In browser ECM / over the web ECM

2 03 2010

I have been asked to talk a little about browser based ECM solutions, or environments and I thought, why not…First off, browser based ECM interfaces haven’t always been a great hit. In the early days of the web, web based applications were rather clunky, requiring lots of moving around pages to get simple tasks completed. I am not going to talk about the short comings of the web for applications as that is well documented, but, for ECM this environment proved that many web based solutions were slow, hard to utilise and, well, very clunky…

Why are ECM functions hard on the web?

Well the basic functions aren’t that hard these days. Since we have all moved along with how to use the web and our expectations of the web, so have web based ECM solutions – they have improved drastically. However, the problem is that ECM encompasses so much, not just document management facilities, rather the complete enterprise worth of content, in all its forms. Add into this the possibility of Social Media based content and of course Business Process Management (or workflow)  and you can see how this gets more and more complex. I haven’t even touched on extensibility yet either….

So why are these things harder on the web, well they are because of the restrictions the web places on applications. The biggest restriction is the web browser itself, and follow this up with security requirements and you can see why the web becomes almost suffocating for very free content based applications…

The benefits of browser based ECM

Simple, almost no installation on the client machine and the ECM platform can be accessed by any machine with an Internet connection. This means administering the system is a lot simpler and can be moved outside your normal server based type implementations. In theory, if architected well, you will also save on user licenses as the web is “stateless”, meaning you should not have to hold a user license when you aren’t actually interacting with your ECM repository.

However, don’t think you cant utilise thin client type implementations and have your UI in the web browser. You can move web based applications out of the browser with technologies such as Silverlight. This means you get the benefits of the web, without all the restrictions (especially if you choose to run in a “trusted” mode).

 

Good solutions…

If you have and ECM platform that is rather old in its underlying technology (I can’t think of that many that aren’t) you will probably find that their web based solutions are a bit of a “hack together”. The main reason behind this is that technology, programming methodologies etc have changed greatly in the past 25 years, along with user expectations. This doesn’t mean these solutions are bad, rather it means beware that they may limit you in some way compared to newer platforms…

So what good solutions are there that run utilising the web? Well I am not going to list any or do anything like that, rather I am going to suggest that when looking at ECM solutions you think / investigate the following points.

  1. Technology used to deliver the interface into the web browser
  2. Do you have to run your web application in the browser?
  3. Out of the box capabilities / configuration
  4. Extensibility of the out of the box type interfaces
  5. Distributed processing
  6. Integration capabilities
  7. Administration

 

There are more, but I want to keep this post from becoming some kind of white paper…

What you will find is that when you get down to these questions – you will find there are still limitations for many of the ECM players when implementing over the web.

 Administration

Many web based solutions are just that, web based. However, administration and the real complexities of ECM are still delivered primarily through a traditional application (which may be installed on the server). To be honest, if you are a web based ECM provider, all features including administration should be capable through over the internet…

Distributed Processing Power

Remember the point of a web based application is that many people can connect to it, it’s available to all that need it. However, some solutions place limitations on the number of users connecting via a web server, why? In addition, some are highly restrictive with regards to what components are installed where, again why? What you are looking for is real capability to share processing power for the system. This can be in the form of P2P (a valued contributor to my posts strongly recommends this – Max J. Pucher), or distributed service architecture (my own preference). Both these methods provide vast scalability and performance and these are key when you think about the web and implementing solutions over the web / intranet…

Application Configuration

Many web based solutions provide a single look and feel and don’t allow much application based configuration. Because of this, developers traditionally built their own interfaces based on customer requirements and delivered these, making the interfaces cleaner, more relevant and incorporating such business requirements as field validation (this is always more evident when looking at web based solutions).  However, this isn’t what I am driving at. Ideally, you need the user to be able to configure parts of their user interface. This could be query forms for an example, or where menu options are displayed etc. The point is, once the user has the flexibility to configure parts of the UI, then their productivity will be increased. This is a key point, especially when we talk about my next point, extensibility.

Extensibility

This is a big big thing. Traditional ECM applications (including those not on the web) provide extensibility through their API, allowing developers to deliver applications that integrate with other LOBs, add business rules etc to the customer’s requirements (within a new application for the customer, not the “out of the box” product). This is a minimum when thinking ECM.

However, the real requirement is that the “out of the box” product, allows business rules and applications to be plugged directly into it. This is so important for ECM based solutions, as ECM within your organisation will grow and include more and more areas of what is termed content. In addition, why not allow the customer to add their own modules in there, or VARs for example, extending the way in which the application and ECM is used…

Plug for workFile Vision

Using the web for ECM is a bit of a passion of mine now, and it is one of the key driving points behind our own ECM platform (workFile ECM – http://www.workFileECM.com ). When working with many other ECM players (as a consultant) I did notice short comings and wanted to get my own platform together that was designed for the web, pure and simple…workFile ECM is a baby, and already we are improving how it works over the web… One of the restrictions to the administration of workFile ECM based applications was the web browser itself, with our own modeller / administration application working in a browser – but in a somewhat clunky fashion.

Things have moved on, and our workFile Vision repository and application takes the next step, staying on the web, but moving out of the browser…

By doing this, we still maintain all of the benefits of distributing an application over the web, however, we also have the added flexibility of running outside of the browser and providing features that can only be made available when running in a “trusted fashion”, such as integrating the web application with thick client applications (take Microsoft Office for example).

In addition, workFile Vision is fully extensible, providing an application framework that allows developers to design new modules and have these plugged seamlessly into the interface. This is to allow the ECM platform to grow with the customer’s needs seamlessly and without developers needing to re-write / re-design modules and applications. Taking this further, all modules can be configured by the user, for example allowing them to design the layout of a repository query form…

Though in the late stages of an Alpha release, workFile Vision 2.0 will deliver everything you would expect from an ECM platform, but much more in terms of the web, extensibility and scalability…Exciting times….I will keep you posted….

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2 responses

2 03 2010
Max J. Pucher

Andrew, another great post. Not much to disagree with. Thanks for quoting me. (By the way: How do you actually keep distributed webservers in synch? We do it via peer-to-peer communication and thus cut out the middlemen.)

The seven points to check for when chosing ECM are good points.
Let me add:
8. How well does it do or integrate with BPM, CRM, and rules?
9. How well does it empower the business user beyond creating forms?
10. How strong is the security?
11. How well does it integrate with mobile (not in the browser)?
12. How well does it handle Outbound document generation with MS Word?
13. Can it handle huge volumes of Outbound documents?
14. How operating system independent is it really(beyond Java)?
15. How much of the code is under control (rather than OpenSource or licensed)?

Let me add my plug for what I bring to the ECM table, which is the Papyrus Platform that fully deploys to the Web EXACTLY the same application without any additional effort to a Flash based Client. Should Silverlight come along in functionality, stability and broad usage I am sure we will port to it as well.

The application is not hardcoded in Flash or Silverlight, but it runs our EYE GUI engine which is a high-level graphics component library we developed that allows us and our users to configure applications rather than CODE them! It has an embedded drag&drop data interface, natural language rule engine, a wizard recorder, and more.

So Papyrus does TODAY provide full user application configurability without coding. It enables a completely consolidated environment for ECM, BPM and CRM with quite a lot of business rule and business intelligence power thrown into the game.

Where I don’t agree is that good solutions are or ought to be cheap. While you might get quite horrible stuff that has been marketed well for a high price, someone still has to show me REAL GOOD STUFF CHEAP! Real good stuff costs real good money.

3 03 2010
Andrew Smith @onedegree

you are right on price….at the end of the day, you almost always get what you pay for..however in IT, you can end up paying for what you believe is all singing all dancing solutions, and get something that should have been rather cheap…That is why I guess businesses should invest in their own IT specialists or utilise consultants efficiently to help protect themseleves against IT solutions that dont do the job but appear they do….(marketing can be a powerful tool)…

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