On the radar: Alfresco

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 Alfresco provides an open core, open standards-based platform for content management, extended enterprise collaboration, business process management, compliance management, and case management which can be deployed on-premise, in the cloud, or as a hybrid solution.

Who?

Alfresco is based in Maidenhead, UK and San Mateo, USA (with additional offices in London, Sydney and Germany).

What does it do?

Alfresco One and Alfresco Activiti

Alfresco’s portfolio provides a lightweight platform for ECM, BPM, and content collaboration across the extended enterprise. It comprises Alfresco One’s ECM and Alfresco Activiti’s workflow and BPM capabilities, all sitting atop a core common platform – combining to provide content capture, store, share, search, security, identity and access management, analytics, metadata, and workflow capabilities (the latter including a task manager, step editor, BPMN editor, forms library and editor).

Content (including documents, photos, audio, video, HTML, CAD) can be stored on-premises, in the cloud, or deployed across a hybrid environment.

Alfresco Activiti began life in 2010 as a BPMN 2.0 process execution engine to power the workflow within Alfresco’s ECM offering – and expanded four years later with enhanced BPM capabilities, such as easy-to-use process and forms design, dynamic collaborative task management, and analytics. This move also heralded the start of much tighter integration between Alfresco One and Alfresco Activiti, leveraging the BPM engine across the suite to provide an overall solution designed to provide more context, intelligence, and automation around content workflows.

Alfresco is further building out the platform with a series of task-specific applications that natively expose ECM and BPM services to support use cases spanning content management, extended enterprise collaboration, business process management, case management, and compliance management. Each solution has been developed in a similar way: firstly, by considering how challenges seen in each use case can be addressed by Alfresco’s core platform; then layering on enhanced capabilities particular to the use case in question. This has brought about the development of specific components, such as: Alfresco’s Analytics module, Media Management module, the Alfresco Share group collaboration tool, and connectors to common business applications (enhancing Its content management credentials); Alfresco Mobile apps for Android and iOS, and desktop sync for Windows and Mac (enhancing extended enterprise collaboration); specific modules for Case Management and Contract Management; and a Records Management module (bolstering its compliance management capabilities).

Alfresco in the Cloud

Although Alfresco One supports cloud-resident sites and users alongside on-premises assets, there’s also a SaaS-only managed service option for ECM that runs on Amazon Web Services and provides access solely to Alfresco content in the cloud. It’s available for data stored in a multi-tenant public cloud, or can be set up as a single tenant private cloud instance on AWS. Data can be encrypted at rest and in transit, and the service is certified for EU Safe Harbor.

The service supports secure extranet and collaboration capabilities, and offers anywhere, anytime, any device access (secured by document-level permissions) via the Alfresco Mobile app. The public cloud version is designed mainly for content sharing use cases; a single tenant private instance is required for full customisation and the Records Management tool.

Alfresco Mobile

Alfresco Mobile is a free mobile document management app for iOS and Android providing access to content stored in Alfresco on-premises or in the cloud. It supports multiple accounts per device, mobile sync, in-app encryption, and workflow initiation and actions. It allows updates and edits to be saved back into Alfresco, and has rudimentary social collaboration capabilities (i.e. the ability to comment on, like, and share content).

Alfresco Community Editions

Alfresco continues to provide an unsupported open-source Community Edition of its on-premises ECM product, distributed free-of-charge under the LGPLv3 licence. It’s deployed as a Java web application and will run in a variety of technology stack configurations but does not support proprietary databases, integrations with proprietary software, cloud sync, or hybrid workflow. The Alfresco community provides bug fixes, features and additional functionality; Alfresco’s own engineering team performs limited QA and releases nightly builds (offering the latest functionality) and periodic releases with more stability. The Community Edition is not recommended for business-critical production environments.

The company also contributes (providing over half the current developer resource) to an open-source community edition of Activiti, available free to download under the Apache Licence 2.0.

Who is it for?

Alfresco’s go-to-market focus is on ECM system consolidation generally (targeting organisations with legacy ECM deployments); and global government markets in particular (i.e. US Federal, EMEA central, and regional governments globally). It also has strong showings in the finance, healthcare, transport, high-tech manufacturing and utilities sectors. Although the company is keeping an industry-neutral focus for the platform, it has seen some deep vertical customisation by its partner ecosystem in places (most prevalent in its Case Management offering).

Alfresco’s platform is designed for enterprise customers looking for a single integrated suite of content management, content collaboration, and business process management tools delivered through a web interface – with mobile apps and desktop sync – all built on an open core using open standards. Its sweet spot is where ECM meets mobile, consumerised IT collaboration sensibilities; with enough complementary capabilities (process modelling, case management, compliance management and so on) to attach context to content and ‘smarten’ content workflows. Feature priorities across Alfresco are a blend of consumer-focused capabilities (such as cloud-based file storage and sharing, mobile access to content on any device, desktop sync), and team-focused ones (such as version control, security and permissions, task management, project collaboration, some social features, and user profiles), but with additional enterprise level support (such as business process automation, metadata workflow, hybrid on-premise/cloud storage deployment options, etc.).

The extent to which the Alfresco Activiti BPM engine has been leveraged across the ECM offering doesn’t purport to support highly complex BPM scenarios – but there’s enough capability there to ensure the content management core is able to support case management and compliance management use cases.

Alfresco’s range of platform deployment options plays well to customers displaying a sense of ‘cloud pragmatism’ with regard to their content storage location (especially pertinent for customers in regulated industries, those with data sovereignty concerns, and those – say in media and entertainment, or construction –with highly-rich content where remote access latency would be an issue for office-based staff who could alternatively access content from an on-premise store).

Some hybrid ECM platforms are hybrid only insofar as they can integrate with business applications sited on-premises or in the cloud, but the ECM application itself has to reside wholly in one place or the other. Alfresco’s architecture allows customers to synchronise content from an on-premises store to the Alfresco cloud.

It’s worth noting however that Alfresco in the Cloud itself only integrates with other cloud-based business applications (e.g. Salesforce, Google Docs, and Microsoft Office 365 – with open APIs available for custom cloud-based integrations); and some of Alfresco’s enhanced ECM capabilities are only available as optional add-ons to the on-premises version of Alfresco One (such as Its DOD 5015.02-certified Records Management module; Apache Solr-based Index Server; and Microsoft Office-based file transformation engine).

For customers who are content to expose their content in the cloud, but would prefer their cloud private rather than multi-tenant public, Alfresco can leverage Amazon’s Virtual Private Cloud infrastructure to make it straightforward to deploy single-tenant S3 instances, though it does support the use of any private cloud configuration.

Alfresco One is available in two configurations:

  • Departmental – designed to provide entry-level capability for departmental applications (for up to 300 named users), running on one physical server on-premises. Optional add-ons are available for Alfresco Records Management (based on Alfresco’s core Document Management repository), Transformation Server, and Hybrid Sync Connector. It’s supported (online) only between 9am and 5pm, based on the customer contact’s local business hours.
  • Enterprise – similar to Departmental, but designed for enterprise-scale usage (1,000 named users – more can be purchased) running on eight cores on-premises. Optional add-ons also include Alfresco Index Server. Hybrid Sync Connector supports more storage and users, and Active Directory/LDAP integration is included. Support moves to 24×7 availability, by phone and online.

Why is it interesting?

Alfresco is a company in transition. Under CEO Doug Dennerline’s leadership (see below) the company has built out and consolidated its overall platform, evolved its business model, and modified its attitude towards cloud platforms and open-source software – currently moving from a pure open-source on-premises model to more of an open core / open standards, hybrid on-premises / cloud approach. Previously, Alfresco concentrated on selling an open-source on-premise product, predominantly through partners. However recent injections of funding have seen it able to evolve more of enterprise business culture (from its engineering- / technology-focused roots) and develop its offerings to capitalise on customers’ hybrid deployment requirements.

These changes have seen significant staff turnover (the last two years has seen overall headcount increase by 100, but given that it made around 200 new hires during the same period this means that almost a third of the pre-Dennerline workforce has left as Alfresco shifts its strategic direction). However the company is reporting that the shift is already paying dividends, with sales and marketing engagements for its platform-based offering engaging more senior executives in larger client organisations, securing correspondingly bigger-ticket enterprise deployments along the way.

Where all this change leaves Alfresco’s well-established community of 30,000 open source developers isn’t immediately apparent, though. Previously community members played a significant role in contributing ‘add-on’ capabilities that swelled Alfresco’s feature-set for customers comfortable with managing third-party open source components in their enterprise stack (some even became officially approved and incorporated into the core Alfresco product). However, although Alfresco is pursuing an open core model, its need to maintain a robust platform responsive to its enterprise customers’ requirements means that development is much more tightly overseen and curated. The company now relies more on business partners to co-develop features too far from its roadmap focus to warrant the use of in-house development resource. The open source community is still there, but the emphasis of support and engagement has shifted a little as Alfresco has evolved.

How established is it?

Alfresco was founded in 2005 by Documentum co-founder John Newton and former Business Objects COO John Powell (the latter replaced as Alfresco CEO in October 2013 by Doug Dennerline). The company now has 375 employees worldwide (mainly split 50/50 between the Americas and Europe/Middle-East/Africa, though with a small percentage in the Asia-Pacific region). Growth has been more organic, and due to its partnership approach, rather than through strategic acquisitions.

It has over 1,800 customers in 195 countries (again, split pretty evenly across the Americas and EMEA, though with a small percentage in Asia-Pacific and the rest of the world). In addition, over 160,000 organisations use its Community Edition. In total Alfresco boasts 11 million users of its software and services globally (serving 7 billion documents a month). It also has over 200 partners (through which over half of its business derives) and a 30,000-strong open source development community.

Enterprise-level customers include Bristol City Council, Fox, BT, NASA, Sony Entertainment, and the UK’s National Health Service.

Alfresco is a privately-held organisation funded by venture capital (investors include Sageview Capital, Accel Partners, Mayfield Fund, and SAP Ventures). The last round (Series D Funding, in August 2014) raised $45 million, bringing the total raised to $65.4 million. The company reportedly netted over $70 million in revenue in 2014.

How open is it?

Alfresco’s core code base is open-source and based on open standards (such as WebDAV, CIFS, CMIS, SMTP and IMAP). It employs a modular architecture that exposes a variety of interfaces (such as the web UI, CIFS, WebDAV, and REST APIs) to users, other applications and devices. Its mobile SDK allows developers to integrate access to Alfresco content, and provide hooks into Alfresco’s workflow and process management, into their own applications – f and provide add-on features to the core Alfresco product set. Built-in connectors are provided to Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft SharePoint, Google for Work, Amazon S3, Kofax, SAP, and Salesforce, amongst others.

Add-ons that remain open-source are made freely available to Community Edition users, and Alfresco has its own QA process to test against a typical technology stack.

Who does it partner with?

Alfresco’s global partner program includes system integrators, technology partners (i.e. developers interested in a deeper business relationship with Alfresco than registered developers from the Alfresco community), OEMs, and distributors (the first three of these groups represent Alfresco’s primary routes to market). Partners include:

  • System integrators / solution providers – over 130, including Tata Consultancy Services, Tech Mahindra, Armedia, Atol, Ixxus, Ricoh, and Praxis Computing.
  • Technology partners – over 30, including Amazon Web Services, Cloudify, Ephesoft, Good Technologies, Jive Software, Kofax, Liferay, MobileIron, Novell, and SugarCRM.
  • OEMs – nearly 30, including MindJet, Adobe, IBM Tivoli, Progress Software, VMware, and Western Digital.

In addition it also has pure distribution partners, such as and ECM4China.

Its current priorities are to grow sales capacity in all three segments, grow implementation capacity amongst its system integrators, and fill gaps in technology partnerships.

Are there areas for improvement?

Alfresco Activiti needs to ensure it keeps hitting a sweet spot of providing ‘just enough’ work co-ordination capabilities in order to defend against rival ECM vendors that have either chosen to partner closely with specialist third parties in order to satisfy a demand for ECM / BPM coupling, or that have developed their own native capabilities (as Alfresco has done) but taken things further. The company’s development roadmap highlights equal priority for development of its ECM and BPM capabilities, but Alfresco Activiti plays a much more prominent role across the platform now and so Alfresco needs to demonstrate that it has the resources in place to continue those feature build-outs from its traditional document management focused base.

Although Alfresco Share (now integrated with Alfresco Activiti) does provide some group collaboration capabilities, it’s not designed as a fully-fledged social collaboration tool – and so customers in need of more in this area will need to rely on partner integrations to add a richer social angle to Alfresco’s content collaboration and BPM capabilities.

When MWD Advisors first covered Alfresco in early 2014, we commented that the company faced a challenge in seeking to ‘harden’ the code contributions from its open-source community as it sought to focus on building business with larger customer organisations. Fast forward a year and a half, and – although still proclaiming a pride in its open source heritage, and with the open source Community Edition still very much available – the role of the community appears somewhat diminished in Alfresco’s plans going forward. On the one hand, this should certainly make Alfresco’s job easier as it manages product releases and curates third-party contributions. However, with less of a route now for pure open-source developments the company does risk missing opportunities for consumer-led innovations direct from its community. So, there’s a balance Alfresco needs to strike (as does any open core enterprise software vendor) between open innovation, and robust enterprise stability.

What’s next?

Alfresco plans for roughly monthly release cycles for its cloud-first offerings, quarterly for the Community Edition and Alfresco Activiti (currently, reflecting the accelerated nature of the product’s rise in prominence as part of the platform offering), and annual for Alfresco One enterprise software – with major pushes in the spring and winter of each year.

In May Alfresco announced general availability of Alfresco Analytics and Alfresco Media Management modules, enhancements to Alfresco Share, a v1.3 update to Alfresco Activiti (bringing new features such as dynamic task support, conditional tabs and form elements, import/export integrations with Box, Alfresco metadata mapping, and document generation in Microsoft Word), and a v2.0 update to Alfresco One’s connectors to Microsoft Outlook. Future plans include further integration and use case-specific feature enhancement to deliver a range of ‘intelligent process apps’. In addition, Alfresco is developing a suite of task-specific mobile apps that natively expose both ECM and BPM services through configuration of the core platform (rather than additional coding) to play to specific vertical market interests as well as horizontal use cases.

It’s also pulling key capabilities from Alfresco Workdesk (a structured document management tool until recently sold as a separate add-on for Alfresco One into the baseline Alfresco One product line. These include virtual folders, content model management, and role-based user interfaces; and, along with records management and simple file-sharing capabilities, these are due to become part of the core Alfresco One product under the Winter 2015 launch for Alfresco 5.1.

Should I consider it?

If your use case for enterprise content sharing, collaboration and management is such that you need to retain at least some or perhaps all of your content on premises, then Alfresco’s hybrid offering is certainly one you should consider. It’s Alfresco’s on-premises software that remains the backbone of its offering though (with some specialist records management and case management tools not yet available in SaaS incarnations). However, although Alfresco’s cloud offering is less mature than its on-premises offering, the company does partner with Amazon Web Services to provide its compute and storage, thereby leveraging AWS’ considerable infrastructure and feature set.

However, if you were attracted to Alfresco because of its previously more overt open-source leanings, and the promise of add-ons and enhancements from its community developers, then the company’s new direction – with a greater focus on open standards enhancements to an open core – may not fit so closely with how you’d ideally satisfy your requirements.

Bound up with Alfresco’s attitudinal changes towards open-source software of course is the company’s decision to better integrate and leverage the Alfresco Activiti BPM engine in combination with its ECM product – and this has resulted in a neatly-defined platform where core content management capabilities are enhanced for specific use cases like case management and compliance management.

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