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Editors Note: We are more than happy with the enduring popularity of this article, but please, gentle reader, remember it is a few years old now... While we think it has stood the test of time, and essentially most of the points stills stand, we think you should bear in mind the passage of time! We still think Alfresco rocks, and we certainly think Nuxeo deserve your attention as they have gone from strenght-to-strength in the past 3 years. Above all, we still think you should think twice about assuming proprietary is best, because in the area of Document Management that assumption is both untrue, and will cost you a pile of money... That aside, on with the article!
In this post we’ll look at one of the most exciting and lucrative battle grounds in IT – Enterprise Content Management (ECM). But before diving in it's worth noting that we don’t want to be accused of comparing apples with pears. Direct feature-for-feature comparisons are always a challenge and users must consider what technology is the best fit for their particular project. For example, some vendors market their wares as ‘collaboration environments’ which offer tight integration with other product lines to offer specific features. Others focus on core ECM functionality and look to leverage open source and open standards to integrate with best-of-breed wikis, blogs etc. Still others fall somewhere between the two. So what we’re really trying to do is to get down to basics – what rocks and what doesn’t. If you think that’s unscientific then we’ve got news for you – all product comparisons are flawed.
So, with this caveat firmly in place, we’re going to start by looking at the dominant incumbent - Microsoft SharePoint. Our objective is to understand why people buy it in their droves. Is it really that great? Does it offer unsurpassed value or are other forces at play? Once licked, we’ll compare it with the most talked about open source alternative - Alfresco. Is it really as good as they claim? Crucially, what does the paid-for ‘Enterprise’ edition offer that the free ‘Labs’ version doesn’t? Lastly we’ll see how Alfresco fares against Nuxeo, an up-and-coming ECM from France.
Microsoft SharePoint is primarily touted as a way for enterprises to improve collaboration. It does so by replacing shared drives and enhancing communications between project team members. As you would expect, it boasts a high degree of integration (some would say dependency) with other Microsoft technologies like Word, Excel, Office Communications Server, Active Directory, and Exchange. In doing so it claims to offer a broad range of functionality including business intelligence, records management, document management, web content management and eForms. Cutting to the chase, managers love SharePoint. And who can blame them. It’s got pretty packaging; extensive whitepaper’age; lots and lots of convincing case studies; and, most importantly, nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft. Huzzah!
However a growing number of people, particularly those who have a heterogeneous exposure to software, are less enthusiastic. They believe that no product, no matter how great will solve every problem an enterprise might have. Compare it to a Swiss Army Knife. It looks pretty. It looks convenient. But in reality most of the tools aren’t much cop.
If you’re thinking of buying SharePoint it is important to remember that it only runs on a Microsoft stack, thereby locking you in for the long-term. A typical Microsoft stack includes:
Sound expensive? You can find out for yourself using Microsoft’s mysterious pricing configurator. But remember, watch out for those Client Access Licenses (CALs)! These pesky licensing vehicles quickly ratchet up the total cost of leasing SharePoint (you never really own it) and, by their very nature, put a brake on your growth.
So how does Alfresco compare with SharePoint? At first glance it has distinct technical and commercial advantages over it proprietary competitor:
Alfresco’s Labs edition is entirely free. Head over to the Alfresco Wiki and download a full-on ECM for nothing. And that’s not all. Alfresco runs on Windows, Linux, Mac or Unix and supports any LDAP server, not just Active Directory. That’s great for people already using a non-proprietary authentication solution like OpenLDAP.
Alfresco doesn’t require you to shell out for an database - both PostgreSQL and MySQL work just fine, and light-weight scripting within the application itself means that it’s extendible without the need for investing in a proprietary development environment.
Best of all there are no CALs. If you’re looking to expand rapidly or offer content services to your clients, for example, Alfresco Labs can give you that sort of scalability for free.
Like SharePoint, Alfresco comes with a free widget that lets your users manage documents from inside Microsoft Word or Excel. You can also use it as a shared drive on your network. Uploading and managing digital content is as easy as opening Windows Explorer. That level of technical empathy means that Alfresco can slip into your staff’s existing work processes with minimal retraining.
So where’s the catch? Like many so-called ‘Commercial Open Source’ companies Alfresco offers its Labs version for free but sells its Enterprise edition for an annually renewable fee. Don’t take this the wrong way. We think many enterprises will feel technical support from the mother ship, enterprise-grade SLAs and add-on tools like Alfresco Share are worth the money.
Our experience of the guys at Alfresco is also very positive - they are professional, friendly and co-operative. We’re certainly not going to knock them for wanting to make a profit. However, we are talking about Open Source code here. Alfresco Labs uses the same code base as Alfresco Enterprise but is properly licensed under the General Public License (GPL). Therefore you can, in theory, get enterprise support for Alfresco Labs from anybody with the required skillset. They won’t appreciate us pointing this out, but it is true.
Perhaps most annoying is the embedding a scary footer in every page of Alfresco Lab’s web client which reads, “Supplied free of charge with no support, no certification, no maintenance, no warranty and no indemnity by Alfresco or its Certified Partners”.
Fig 1: Would you want your clients using a application with this embedded in every page they use?
Most technologists would look to remove such a message (which they are perfectly entitled to do under the GPL) by changing the relevant line in a globally included text file. Failing that, they’d have a look in the application’s database for instances of the responsible HTML and delete it. Unfortunately, you won’t find this Labs-only ‘feature’ in either location. Instead, Alfresco’s developers have embedded the footer text into a fairly useful JSP tag which outputs the skeletal HTML page tags, and includes HTML to pull in global scripts and cascading stylesheets. It also includes code that can log how long it took Alfresco to build the JSP page. That’s a bit cynical and not exactly in the spirit of the GPL. To remove the footer from your web pages, you need either to stop using the r:page tag or recompile the page tag to set the text to what you would like. Alternatively you can configure your web server to remove the annoying HTML before it hits your user’s browsers. But neither option is for the faint hearted. Most people will need expert help to achieve either workaround.
In summary, Alfresco is attractive for SMEs and global corporations alike. It delivers excellent document and content management functionality without the lock-in of a complete Microsoft stack. Alfresco also lets you escape the burden of CALs and, if their case studies are it be believed, it is massively scalable.
When you compare Nuxeo with Alfresco you will see many similarities but importantly some rather striking differences:
Like Alfresco, Nuxeo is beautiful, fast and feature rich. We actually found the user interface more intuitive than its rival and we particularly liked Nuxeo’s drag-and-drop capabilities. No more browsing your desktop for the relevant file. Just grab the file and drop it into the relevant folder. In many ways that’s even more useful than accessing digital content as a shared drive.
It runs on any mainstream OS and is built using a suite of robust open source Java EE technologies such as JCR, JSF, EJB3 and JBoss Seam.
Nuxeo is very extensible because it is built on an infrastructure of plug-ins based on the OSGi standard. Developers and integrators can therefore easily create custom plug-ins to adapt to the platform. The company actually claim that more than 50% of the contributors are non-Nuxeo employees. If true, that’s great. We think an inclusive, accessible development eco-system around an open source product is a really good thing for the Enterprise.
The Nuxeo platform’s hugely promising architecture allows it to cover a wide spectrum of ECM functions including document management, collaborative work, business process management (ie. workflow), compliance, records management and digital asset management (where it excels).
In terms of access to source code only Alfresco’s Labs edition repository is wide open, but their Enterprise edition is not. Nuxeo, on the other hand, only has one repository for the Enterprise Platform and it is open to the public. It follows that all Nuxeo fixes are immediately available to anyone in the community that can make a build. In contrast Alfresco Labs users must wait for fixes to be merged from the Enterprise to Labs repositories. Users of Nuxeo are at an advantage here because they immediately benefit from the support activities related to paying customers. Users of Alfresco Labs do not.
Nuxeo Inc. generates its revenue via a mix of paid for consulting services and customer support. No doubt they’re betting that customers would rather spend their money on the customisation, integration and maintenance of an open source product rather than coughing up for an inflexible, closed source product that comes with lots of features you don’t need. However, like Alfresco, they make the mistake of thinking that their platform can only be supported by themselves or approved partners. We’re here to tell you that the emperor has no clothes.
We’d love to love Nuxeo. The company’s strong community focus is a natural fit for Sirius and their ECM is a joy to use. But its not all positive. Nuxeo’s founder, Stefane Fermigier, recently admitted their business strategy is to use the “… UK market is the first major step forward in taking Nuxeo onto the global stage”. Cool, no doubt this accounts for their UK address and central London telephone number… but hold on just a second. If you ring that number you’re put through to a French switchboard. Okay…? Our attempts to get through to the relevant executives to co-operate in the drafting of this piece were foiled by our subjection to awful on-hold musack and then an admission that they are ‘out to lunch’. How very French. Several messages resulted in no call backs. Our only conclusion is that they’ve either got something to hide or are just completely disorganised. Hanlon’s razor usually applies in such circumstances but either way it’s not surprising that Alfresco don’t currently see them as a real threat in the UK or any other market. What a shame.
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