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Alfresco aims to bring Web 2.0 and ECM together

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For most businesses, large or small, the most common approach to providing content management is to use a shared F: drive across the network. This is despite the fact that there are many content management tools available on the market.

One of the reasons, according to John Newton, chief technology officer of Alfresco, is the fact that ECMs (Enterprise Content Management systems) are geared to a `top-down’ approach that requires the whole enterprise to be covered by the system. In addition, they are often too complex and built on proprietary technology that has to be learned by IT support staff and users. “Compared to that, the shared F: drive appears a much simpler solution,” he said.

But it is a solution with limitations, and with the advent of Web 2.0 technologies – with mashups being the obvious prime candidate of how content can now be re-purposed and re-used – those limitations are, in Newton’s view, growing. To address this, the company has just launched version 2.1 of its ECM system, which Newton claims is modeled on the familiarity of the F:drive, but with many `extras’. It is being pitched as tackling all three problems found with traditional ECM systems at once.

To overcome the top-down approach and the need to work with inevitable proprietary idiosyncrasies, the Alfresco system is built on open source technologies and is designed to be utilised in a bottom up style. The basic system can be downloaded for free and any user or individual can try it on the company’s own website using its hosted trial service.

Any department in a company can use it to build an ECM for their own requirements, which does sound like a good way to create content anarchy, but Newton pointed out that this is overcome by the ability to easily federate the individual departments together as and when necessary.

“This is the lowest-cost approach to ECM,” he said, “and is the way that many of our enterprise customers have come to us. They have started by downloading the system and using it – we have had over 15,000 downloads so far. When they want to, these users can become fully supported enterprise customers.”

There are some 300 of those so far, including NASA, the French Ministry of Justice, HR Block, Reed Employment and three of the top 10 investment banks. The largest installation in Europe is the European Union.

The EU is an example of the flexibility claimed possible using the open source approach. The system is built in a modular form using the Spring Framework and Alfresco is starting to operate a module respository that some users can contribute to and other users can exploit. The EU has contributed modules to localize the system into 20 different languages, together with Wiki capabilities, auto transformation tools and a new calendaring system. The use of Spring also means that modules can be written in most available scripting languages, including .NET.

The potential impact of Web 2.0 on content management is addressed by using web-oriented architecture based on the REST architecture, addressing everything as a URL. “This means users can now mashup internal enterprise content with external content,” Newton said, “and it is all based on modularized and standard tools so that no developer has to learn new languages, scripts or proprietary tools. In fact, scripting a new content rule becomes a relatively simple task that, in some cases, could even be undertaken by a smart business manager.”

Each installation of Alfresco will have an Application Lifecycle Framework (ALF) repository, and the system incorporates an ALF Module Package which allows modules to be distributed between the installations simply by ZIPing them up and distributing them around the respositories. The installations can also be federated, not only within an enterprise, but also externally, allowing federated networks of content-sharing business partners to be created.

Another departure from the more traditional ECM approach is that it is also possible for users to incorporate Alfresco into their own applications or services, either as an appliance, a utility, or as a component. “The licencing for this is very similar to the MySQL business model,” Newton said. “If a user’s application or service is made open source then use of the system is free. If it is sold then they pay a licence fee.”

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