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Overview of Alfresco

I've been involved in using and integrating the Alfresco document management system recently for the College of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee. I've read a myriad of reviews and guides on the system and so the time has come to add my voice to the mix.

Alfresco is an open source document management system. Whilst that description may seem boring and very unhelpful, the system itself is anything but. Contained within this little gem of a package is a system that is well on its way to revolutionising the way business will think about and do document management.

Alfresco, although only a mere five years old and a relative new boy to the document management scene, it has been making huge waves. Most of which have come in the past couple of years as it has moved on from being simply another "DMS", to being a system with a wide array of access points that can not only do document, but also web content management as well.

IT managers up and down the country no doubt cringe when they are presented with a system that touts itself as a open source technology. Open Source still suffers in many respects with the reputation of being a poor mans version of its much more robust and reliable enterprise level cousins. However I'm happy to say that those days are long gone, and now open source is fast becoming a major system of choice, not only for small business, but also the large corporations as well. It's "FREE" price tag being ones of its major selling points.

It's important to clarify exactly what flavour of open source Alfresco actually is. The technology it uses is completely open source, so in theory anyone could go and build a similar system from components freely available for download. But why would you want to do that when Alfresco offers its product free of charge? Yup, you guessed it, Alfresco has its own community version. Whilst the salesmen would no doubt tout this as being the same as the full enterprise version, there are some crucial differences.

Alfresco Community edition is bleeding edge and contains all the latest and greatest technology that Alfresco has to offer. The flip side of that is that it also has all the latest bugs as well. However that is the price you pay for getting to play with the latest tech ahead of its official enterprise release. If you know your Java from your Spring and are comfortable wtih conguring a myriad of XML files, then perhaps this is the version for you. However, buyer beware, if something goes wrong you are on your own (bar a little help from the very active forums). We unfortunately found that the hard way when it started to eat our excel files. As these files were of a legal nature and something we couldn't really have being corrupted, we had to ditch our initial trials.

And so we found our way onto Alfresco Enterprise edition, the more stable and reliable version which comes complete with a support agreement. Unfortunately, whether you are using the Community or Enterprise editions, it still lacks the grace and ease of use that the likes of Microsoft installers will provide you. However, with a little perseverance (ok, a lot!) and some help via your support agreement, you can get it off the ground and intergrated into your other systems.

In saying that, the bods at Alfreso have in recent enterprise only versions introduced configuration via JMX that doesn't require a server restart with every little change. This has significantly reduced setup times from days down to hours in some cases.

User experience with Alfresco has been extremely positive so far with the majority of our users taking great delight in the Alfresco Share collaboration package that comes bundled with it. No doubt I'll get round to writing a proper review in the not too distant future, but until then it is sufficient to say that it has placed Alfresco as a major competitor with the likes of Microsoft and its even more expensive rivals. Add into the mix the fact that Alfresco seem to be leading the way on the development of the CMIS protocol (Content Management Interoperability Service) and it's RESTful architecture and webscripts and you find yourself with a system that has the potential to integrate itself with just about any system, be it legacy or otherwise.