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Document management in the cloud: DM-as-a-Service

Written by Tom Laureys on 04/07/14

These days our personal online lives are almost unimaginable without cloud applications. Just think about a world without Facebook, Dropbox, Google Calendar, Youtube and the likes. As the Economist pointed out in an educational (and funny) chart, the time we spend in cloud apps is huge.

The time we spend in cloud apps is huge

Also in our daily jobs, cloud applications are starting to claim their place. Just think about Salesforce for CRM, Workday for HRM or Netsuite for ERP.

What does this cloud revolution mean for document management (DM)? What are your options? And which limitations should you be aware of?

Those questions are a common theme for our customers. In a series of blog posts we’ll have a look at 3 different options:

  • Document management-as-a-Service, i.e. DM as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)
  • Document management deployment in Infrastructure-as-a-Service, such as AWS or Azure
  • The hybrid approach, i.e. combing on-premises and cloud solutions

This first post in the series focuses on DM-as-a-Service (SaaS). In the coming weeks we’ll have a closer look at the other options.

What is DM-as-a-Service?

Your first option is to go with the SaaS model: you provide your credit card info to an online document management service and off you go. Most established vendors in the DM market are really pushing this model. They are in the process of converting from software vendors to cloud service providers:

  • Microsoft places big bets on Office 365, combining SharePoint Online with Exchange and Lync.
  • Alfresco promotes its Alfresco Cloud solution, based on the Share interface. Alfresco puts emphasis on its hybrid cloud model, where on premise and cloud content are kept in sync. The cloud solution can also be used without any on-premise installation.
  • EMC Documentum has mainly focused on its managed private cloud offerng. It is now releasing vertical applications, such as EPFM, on a public cloud platform. EMC also acquired Syncplicity, a pure sync-and-share solution. But integration between Documentum and Synplicity is currently still limited.
  • And then there are some ‘cloud-natives’ like SpringCM and Huddle whose offering is purely cloud-based.
Document management in the cloud: Office 365 Document management in the cloud Document management in the cloud: Alfresco

Apart from the DM folks, there is a plethora of cloud file sharing services. Some of those are climbing the document management ladder by offering features like metadata management and workflow. Box in particular is showing ambition to make the move from pure file sharing to document management. Others, such as Syncplicity, Google and Dropbox, have shown more modest DM ambitions up till now.


There’s definitely no lack of choice in products, ranging from simple file sharing applications to full-blown document management solutions.

What are the advantages of DM-as-a-Service for you as a user?

Deployment is fast and easy. You subscribe to the service, enter your credit card number and before you know you’re up and running. No more hardware to buy, software to install or IT people to chase. Upgrades will also be smooth and normally without any downtime.

User interfaces are mostly simple, accurate and designed with usability in mind. While adoption of traditional DM systems was often hampered by clumsy, overly complex user interfaces, DM cloud applications have always had a focus on usability: they’re simple, straightforward and fun to use. Most cloud applications also support mobile access; a good example is Alfresco which provides free feature rich mobile apps for both iOS and Android devices.

Collaboration with external partners is mostly piece of cake. In our discussions with customers this always pops up as one of the issues that bothers employees most: in a pure on-premise installation, security issues make sharing documents with externals partners — or even with colleagues from another department —  a nightmare. No wonder then that this issue is a major source of shadow IT, with teams or individuals using file sharing solutions beyond the control of IT. Offering DM-as-a-Service solves this sharing issue and can bring it back under the control of your IT department, including features like remote wiping, content expiry and digital rights management.

DM-as-a-Service solutions have a transparent (short-term) licensing model. It’s a pay-per-use model, most often based on a combination of number of users and storage capacity. We're not claiming it is cheap; it is just transparent and saves you endless negotiations with vendors.

The limitations of DM-as-a-Service

It’s not all cheers and happiness though. Cloud is a fairly recent evolution, and there are some important limitations you should be aware of.

First of all, current SaaS solutions often have a more limited feature set when compared to their on premise counterparts. For example, Sharepoint Online lacks features like claims-based authentication, custom site definitions and remote blob storage. Alfresco Cloud lacks the wiki, blog forum and lists functionality that the on-premise version has.

In addition, custom development and integration are very limited. SharePoint Online allows the development of cloud apps, but they can only contain client-side code, not server-side; experienced SharePoint administrators will also find in SharePoint Online only a subset of the administration tools they are used to on-premise. In Alfresco Cloud similar limitations exist: it is, for example, currently not possible to deploy custom workflows or to define custom document types and metadata. Integrating with other enterprise applications (CRM, ERP, etc.) is also less straightforward at the moment, if possible at all. In short, we are not at the point where your on-premise business-tuned DM applications can be swiftly moved to the Saas model.

Although it’s very easy to get started with DM-as-a-Service from scratch, it is notoriously hard to migrate existing on premise data into it. Migrations as such are mostly tricky and expensive undertakings, but having a SaaS environment as the target implies additional challenges as you cannot simply 'detach/re-attach the database'. Third party tools exist, especially for migrating to Sharepoint online, but none of them is 100% perfect.

It is generally also a lot harder to get out again. While in on-premise migrations you might, in the worst case, resort to direct access to your database and/or file share, this is not the case for your content in a SaaS environment. The APIs are the only access point to your content, so you better make sure that they allow you to liberate your data and documents in bulk when needed.

Some legal issues might complicate your journey to the cloud. Especially in government legal requirements often state that all data should be stored within the borders of the European Union. Not all SaaS solutions can guarantee that. In fact, of the providers mentioned above only Office 365 can guarantee your data is stored in the EU (Dublin and Amsterdam); and even then there are legal disputes about access for the US Government under the Patriot Act. Other providers, such as Alfresco, currently only offer hosting in the US, mostly on AWS infrastructure.

Finally, although the licensing model is transparent in the short term, it also offers less long-term transparency. SaaS subscriptions are typically on an annual basis and conditions can thus also be modified on this annual basis.

The Lighter Side Of The Cloud – Help Desk

Conclusion

DM-as-a-Service is gaining ground and clearly fits the current outsourcing wave. Be aware though that the field is still young and that current DM-as-a-Service offerings are mainly suitable for fairly simple use cases focused on collaboration/document sharing without customization needs. In 90% of the cases this means that a SaaS solution will not be the perfect counterpart for your existing on-premise DM solution: you will probably have to re-design and even simplify your existing application. But the cloud (r)evolution goes fast and new features are added almost weekly. So it's definitely worth keeping an eye on.
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Tom Laureys

Written by Tom Laureys

Tom Laureys is Solution Manager ECM at AMPLEXOR based in Belgium. For the past 10 years, Tom has been helping clients across industries find the right technology to effectively digitize their business processes and improve collaboration and productivity. His combination of strategic thinking and expertise in a range of platforms - from Alfresco and Documentum to SharePoint and Office 365 – grant him the capacity to capture new trends on the market and turn them into solutions for our customers.

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