a content management platform player, but -- not surprisingly for a young company and project -- the technology is not intently focused on any specific business scenarios. Indeed, Alfresco looks to partners to develop specific content applications, and the company has built a decent support channel of systems integrators and consultants.

Although the software itself is freely available for download, when you factor in the inevitable services work required to build a complex application, along with the relatively steep maintenance and support fees that Alfresco itself charges, an Alfresco-driven ECM project may only be modestly less costly than a commercial competitor's suite. Like most open source efforts, real long term value will reside in the depth of the support and development community that emerges around Alfresco. For now, ISV's and other developers will likely take the lead in building on what is otherwise a scalable and capable platform.

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Alfresco ECM incorporates social networking and collaborative capabilities that let users share comments on documents and blog posts.

A Look at the Technology

As an ECM platform provider, Alfresco will stand or fall on its underlying architecture. Indeed, most of the development effort to date has gone into the core structure. Alfresco has benefited from the notable advantages of starting from scratch, having good funding and tapping the deep experience of veteran employees of Documentum and Interwoven. The last distinction is not always an advantage, however, as the "clean slate" often seems influenced Documentum and Interwoven approaches.

At its essence, Alfresco is a Java repository framework with a built-in rules engine and a separate indexing and categorization engine, with metadata stored in a DBMS (such as Oracle or MySQL). The repository is quite sophisticated. Unusually for an ECM system, Alfresco provides a high-availability environment with built-in redundancy and replication. Its automatic failover capabilities are only matched at the highest end of the market (and even those are not always as well done).

Alfresco takes advantage of several other Java projects, including Lucene (the open source search engine), Hibernate (object-relational mapping) and Spring (J2EE application framework). Particularly important is the fact that Alfresco has been built with Java Server Faces (JSF), using Aspect-Oriented Programming (AOP). JSF is a winning bet for a Java application framework, and commercial ECM vendors are just beginning to replace their less-standardized application frameworks with JSF.

AOP is not quite as proven and accepted, particularly among object-oriented developers and architects. AOP theoretically reduces communications between system elements, with resulting performance improvements, but developers should do their own tests during proof-of-concept projects to verify this. There's a better case to be made that AOP improves developer productivity, but this is only true for programmers who have truly embraced the method.

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