Month: November 2005

Excellent BPM/workflow article

Just about every solution I’ve implemented over the last twelve years has been workflow-centric. Lately, many of our clients have been trying to slog through the–often political–business of understanding what “workflow” really means. Usually it is in the context of trying to determine when to use a standalone workflow engine versus the workflow functionality built-in to a document management or content management system.

I don’t have an easy answer on that last point yet, but in doing research on the topic, I did stumble across an excellent article on “The State of Workflow” at JBoss’ jBPM site. If you are involved in workflow or BPM initiatives it is certainly worth a read.

Alfresco, Plone make EContent 100

EContent Magazine has posted the EContent 100, an annual list of “…companies that matter most in the digital content industry”.

Notable newcomers include open source ECM and Portal platforms Alfresco and Plone. Wiki software provider, SocialText, returns for a second year.

EMC Software (Documentum), a long-time EContent 100 stalwart, having appeared every year since 2001, did not make the 2005 list, but Autonomy, now with a three-peat, did.

“Our goal was to be sure that those who make the list again and again don’t do so out of habit or mindshare, but rather because they continue to innovate and deliver products and services that further the evolution of digital content,” said Michelle Manafy, Editor of EContent magazine.

Got clarification on the “Free Google Mini” offer

I recently got some clarification from Google on their offer of a free Google Mini Search Appliance. If you buy the regular Google Search Appliance they’ll give you a free Mini. The idea is that you might use the Search Appliance for your intranet and your free Mini for your internet site. If that doesn’t appeal to you they’ll knock the $3k off the cost of your Search Appliance.

If you do get a Mini, make sure you are up-to-date on patches. eWeek is reporting a security flaw in the device.

Gilbane: Microsoft Offers Office Document Formats to ECMA for Standardization

From Gilbane Report News, Microsoft Offers Office Document Formats to ECMA for Standardization. According to the post, several industry leaders have formed…

…an open technical committee that Ecma members can join to standardize and fully document the Open XML formats for Word, Excel and PowerPoint from the next generation of Office technologies, code-named Office “12,” as an Ecma standard, and to help maintain the evolution of the formats.

First look: Alfresco

I took a first look at Alfresco tonight. Alfresco is an open source content management system created by one of the founders of Documentum. Currently it is pure document management. If you are familiar with Documentum, it is like having the Content Server and Webtop. (It may be tempting to further compare the two. One look at the roadmap shows that may someday be an apples-to-apples comparison, but for now, Alfresco offers only a small subset of Documentum’s offering).

Install was a breeze

I used the Tomcat 5.5.9/Alfresco 1.0 all-in-one bundle. The biggest challenge of the install was remembering what my MySQL root password was. After that it was smooth sailing. I started up the server, hit the URL, and hacked around for a few minutes before starting a quick runthrough of the tutorial.

Tutorial highlights promising features

Alfresco provides a short tutorial on their download page that takes you through the basics of creating “spaces” (their name for folders), routing documents through simple workflows, creating users, and checking content in and out of the repository.

Overall I liked the interface of the web client. It was clean and intuitive. There’s a heavy reliance on icons, though, and while many are intuitive, you’ll find yourself using “tooltips” for a bit before you become familiar with their meaning.

The Documentum WDK heritage shows in the interface but I think the UI is much, much more attractive than Documentum’s Webtop client, even considering the major progress Documentum’s made in the 5.3 sp1 release.

Being able to define content rules that fire when content comes into and out of a folder (“space”) is nice. You can use content rules to do things like move documents to specific spaces, kick off a simple workflow, and transform content from one format to another. The rules are defined through an easy-to-use wizard interface.

I wonder whether non-technical users will be able to grasp the concept of “aspects” or not. Aspects provide a way to add a set of functionality to a piece of content. For example, if you want to track versions on a piece of content you add the “Versionable” aspect to it. You can do this through a content rule or by manually running an action on the content. There are a few other out-of-the-box aspects. You can add additional aspects through customization.

Alfresco’s approach of using simple, declarative workflows makes it easy for non-technical users to set up simple processes on their own but implementing a process of even moderate complexity would be painful. For that you’d probably want to use a “real” workflow engine. The “Enterprise” version hooks into JBoss’ BPEL solution, for example. Hopefully that’s something they’ll quickly move down into the “Open” version.

The Lucene-powered search was fast and efficient. Granted, my repository is tiny. Content was indexed as soon as I added it to the repository–content indexing requests get queued and processed rather than by a batch indexing process. I read in the forum that there was a problem indexing PowerPoint. I didn’t check to see if it was fixed in the release I looked at or not.

Categories can also help users find content. You can define a hierarchical taxonomy using the Category Manager and then tag content with it. When you search, you can then restrict search results to specific categories. And, if you search for a parent category, any content tagged with a descendent category will also be returned. That will come in handy.

Working with the repository

You can get content in and out of the repository via WebDAV, CIFS/SMB (mounting a Windows or Linux share drive), FTP, or the Alfresco web client. All of these worked fine out-of-the-box on my Windows XP machine except for CIFS. To get it working I had to do a minor tweak to the file-servers.xml file per the README which was no big deal (I specified a domain in the CIFS Server section).

Digging deeper

After working through the tutorial I was ready to dig in and get my hands dirty. Maybe create a custom type or two, add some security, make a few calls to the Alfresco API, and then try out a couple of user interface customizations. That’s when I hit the inflection point on the learning curve.

I found some help on custom types in the forums–I’ll circle back and do that when I have more time. Essentially you define your models via XML that conforms to a specific schema, and you register those content types with Alfresco in a config file. Alfresco loads the registered content types when it starts up. Maybe some day there’ll be a UI for this.

Security looks like it may be a bit more involved. The first thing you have to do is understand the Acegi Security System for Spring. Guess I’ll add that to the (bottom of the) list.

From an API standpoint there are a couple of choices: Java or Web Services. With the Java option you can use the Alfresco Services API or the JCR (JSR-170 level 1) API. I’ve downloaded the source and bookmarked the Javadocs. Tomorrow or some time next week I’ll fire up Eclipse and see if I can talk to the repository.

One random thing from San Jose

Here’s a random thing that happened to me at KM World. I parked my rental car behind the Hotel St. Claire Tuesday night. I remember where I parked it because I noted to myself it was the exact same spot I had Monday night–a pull-through right next to a light post.

As I was walking to the lot Thursday morning after checking out of the hotel I saw a giant crane in the lot. They were working on the building next to the hotel. As I got closer I noticed that as an apparent safety precaution they had used yellow tape to cordon off a huge section of the lot surrounding the crane including the spot where my rental car was no longer parked. My car was now parked 30 feet away from its original spot, apparently unmolested.

“That’s curious,” I thought, “Who moved my car and how did they do it?” I had not given them the keys and there were no signs of it being dragged or pushed.

So I queried the attendant, to which he responded, “Maybe you left us the keys.”

“Left you the keys? I’m in the car. I have the keys. I didn’t leave you the keys.”

“Maybe you forgot where you parked it,” he proposed.

“I don’t think so, pal.” Was he toying with me or did he really not know?

People who know me will say the forgot-where-you-parked-it theory is the most likely. I’m emphatic, though. In addition to the special note I made about how lucky I was to get the same spot, the large SUV was now backed against a brick wall with little room to spare. Sorry, but I don’t have the skills to back an unfamiliar, borrowed, beast of a vehicle into a spot two inches from a solid wall.

The only possible explanation is that the crew was ready to work and they needed the space. They must have used their giant crane to rearrange the lot. It seems outlandish but I can find no other explanation. If anyone was at the conference and saw a Pontiac Montana flying through the air sometime between Tuesday night and Thursday morning I’d love to know for sure.

If it hadn’t have been a rental I would have started questioning the work crew but there seemed to be no harm done so I paid my fee, shook my head, and drove off.

Thoughts on final days of KM World and Intranets 2005

I spent the entire second day at KM World in the Content Management track (except for a quick jump over to “Intranets” to see my colleague present on Document Management Usability at Southwest Airlines).

My three favorite sessions of the day were:

Tony Byrne, “Making Sense of the CMS Vendor Landscape”. I’ve followed Tony’s blog for a while but hadn’t heard him speak until Wednesday. His session was very informative and insightful. My favorite part was the advice he was giving to people evaluating solutions. The key advice was “try it before you buy it rather than relying solely on a demo” and “the implementation team is more important than the product”. As an ECM services provider, I was particularly fond of the last point! ; )

Seth Gottlieb, “A Guide to Open Source CMS”. Seth is another blogger in my blogroll. We originally met through CM Pros. As I told Seth, his presentation did a great job covering the key players in the Open Source CMS space and comparing and contrasting the types of solutions they solve (rather than simply checking off items in a feature matrix or trying to cover a broad set of tools).

Afterwards we had a good conversation about Alfresco. I hadn’t realized they were running in a “closed community” model. I downloaded Alfresco before the trip and had every intention of playing with it on the plane but I got sucked in to a book. Hopefully I can get to it soon.

Lisa Welchman, “Lessons Learned from CM Implementations”. What I liked most about Lisa’s presentation was that she had great speaking style and an obvious passion for the subject. The content was a little too WCM-centric, but she did cite several key lessons learned which I agreed with (and, coincidentally, echoed in my session Thursday morning).

Thursday was a short day for me. I did my talk in the morning (Thanks to all who attended!), had a quick bite, and then headed for the airport.

Where are the “internal blog initiatives” case studies?

Yesterday was my first day at the KMWorld and Intranets 2005 Conference. I spent most of the day in the Collaboration track which, on this day, was focused heavily on blogs and wikis.

There were a couple of good nuggets in the presentations but I guess I was disappointed in the track overall. Or maybe what I was really disappointed in was the apparent lack of progress corporations have made incorporating internal blogs into overall Knowledge Management initiatives.

It is unfair of me to generalize that because there were no case studies from real corporations Corporate America must not be doing enough to leverage technologies like blogs, wikis, and RSS as a meaningful component of their KM program. And, there were a couple of examples given of companies, like IBM, that are doing this. But this is the KM World conference, is it not? If companies had compelling stories to tell around internal blogging initiatives where would they be presented if not here?

My company is a small services firm so our experience may not be transferrable to companies the size of our typical client. But, for what it is worth, here is an old post I wrote on why I think our internal blog initiative failed. At some point, I hope to correct these mistakes and take another run at it. Maybe by then many others will have shared their stories.