Alfresco enter the cloud & mobile era

Alfresco create cloud and mobile offerings to augment their core standards based enterprise content management competencies
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

Alfresco are an interesting company who grew out of the original web open source movement. Founded in 2005 by ex Business Objects exec John Powell and ex Documentum founder John Newton, Alfresco's birth dna is as a full, open source Enterprise Content Management System ('ECM'), complete with rich metadata tools and deep standards compliance.

It's been an interesting journey for a company that was funded by blue chip VC's to disrupt the sleepy ECM marketplace - presumably the name 'Alfresco' was chosen to define their 'outsider' status to competitors such as Sharepoint and Documentum (owned by EMC since 2003).

The ECM market has historically been primarily about the sleepy digital gray filing cabinets companies keep their documents in, with attendant search and findability issues. Alfresco came out of the gate hard with the benefit of the stirrings of the Web 2.0 read/write web revolution's momentum and has since quietly grown as a credible and innovative global entity with an admirable lack of hyperbole and pretense.

The Open Source movement has to some extent been outflanked by the emergence of software as a service cloud computing. The original ideals of mass coding contributions of finesse and quality to create stable distributions along with bleeding edge development has in some areas been blunted by cloud co-option of existing code bases that are sold by seat subscription from behind an internet firewall, which in some ways supersedes the idealism of the Web 2.0 world.

For a company like Alfresco the evolution entails splitting their offerings into two areas. Alfresco Community Edition 4.0 (released last fall) is their free software, LGPL licensed open source and open standards product, which Java shops can knit into their existing collaborative infrastructure within extranets, private clouds and on premise environments under GNU LGPL2 licensing.

Alfresco Enterprise Edition is commercially & proprietary licensed open source, with open standards and credible enterprise scale, designed for to enable a high degree of modularity and scalable performance, and a new version of this product was launched last week. Alfresco Enterprise 4 is marketed as a 'cloud connected content platform', with that alliteration being the hood ornament for an HTML 5 enabled interface with extensive mobile and social networking features.

Interoperability is critical for companies like Alfresco, who need synergies with other enterprise applications - along with diplomacy not to intrude too far into partners such as Jive Software's business. (Jive are partnered with Alfresco to provide content management to compliment their offerings).

These software parent child relationships are always complicated - particularly when you are designing use strategies inside large companies with multiple flavors of technologies - but clearly Alfresco saw a need to offer the now ubiquitous 'liking', 'following' and activity streams that are festooned all over this season's enterprise software. Not that hard to bake into technologies my engineering colleagues tell me, but potentially a huge time sink for users when you have multiple software platforms all with their own chronological time based streams of activities by users.

Some of Alfresco's announcements are road map rather than reality - there will be major feature roll outs as the year progresses - but there is now a credible cloud foundation available in Alfresco Enterprise 4.0. In the enterprise space Dropbox, Yousendit and Box.net have had tremendous momentum, albeit for fragmented document storage. Box.net for example also embeds into Atlassian's Confluence and Jira products - historically ecosystem partners to Alfresco - so some of Alfresco's move is tactical to counter that cloud trend.

There are plenty of enterprises who require the deep ECM standards compliance Alfresco have a great track record for however, and for whom a Dropbox or Box would never be formally sanctioned by internal security, so I think this is a shrewd move by Alfresco, particularly as the hype increases from the old line legacy proprietary product vendors who are refreshing their offerings with an integrated 'social' display layer and marketing messaging.

What to securely place on remote servers via software as a service outside the organization's firewall is a major agenda item in most companies these days; while many enterprises have teams of java engineers configuring and customizing internal collaboration and document management systems, the financial benefits to the bottom line of moving can be an attractive cost saving.

Cloud is only one part of the modern enterprise equation of course however, and Alfresco's roadmap aims to work with existing corporate systems such as  SAP, Oracle, Liferay, Drupal, Peoplesoft and Jive via Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS) JSR-168 open standard  connectors with Web services enabling hook ups to Dropbox (this spring) , Google docs et al along with web api handshakes to the various social networks (Facebook, Twitter, /Youtube et al) for marketing communications and interactions. The desktop - still the enterprise CMS bread and butter of content creation and distribution - is served via Web Dav, CMIS, CIFS and Sharepoint protocol, with CMIS and Web Dav also serving as mobile connectivity protocols.

The Alfresco public cloud scheduled for summer release uses CMIS open standard sync with the beta version ready for sign up now, with Alfresco 4.0 available now at around USD20k and up depending on number of processors and other parameters.

As an enthusiast of consistent standards, which are helpful when road mapping credible collaboration solutions across multiple applications, I'm a fan of Alfresco's steady progress but worry they may be stretched a little thin with the breadth of their offerings going forward. In some ways a firm like Alfresco is damned if they do and damned if they don't, but they are definitely moving in the right direction. As always the question is one of timing against deeper pocketed proprietary competitors as needs mutate and social fashions come and go.

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