Back to the Future of Content Repositories

mcflyFive years ago I wrote a blog post called, “Alfresco, NoSQL, and the Future of ECM“. Today is “Back to the Future Day”–the exact date Marty McFly time-traveled to in the movie Back to the Future. The movie made many observations about what life would be like on October 21, 2015–some were spot on, some not so much. I thought it fitting that we take a look at my old blog post and see where we are now with regard to content repositories and NoSQL.

One point of the post was that NOSQL might be a more fitting back-end for content repositories than relational:

But why shouldn’t the Content Management tier benefit from the scalability and replication capabilities of a NOSQL repository? And why can’t a NOSQL repository have an end-user focused user interface with integrated workflow, a form service, and other traditional DM/CMS/WCM functionality? It should, it can and they will.

This has definitely turned out to be the case. New content management solution vendors like CloudCMS have built their platform on NOSQL technology while older vendors, such as Nuxeo, have started to integrate NOSQL into their solutions.

Open source projects are also taking advantage of the technology. Apache Jackrabbit provides an implementation of the JCR standard. Its “next generation” offering, Jackrabbit Oak, is essentially JCR with MongoDB as the back-end.The second point of the post was that as NOSQL repositories become more widely adopted, they compete directly with content repositories in use cases where those content repositories are used primarily as a back-end for developers’ custom content-centric solutions.

In other words, 5 or 10 years ago, if you were a developer looking to implement a custom application, and you wanted something other than a relational back-end, you might build your application on top of something like Alfresco. Now developers may be less likely to go that route. That’s because today there is an explosion of stacks out there. Many of them assume a NOSQL back-end. Look at mean.io as just one example, which combines Node.js, Express (the Node.js web framework), AngularJS, and MongoDB and wraps it up with time-saving tooling.

Many people use Alfresco as a back-end. Their front-end uses a RESTful API implemented as web scripts to talk to the repository. The value the repository brings to the table is the ability to store documents in a hierarchy along with custom metadata defined in a content model. They may not be using Alfresco Share or much of the other functionality that Alfresco bundles with their offering–for their custom solution Alfresco is just a repository. When it is used like this, Alfresco is doing nothing more than what NOSQL repositories offer, and, in fact, it does less because NOSQL repositories have a more flexible schema and are built to be clustered and massively distributable–for free.

Years ago, Alfresco shifted its focus away from developers looking to build custom solutions on top of a bare repository. Its developer outreach is now more about customizing Alfresco Share and the underlying repository. Nuxeo, on the other hand, has doubled-down on its developer focus. I’ll spend some more time on this in a future post.

I guess this trend wasn’t terribly hard to predict five years ago, but it does feel kinda nice to see it come to pass. Now, if I could just have a hoverboard.