How difficult can content management be? Companies can spend hundreds of thousands of pounds buying enterprise content management (ECM) systems only to find they are unable to make full use of the product. John Powell, chief executive officer of open source ECM provider Alfresco, believes there is a better way.
A former chief operating officer of business intelligence software supplier Business Objects, Powell, along with John Newton, co-founder of ECM supplier Documentum, started Alfresco in 2005. The pair have hired a content management team of core engineers from the cream of the ECM industry, including Interwoven and Documentum.
Powell says Alfresco has been designed to enable end-users to manage the deluge of content they acquire in their day-to-day job. He dismisses existing ECM products as too complex and far too expensive.
Alfresco is distributed as open source, so the code is free but users have to pay for support and maintenance. Making Alfresco available as open source has been a benefit, according to Powell. "The open source community has helped with quality assurance testing," he says. The community has also helped with the development of device driver software. "We are working with Ricoh so that when you scan a document on a Ricoh copier, it is made instantly available on the network."
Unlike commercial ECM tools. Alfresco has a simple model of content sharing. It stores documents on a shared network drive so there is no need for any special software. Alfresco's so-called Intelligent Virtual File System is designed to be used as a shared drive using CIFS, WebDAV or FTP. The product supports searching using Google-like search and Yahoo-like folder browsing.
Alfresco also uses lightweight integration, mash-ups and scripting to enable users to integrate the application with their own systems. For instance, in a recent blog posting, Alfresco chief architect Dave Caruana describes the company's recently introduced Facebook integration platform. This provides a way for Java developers to use Alfresco's Web Script framework to build Facebook applications mainly using PHP in around 100 lines of code.
There have been more than one million downloads of Alfresco throughout the world, more than 20,000 active deployments of the product, and a customer base of more than 300 enterprise accounts, including many Global 2000 organisations such as five of the top 10 investment banks. Electronic Arts, H&R Block and Dutch airline KLM run Alfresco in enterprise-wide, mission-critical deployments.
Mike Davis, senior analyst at Ovum, says, "[Alfresco] has the technical capabilities, and along with Microsoft is likely to be the most disruptive player in the ECM market at the enterprise level in the next five years.
"Using open source components, Alfesco aims to put together a lighter, faster and more ECM-comprehensive platform."
Davis points out that most ECM tools have been put together through acquisition. For instance, OpenText bought Hummingbird, and both Opentext and Hummingbird bought many companies to build their own ECM platform.
But Davis thinks Alfresco is different. "Alfresco started with a clean sheet, so there is no legacy stuff to support." Davis also believes that since it uses the Tomcat open source application server, Alfresco benefits from the open source community. "Using open source means it is written to standards."
Davis believes the company has a good background, as many of its key staff have come from Documentum. But despite the large number of downloads, he says that Alfresco does not yet have mission-critical deployements, which means potential users are unlikely to find other companies who can show how the product scales.
Last month Alfresco completed a $9m round of financing led by SAP Ventures. The company plans to use the proceeds to fund continued growth into the ECM market, including product development and acceleration of global expansion plans, particularly in the German, US and Asian markets.
Powell says, "The funding will allow us to scale out and build up our expertise." Over the next 12 months he hopes to build a support organisation for customers and look at extending the product into the hosted services market.
This was first published in March 2008