14 Nov

Options for Open Source Document Management

Twenty years ago, companies managed critical documents inside a concrete-lined filing cabinet. If any instructions needed to be disseminated to all employees, they were photocopied and thumb-tacked to the bulletin boards in all the break rooms. Emergency procedures were usually kept in a brightly colored three-ring binder, which unfortunately contained printouts two or three revisions out-of-date. Twenty years is a significant amount of time. Surely technology has advanced to provide a better way.

The Problem

Excellent document management is a requirement for modern organizations. Even if there are no regulatory needs such as SOX, GLBA, HIPAA; keeping a tight body of operating policies and procedures is simply good business. Sadly, though, most companies attempt to use simple file shares, or worse–public folders, to manage their security and operating programs. This leads to confusion and a lack of continuity, giving rise to multiple copies of important documents with no clear way to determine which is the most recent–and approved–version. Such a “solution” is essentially no better than the corkboards of yesteryear.

The Proprietary

From the first day when Microsoft SharePoint was released, the Enterprise market knew that something had happened to fundamentally alter the usual lineup of required business IT applications and services. The unfortunate downside is that it is a product that serves to further lock organizations into the “Redmond Way.” There are two flavors of SharePoint, the Windows Server add-on Windows SharePoint (WSS) Services and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) that is licensed on a per seat basis. Both integrate tightly into an Active Directory domain and leverage an admittedly already large existing base of Microsoft Office installations.

However, before spending time and money developing an entirely new infrastructure and skill set, a responsible business will quickly discover a vast number of viable Open Source Document Management Products. Most of which are easy to implement, stable, and do not suffer the same steep learning “cliff” as SharePoint.

The Priorities

An Enterprise Document Management (EDM) system must, obviously, first manage documents. As we are primarily interested in FOSS solutions we will place on a premium on compatibility with Open Source office suites, such as OpenOffice.org file types. Secondarily, there must be included in the system a highly efficient way to get these documents into the hands of the knowledge workers that need them–usually via a web portal. Thirdly, to prevent confusion there must be a versioning system that tracks authorized users as they check files out for editing and check new revisions back in. Ideally, this versioning system will notify interested parties that a change has been made. Lastly, some type of security system must be integrated so only the proper delegates can update files; bonus features might include integration with LDAP, digital signatures, and perhaps even encryption.

Those are the basic requirements. Yet, user investment in a one-trick-pony system is nearly impossible–it runs the risk of being ignored and forgotten. Therefore, organizations should look more favorably to packages that offer more than just document control. Natural extensions are Intranet portals, project management systems, and so forth.

The Products

The systems under primary consideration all exhibit strengths in document management. In the case of MediaWiki, we will stretch our definition to “information management.”

  • Alfresco – A full-featured Enterprise Content Management system. There is a commercial version called the Alfresco Enterprise Edition and a free version entitled the Alfresco Community Labs edition. OpenOffice.org file formats are understood, even to the point that Microsoft file formats can be transformed within the system to ODF. Alfresco is completely open-standard / open source and built on a Java architecture. Alfresco is very polished and enterprise-ready. The website hosts an active user forum with a handful of zero-reply topics. Read more…
  • Knowledgetree Subtitled “Document Management Made Simple”, Knowledgetree focuses on document management, workflow building, and powerful search features. It is marketed in three models: Hosted (on-demand), Premium, and a Community Edition (GNU GPL v3). While integrating with Zoho Office Suite http://www.zoho.com, Microsoft Office toolbar plug-ins are also available. It is built using PHP and AJAX; featuring LDAP (and Active Directory) integration. The community forum is highly active with very few zero-replies. Read more…
  • Epiware A solid solution providing document management, task management, and project management. Two versions exist, a Professional and an Open Source edition. Epiware has great checkout and document history capabilities; in addition to an access log, and strangely, blogging functionality. Because of the LAMP-based nature of Epiware, Epiware could even be installed on a CPanel-type web host provider with a little work. Unfortunately, the support wiki site is sparsely populated at present, as are the forums. So running into significant trouble may be a show-stopper. Read more…
  • O3Spaces A Document Management system centered around extending office suites, primarily OpenOffice.org. With pre-built installer packages for .deb, .rpm, Mac OS X, and Windows; O3Spaces certainly has incredibly flexible platform specifications. Once again, there is a Community Edition, a Professional Edition, and an On Demand (SaaS) Edition. As one might expect, a focus is placed on OpenOffice.org and StarOffice compatibility. Yet 03Spaces is relatively vender agnostic, even listing NDS, Sun, and Active Directory under LDAP support. One downside is that O3Spaces Community Edition only allows ten users. The forums are not very active, probably because of the user limitation. Sadly, this solution is closed-source.Read more…
  • MediaWiki The best known Wiki platform in existence. While not a full-fledged document management system, if an organization is seeking to forego any ties to office suites, then a wiki may be great option. Managing files is not the strength of wikis, but rather, information. A hierarchy of policies and procedures is made-to-order for internal wiki links. And the history (versioning) is built-in to the system. With Mediawiki, it is simple to create a documentation repository for a far-flung organization on any LAMP server. Caveats would be the challenge of good security, and the lack of any other type of collaboration facilities. Read more…

Side-by-Side Comparison

Product Compatibility Notification Versioning Authentication Extras
Alfresco All, integrates with OpenOffice and Microsoft Office via plug-in Email Version and Audit Trail NTLM or LDAP, document-level Collaboration, Web Content management
Knowledgetree All, plugins for OpenOffice and Microsoft Office Email Version and Audit Trail LDAP (including AD) Workflows based upon documents
Epiware All Email Version and Audit Trail Internal Task and Project Management, Intranet portal
O3Spaces All, integration to Open Office, Microsoft Office, and Star Office Email, Workplace Assistant Automated versioning, Check-in/Check-out LDAP, OpenLDAP, NDS, AD, Sun Directory Service Mail Archiving, Mail Client Integration, Portal Web Application Embedding
MediaWiki None* RSS History Internal N/A

* Files can be uploaded to a wiki, but not truly managed in the sense required.

To demonstrate the wide range of products available, the following solutions will be included for consideration. They each offer a document management component, but very much tend toward the “Collaboration” end of the spectrum.

  • Mindquarry Offers a freeware collaboration product named DO.
  • eGroupWare A collaboration engine that also has file management.
  • OpenGroupWare A team collaboration package that manages files within the project management modules.

The Prize

As with most Open Source solutions, ultimately the users are the biggest winners. With no huge initial capital outlay, administrators are free to pick from these choices and others to find the best solution to meet the needs of their organization. The average organization with some Microsoft Windows technologies would do well with Alfresco or Knowledgetree. Epiware and Mediawiki fit in nicely to a Microsoft-free environment–particularly a geographically dispersed Internet work force.

Overall, however, 03Spaces has a very compelling solution set–but for a price. Those without budgets need not apply. Also, closed source takes a lot of potential customization off the table.

In any case, any of these systems will serve the primary purpose. They will get information dispersed to the organization. And best of all, when the Auditors or Examiners stop by, they can simply be shown to the portal. The faster a Compliance Office can get them finished and out of the building, the better. There are not many more compelling reasons to implement a Document Management System than that.

And that is all.  See you, Space Cowboy.