ECM vendors have their heads in the cloud, can you see through the fog?

The hype around cloud computing has reached a fevered pitch so it is natural that ECM vendors try to take advantage of that as much as they can. Some examples from the open source ECM world:

  • Alfresco always seems to be partnering with one cloud vendor or another. I went to a brief session on Alfresco, GoGrid, and ParaScale earlier this year. (As an aside, those GoGrid cycling socks, which I thought was a strange giveaway at the time, are awesome).
  • At the end of last year eZ Publish announced a partnership with Mamut to provide eZ as SaaS.
  • Just last week Nuxeo announced a cloud edition of its product.

Clearly, ECM vendors are busy figuring out how to take advantage of the cloud. But what does it mean for ECM to be “in the cloud”? When might it work for you?

Cirrus, Stratus, or Cumulonimbus

The first thing you need to realize is that when people say “cloud” they often mean very different things. Generally, there are three types of clouds: Software-as-a-Service (Saas), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS).

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is the same model that’s been around for years but has lately taken advantage of the cloud moniker. Google Apps and Salesforce.com are the big SaaS players but there are SaaS offerings for all kinds of business applications, including content management.

The allure of SaaS ECM is the same as that of SaaS in general:

  • Lower up-front costs
  • Someone else gets to worry about running and scaling the infrastructure
  • Depending on the vendor, you may only have to pay for what you use

The challenges of SaaS ECM include things like:

  • The ability to do heavy customization and complex workflows
  • Ease of integration with other systems
  • Client perceptions (and real issues) around data security
  • Data portability/vendor lock-in

Open Source CM vendors Nuxeo and eZ Systems have SaaS offerings as do proprietary vendors such as SpringCM, CrownPeak, Clickability, and PaperThin, to name a few. Beyond just general-purpose document and content management, I think you’ll also see vendors build verticalized SaaS offerings on top of hosted content management technology.

The next type of cloud is Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS). The two best examples of PaaS are Google App Engine (GAE) and Salesforce.com’s force.com platform. With PaaS, you provide the code and the PaaS provider does the rest. Of course this means your code has to follow certain standards and is often subject to limitations, but the beauty is that you get a completely custom solution without worrying about any of the infrastructure.

I like GAE. For certain applications, the benefits of instantaneous, global scale far outweigh the limitations of the platform. But I don’t expect ECM vendors that would do well in SaaS or IaaS clouds to do much with PaaS. You can’t take an Alfresco or a Drupal and run it on a PaaS cloud. I do think we will see PaaS-native content management systems. For example, I’ve seen apps in the Salesforce.com AppExchange that are basically tools for building a web site that’s tightly integrated with Salesforce.com. I think you’ll also see solutions that leverage a PaaS for certain components or sub-systems.

The third type of cloud is Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). An IaaS cloud is about providing virtual servers on-demand. Examples include things like Amazon’s EC2, Rackspace Cloud, and GoGrid. With these services you can instantly provision as many servers as you need. What you do with them is up to you. When you’re done, you turn them off. Specifics vary but you are essentially billed for CPU time.

The way people leverage IaaS differs. Some people will provision a server and install their ECM software of choice and stop there. Other than dealing with different file storage approaches of various IaaS vendors, this is really no different than running your own virtual servers. So when someone says they are running XYZ CMS “in the cloud” and it turns out to be a single node on a virtual machine, I can barely stifle a yawn. It’s fast and convenient to set up, yes, but technically it’s pretty boring.

The more interesting way to use ECM in an IaaS cloud is to leverage the ability of the infrastructure to scale on-demand. That’s the real value of “the cloud” after all. For example, at Optaros we run an IaaS-hosted solution called OView that syndicates content and content-centric applications to web sites. When a client places that content or app on Yahoo’s home page we get a huge spike in traffic. We run the solution on Amazon EC2 images and we use RightScale to dynamically provision additional nodes when traffic warrants.

The degree to which a specific ECM vendor can operate in a dynamically-scaled infrastructure varies greatly. Simply “running in the cloud” is easy. Scaling your ECM infrastructure automagically is harder.

What do you really need?

If the list of SaaS benefits have a lot of appeal to you and the challenges and potential limitations aren’t much of a bother, SaaS ECM might be worth evaluating. This will most likely be a better fit for clients with limited IT resources and simple to moderate requirements around ECM.

On the IaaS front, if it is just an issue of externally-hosting your ECM infrastructure, make sure the cloud is what you want. The best use case for the cloud is when demand is temporary or unpredictable with huge spikes. I would argue that for your core ECM infrastructure demand is neither temporary nor unpredictable.

If “scale” is your issue, I would challenge you to think about exactly what needs to be scaled. If it is just content delivery of static content, maybe you could get by with a CDN. If your content management system can separate authoring from dynamic delivery of content, maybe only the dynamic content delivery mechanism needs to be able to scale quickly.

You might have certain processes (large-scale video transcoding, for example, or other types of periodic batch processing) that you could leverage the cloud for without cloud-enabling your entire ECM infrastructure. Acquia‘s hosted spam filtering service, Mollum, and their newly-released hosted-search offering are two examples where only specific pieces of your infrastructure are off-loaded to the cloud.

If it turns out that you need to scale the whole ball of wax, fine, it can be done, but have a good reason.

ECM in the cloud is, um, cloudy

The cloud as a style of computing is exciting. The cloud as a “feature” is potentially confusing. ECM vendors are going to do what they can do have it somewhere “on the box”. But it’s not something you can simply check off. The next time you hear an ECM vendor say, “cloud-ready”, ask them what they mean. Then figure out whether or not that has any relevance at all to your real requirements.

Is the cloud on your horizon? Let me know if/how the cloud relates to your ECM strategy.

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