Alfresco’s platform aims to bring flow to digital logjams

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Alfresco’s changed a lot since CEO Doug Dennerline took the helm in 2013. The company’s evolved from being a pure open source vendor, to one still with an ‘open core’ but with a much more pro-enterprise outlook. Now a new chapter has opened with the launch of the Alfresco Digital Business Platform.

Alfresco has already worked to create architectural parity between the flagship Alfresco One ECM platform and its BPM platform, Activiti. Now, although customers can still buy ECM, BPM and Records Management (RM) capabilities as individual products, the company has re-branded them as Alfresco Content Services, Alfresco Process Services, and Alfresco Governance Services respectively. It’s shifting the way it develops and packages these services to create an integrated, open platform of content, process and data governance (to facilitate records management) services – a platform that can be deployed on-premise, in the cloud (customer’s own, or managed on AWS), or as a hybrid deployment.

Alfresco is providing platform extensions to integrate the Digital Business Platform with major business applications like Microsoft Office, Salesforce, SAP and Google Drive. If your existing key systems providers don’t yet appear on the list of Alfresco’s technology partners, then the company has provided open REST APIs that you can build on. There’s also a new Application Development Framework (using the Angular framework) to provide re-usable, responsive user interface components… with encouragement for customers and partners to develop and contribute to a marketplace / ecosystem of extensions (though that’ll clearly take time to build out).

This platform play isn’t a surprising one for Alfresco. It’s not the first ECM / BPM vendor to seek to emphasise silo-busting platform integrations. Moreover, we see this as part of a larger industry shift from packaged, productised offerings to platforms which – whilst still ‘packaged’ – offer customers extensive, easy-to-use, and open APIs so they can configure, customise and extend capabilities to suit their needs. And these platforms provide the means to do so in far easier, safer and cheaper ways than were previously available – open codebase or not.

So why is Alfresco doing this now?

Customers are increasingly expecting to be able to choose to embed their choice of feature functionality directly into their own custom applications. They’re using APIs to integrate with existing application products, and across multiple platforms; pulling in components from marketplace ecosystems; perhaps also designing out a product’s intended UI completely, in favour of one that’s designed to better suit their particular needs and their users’ workstyles. Alfresco is pitching its platform as an enabler for digital transformation; a way to transcend the value that individual packaged applications could provide for organisations in isolated use cases; and as a way for customers to achieve a digital state of ‘flow’ of information, people and processes.

You could argue that with an open core product, Alfresco’s customers have always been able to exercise their own control over how they experience its ECM, BPM and RM capabilities. However doing so through custom development has always come with risks (unless the customer was influential enough to have some sway over where Alfresco, as the largest committer, was electing to take the products). With an open platform and development framework at its core now, though, Alfresco will be in a position to support far safer routes for exploiting flexibility, potentially leading to far more of its customers choosing to take control of the way in which the underlying services work for them, in their particular use case contexts.

In time, with enough platform development take-up, this shift could signal a re-imagining of the Alfresco product suite into more of a showcase for what the content, process, and governance services can be put to work to build (with an ecosystem of partner applications expanding the Alfresco stable into specific use case and industry areas it doesn’t have the expertise or capacity to cover off itself).

With an open platform at its base, Alfresco may itself choose to develop proprietary applications of its own without ‘polluting’ the open core business model – in ways similar to how MapR and Cloudera exploit the Hadoop ecosystem each in their own way, leveraging their specialist applications (as well as support, etc.) atop an open source suite. However it’s worth remembering that the Apache Hadoop project has far more committers than the employees of just one Hadoop vendor; whereas Alfresco is still overwhelmingly the primary committer to the Alfresco open source code – and that affects the marketplace (and the commitment of partners to hitch their business to where the open component may be going). But a vibrant ecosystem remains the holy grail of any platform vendor, and you’ve got to start somewhere… How far and how fast Alfresco Digital Business Platform gets there depends on how prepared its customers partners are to build out and share what they build.

If you’re an Alfresco customer (and you have the resources to be able to take advantage of a developer-focused framework), expect it to get a whole lot easier to configure Alfresco (ECM, BPM, and RM) technology to your needs. If you’re an Alfresco partner, expect to be encouraged to help the company expand the coverage of its extensions (and hence its true open platform credentials). If you’re Alfresco, be prepared to compete beyond the world of tick-box feature lists. Co-promoting platform and product can be tricky to pull off concurrently, especially as you’re often talking to different parts of the market… but get the balance right, and the product and platform business can exist symbiotically, much more aligned with real world use cases in a world where artificial separations of content and process management are breaking down.

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