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Alfresco tries to repeat history

  Fifteen years ago, John Newton co-founded Documentum (documentum.com) on the premise that a document management system was best realized on the then novel approach of object-oriented programming with C++. Now with a gaggle of other ex-Documentum developers, Newton is trying it again. Their new open-source enterprise content management (ECM) platform, Alfresco (alfresco.org), is built atop the bleeding-edge Java Server Faces (JSF) framework using Aspect-Oriented Programming (AOP) principles.

Much like with Documentum, when the Alfresco team talks about ECM, it means a highly scalable repository that can support a variety of content types and services. In its preview release, however, the package more modestly targets simple document collaboration a la Microsoft (microsoft.com) SharePoint.

Newton politely dismisses other open-source content management projects as too Web-oriented. The appeal of ECM for a vendor is that nearly everyone in the enterprise has to use the system, not just the Webmaster. In fact, other open-source projects such as Plone (plone.org) have branched into simple document management, but Alfresco brings something most open-source CM projects don't have: dedicated usability talent to make business-friendly interfaces.

Alfresco also goes where most other open-source tools have dared not tread: the Windows desktop. Users can mount the Alfresco repository as a shared drive and easily move or synchronize files. MS Office integration, via Open Office (openoffice.org), remains somewhat less straightforward.

Alfresco's real secret sauce, however, lies in its rules engine, which is presently as rough as it is promising. The engine resembles FileNet (filenet.com) more than Documentum in its ability to enable automatic routing, tagging and conversion of files.

Ultimately any open-source platform draws its real strength from a large and active community, and it remains to be seen whether Alfresco will loosen its tight reins on committing changes to the official source code enough to let innovation flourish. Alfresco "is not your typical amateur effort," sniffs Newton. Meanwhile, Alfresco feels venture-funded (which it is) and perhaps a bit slick for some developers familiar with participating more centrally in the highly meritocratic Apache (apache.org) process.

At a higher level, Alfresco resembles other open-source content management projects inasmuch as it pitches fundamentally a developer story--"feed your Java-based portals with our heavy-duty repository." At the same time, the real buyers of ECM systems are line business leaders looking to solve specific problems. Alfresco will therefore have to rely on other reputable firms to develop and market specific business solutions. This is, in fact, Alfresco's explicit strategy in assigning a very liberal Lesser General Public License (LGPL) usage license to the source code, allowing other firms to build commercial products off the platform. "The real margins are in tech support and training," Newton observes.

It is certainly refreshing to see a startup company placing a big bet on new techniques and the aggregation of other open-source modules, such as Apache's powerful Lucene search engine. And unlike Documentum, you can download and try out the software yourself. Just remember that while the Alfresco team talks about roadmaps and new features in the coming months, the development of viable open-source project communities is measured in years.

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