Today Alfresco, the open source ECM platform company released what CMS Watch are calling "its most massive product upgrade in the company's history".
You can see the Alfresco press release here
and the CMS Watch article here
So, whats the big deal ? Well if you don't know much about Alfresco, it is a fully open source ECM platform, based on a Java stack and highly standards based / compliant. It's really the only open source alternative if your looking for an ECM 'suite' - that is, a single repository and the ability with the ability to facilitate particular functional areas of content management based on that repository, such as document management or web content management. Alfresco is 'open source' software, which means your freedom is 'free as in speech' not 'free as in beer' - in other words you get the full source code, so it the product does not do something you want it to do, hack it yourself ! Actually 'free as in beer' is available too, as you can download the products for 'try before you buy' prototyping.
Alfresco have a TCO whitepaper and claim (I use that word not because I dispute their figures, but because I am NOT an Alfresco sales person.....) that Alfresco can be much cheaper to deploy than EMC Documentum, OpenText Livelink or MS SharePoint (MOSS 2007), even if you sign up to their subscription model and 'buy' their services. So lets get into this a bit before we examine the new features in the Alfresco 3d Labs release;
There are a number of possible key advantages with an open source ECM platform, and it is a 'platform' just like Documentum for instance, because in most cases your going to do some development on the platform to build the ECM based applications you require, this is not a simple 'out of the box' deployment scenario. So firstly you can indeed 'try before you buy', admittedly this is easier if you have in house Java development skills, but you can download VMWare 'virtual appliances' which make setting up a system a matter of minutes !
The second major element is choice. Do you want to build your Alfresco system on top of Windows or Linux? Do you want to use a proprietary RDBMS like Oracle or SQL Server (if you have spare licenses hanging around) or an open source one like MySQL or PostgreSQL etc - its your choice, your not beholden to any specific platform. Also the heavy emphasis on Java based and other standards means your integration efforts may also be easier. In fact Alfresco jumped straight into the CMIS fray releasing the first CMIS 'implementation' before the new born standard had made it out of the maternity ward !
But lets get round to checking out some of the new features. Very interesting, to me at least, is a full integration with OpenOffice. Alfresco licensed the MS 'sharepoint protocol' so that an Alfresco repository appears like a Sharepoint install to MS Office, so you get the 'seamless user experience'. Well now it appears that we have this for OpenOffice too, with OOo users having direct access to the repository and library services functions (check in/out etc) from within their office application. Yay - full open source document management at the client and server end .....
However possibly a much bigger win for most organisations is a beefing up of the WCM offering. Alfresco has developed its 'Surf' development platform to allow building of web applications using the MVC framework (the Model-View-Controller methodology). However while CMS Watch note that this is still a non-trivial thing for 'business users', it is a framework that can make your 'web heads' more efficient at building AJAX based web apps. Another new feature, Alfresco Web Studio is an attempt to make things even easier, as it is a GUI based, 'drag and drop' end-user site building tool. More so than the other components we will have to wait and see what some hands on user evaluations of this tool decide.
From pure 'web content management' to web based collaboration - the new Share collaboration client. Built on the Surf platform using the Yahoo User Interface library, Alfresco tout this on the product info page as "the open source alternative to Sharepoint" ! Well I can also see echoes of eRoom and even its replacement CentreStage in this product. It provides document sharing, blogs, wikis, calendars, discussion forums and personal 'dashboards' and so it may well provide a focused (and cheaper) alternative - that would please me personally :-)
Finally then, looking at the ECM repository as part of an information management eco-system, it is interesting to note Alfresco's partners and its integrations; we have already mentioned both MS Office and OpenOfficeOrg at the client side, but there are pre-existing or new (CMIS based) integrations with:
Joomla - open source web content management system
MediaWiki- best of breed, open source wiki (the software behind wikipedia)
Moodle - an open source 'Learning Content Management System' for building action learning based web sites
WordPress - the pre-eminent open source blog platform (and lightweight WCMS)
LifeRay - probably the biggest and fastest growing open source portal platform
SugarCRM - Major open source Customer Relationship Management platform
So it would appear to me that using Alfresco as the underlying ECM repository platform, plus its integration with LifeRay or Joomla, with MediaWiki and WordPress, plus the Share collaboration platform or the collaboration tools that come with LifeRay, you could build a pretty sophisticated intranet, and whats more you could build fully functioning prototypes by using the open source downloads without paying a penny for software licences, and beleive me that can save you a lot of money in the longer run !