Alfresco’s digital transformation platform play

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Alfresco Digital Business Platform is a single, open platform that provides an integrated suite of containerised, auto-scaled microservices for content, process and records management which can be deployed on premise, in the cloud, or in a hybrid architecture.

Top takeaways

It’s all about the experience now

Delivering high-quality digital experiences requires that content or process management functionality, where it’s needed, is delivered via service capabilities rather than out-of-the-box applications. On top of that, organisations are increasingly looking to differentiate experiences by augmenting the resulting custom applications with specialised services that provide personalisation, recommendations and more. Embracing a platform ecosystem is the smart way forward for Alfresco, and its Digital Business Platform is well positioned to provide an open, cloud-ready platform upon which to create those experiences.

AI is cloud content’s killer app

The concept of ‘making content work for you’ has evolved quickly from the nexus of process / case management use cases that Alfresco pitched when we first profiled the company’s offerings towards the end of 2015. Now, the use of AI and machine learning technologies to drive greater insight and value has effectively become the killer app for content processing in the cloud: there are myriad specialised services available as components in a platform ecosystem – all with the potential to help an organisation effect a content-driven digital transformation of its services. Alfresco’s move to offer content and process services via a cloud-native, and ‘AWS-first’, Digital Business Platform therefore makes good sense – in terms of leveraging specialised third-party AI-based services; as well as providing richer and easier-to-exploit integrations with the existing applications that employees already ‘live in’.

A keen focus on developers and partners; growing an ecosystem

Alfresco is focusing on ‘time to value’ as a key metric when it comes to how it continues to develop and refine the developer experience with the Digital Business Platform. It’s looking to partners to build out the ecosystem of Alfresco-powered applications (as well as its own home-grown and customer projects) – which means developer-friendly environments (hence the focus on the Application Development Framework), and a commitment to enhancing the REST APIs and providing easier installation, configuration, administration, instrumentation and monitoring (at scale, for cloud deployments, utilising developer-friendly AWS services).

Introducing Alfresco’s Digital Business Platform

In February 2017 Alfresco rebranded its Alfresco One (ECM) Alfresco Activiti (BPM) and Alfresco Records Management products as Alfresco Content, Process and Governance Services respectively – available via the Alfresco Digital Business Platform. Its evolution into becoming a more overt platform player (leveraging the interconnectivity and interoperability within an ecosystem) comes alongside two other developments in Alfresco’s approach:

  • Greater focus on design thinking approaches to digital transformations from its consulting services arm (starting with content digitisation; then putting this content to work with process technologies, coupled with governance services; to drive radical improvements in an enterprise’s performance or reach).
  • Renewed emphasis on its open core credentials (as it’s seeing further open source penetration right the way up the developer stack in ECM / BPM ecosystems).

Alfresco’s move has come at a time when content models and processes are being brought together across the digital enterprise, alongside wider, cloud-based ‘platform thinking’ approaches that open up access to multiple third-party specialist AI-related services, from which new breeds of ‘smarter’ applications can be developed that can deliver extreme personalisation to the user. Examples here include natural language processing, contextual analysis, and machine learning – providing services for summarisation, sentiment analysis, recommendations, exception processing, security analysis, predictive search, and more.

Its focus on ‘openness’ encompasses open source libraries, open design methodologies, open APIs and its open source Application Design Framework in a drive to foster open collaborations with partners (Salesforce, Box, Microsoft for Office 365, etc.) in order to provide connectors that allow its customers to “integrate with the tools they already use”, and construct new custom applications and services built on its open platform with services for content, process, search, and collaboration.

Alfresco continues to focus on growing the ecosystem around the Alfresco Digital Business Platform by strengthening its strategic partnerships with the likes of AWS, Tech Mahindra, Micro Strategies, Tata Consulting Services, Ephesoft, Atos and Cognizant; digital transformation initiatives with CIOs, CTOs and CDOs (direct engagements, and also via systems integrator partners with digital transformation practices), and platform development with enterprise architects and regional partners with ECM and BPM expertise. Its partner solutions now number over 140, across multiple industry sectors including banking, insurance, government healthcare, life sciences, publishing, utilities, energy, manufacturing, and construction.

Alfresco is privately held and does not reveal its revenue figures. However, it reported “record year-over-year growth” in its FY 2018, bolstered by a shift from legacy ECM and BPM consolidation into more digital transformation projects. Alfresco’s play to offer customers differentiation through a platform-based digital transformation has proven successful, as enterprises look to build custom applications underpinned by content and process services, rather than rely on the common denominator of purely SaaS.

Early in 2018 Alfresco announced it was being acquired by Boston-based private equity firm Thomas H Lee Partners (THL) for an undisclosed sum, however the company is continuing to stress its commitment to existing development and marketing priorities – with no shift from its open, cloud-first platform strategy for the foreseeable future.

Technical capabilities

Alfresco Digital Business Platform

Launched in February 2017, the Alfresco Digital Business Platform is a single, open platform that provides an integrated suite of containerised, auto-scaled microservices (accessed via SAML Single Sign-On) that can be deployed on premises, in the cloud, or in a hybrid architecture.

It comprises the flagship Alfresco Content Services, Alfresco Process Services, Alfresco Governance Services, along with a number of modules and connectors and an Application Development Framework. Customers can buy individual content, process, or governance services – or the whole platform.

Alfresco Content Services

Alfresco Content Services delivers ECM capabilities, with content-based workflows, templates and rules to add context to productivity and collaboration. Since the launch of the Alfresco Digital Business Platform, the company has focused on bringing in customer-driven usability enhancements and enhanced support for rich media to market, as well as improving developer documentation.

Alfresco Process Services

Alfresco Process Services delivers BPM capabilities, sporting a new mobile app; integration with email, Java Message Service, and third-party applications, in-context guidance and recommendations, and ad hoc process flexibility. Since the Alfresco Digital Business Platform’s launch, the company has focused on adding a user-focused Process Workspace with an application manager and dashboard (based on its Application Development Framework), support for AWS Elastic Search, as well as providing guidance on development lifecycle management. Alfresco Process Services were also covered in 2018’s MWD vendor shortlisting guide for Process Application Platforms.

Alfresco Governance Services

Alfresco Governance Services delivers Records Management and information governance capabilities across content and process. They support simple classification through derived inheritance; robust declassification processes; DoD 5015.02 certifications; lifecycle management capabilities that enable customers to stipulate what actions can and cannot be applied to content under management (for example, to prevent certain items being processed outside of region by third-party machine learning services without in-region coverage); and an information governance analytics and reporting function. Since the Alfresco Digital Business Platform launch, the company has focused on support for folder classifications and new classification guidance, ISO16175 compliance, enhanced development support and a new benchmark framework.

Alfresco Content Services Modules

In addition to flagship content and process services, the platform is also home to a number of ‘Content Services modules’, namely: Alfresco Content Connector for MS Outlook, Alfresco Insight Engine (based on the Apache Solr enterprise search platform), Alfresco Media Management, Alfresco MS Office Services, Alfresco Document Transformation Engine (providing an enterprise alternative to LibreOffice, for Microsoft Office document transformations), Alfresco Content Connector for Salesforce (with support for Salesforce Lightning), Alfresco Content Connector for AWS S3, Alfresco Content Connector for Google Docs, Alfresco Content Connector for Box, Alfresco Capture (based on Ephesoft content classification service), and Alfresco Desktop Sync applications (designed to leverage platform capabilities beyond any solely CMIS-based desktop sync application).

Alfresco Governance Services is also sometimes referred to by Alfresco as a Content Services module, because it adds records management capability on top of the base content management services.

The platform also provides a Solr-based scalable search capability, with support for encrypted indexes; and there are mobile apps for Android and iOS.

Application Development Framework

Emphasising Alfresco’s developer-friendly credentials, the platform also includes the Application Development Framework (ADF), intended to underpin and support all new Alfresco custom application development (by the company itself – say, to develop proprietary applications atop Alfresco’s open core for content approval, team collaboration, invoice processing, file sharing, etc.; by its customers – say, to develop their own client portals, or single purpose apps for contract approval process applications, employee on-boarding, etc.; and by its partners – say, building to common vertical or horizontal use cases such as loan origination, patient admissions, fraud investigations, etc.). ADF is targeted at developers, as a way to reduce time-to-develop / -deploy; but it’s not a tool that typical business users will employ to compose applications.

ADF comprises reusable components (over 100 released during 2017) such as UX libraries built on Angular JS using Google Material Design, app frameworks and accelerators that extend the Content and Process Services, and mobility support (native mobile SDK and apps for Process and Content Services). It also features an API gateway with endpoints versioned to ensure backwards compatibility (under the Open API Initiative), an integrated module sandbox, a DevOps deployment control architecture, and an open source connector framework.

Alfresco’s platform services are all exposed via open REST APIs and open standards (e.g. CMIS, Java, Angular 2, Material Design UX, Chef, Puppet, BPMN 2.0, DMN; SharePoint Protocol support; email protocol support – SMTP/ IMAP; FTP; network drive support – CFIS, WebDAV).

Since the Digital Business Platform’s launch, Alfresco has concentrated on user-focused enhancements (such as an application manager, with which administrators can configure an apps dashboard, with role-based access rules so a single app can serve multiple client roles); improved forms customisation; improved reusability (both with decoupled components and new services); and enhanced developer documentation.

Alfresco Community Edition and Alfresco Activiti open source

In addition to Alfresco’s enterprise platform offering for content, process, and records management, the company still offers free-to-download open source editions of its software: the Alfresco Community Edition (for ECM and records management) and Alfresco Activiti (for BPM). They’re not designed to satisfy the requirements of a modern enterprise ECM or BPM production environment – i.e. they don’t benefit from Alfresco’s 24×7 enterprise support; nor do they support hybrid cloud, single sign-on, or the Digital Business Platform’s additional modules and enterprise features (like DoD records management certifications, process applications, forms modelling, or support for dynamic casework). They are offered, unsupported, for deployment in non-critical environments by “developers and technology enthusiasts”.

Alfresco also uses its open source products as a research vehicle for new features, and as a way to engage with partners and the Alfresco developer community over functionality which may become baked into the enterprise products (localisation is one area where this has occurred recently).

Deployment options

The Alfresco Digital Business Platform can be deployed on premises, in the cloud (with options for addressing data-residency concerns by utilising public cloud providers’ region-specificity options), in a hybrid environment, or as a partner-provided managed service. It offers flexibility through containerised deployment with Docker or Kubernetes.

The company has a close partnership with AWS, which has meant that cloud deployments are ‘AWS-preferred’, but nonetheless Alfresco also supports Google Cloud Platform, IBM Cloud, Microsoft Azure, and the Pivotal Container Service, due to its containerised (Docker and Kubernetes supported) architecture. Alfresco finds that some customers tend not be agnostic about their choice of cloud provider, and they may already support a multi-cloud environment – using different clouds for different parts of the business, because of how the organisation has evolved up in terms of culture, talent, and investments.

The Alfresco Content Connector for AWS S3 (built using the AWS SDK), however, provides a rich integration between Alfresco and AWS, with support for role-based authentication (using AWS Identity and Access Management), key management via AWS Key Management Services, and server-side repository encryption (i.e. no need for Alfresco Content Encryption module, which is not supported for use on AWS with S3). It’s also optimised for very large scale (300+ document GET requests / second). Alfresco also supports AWS Aurora, enabling customers to store metadata in AWS’ cloud-native MySQL compatible database.

Also, during 2017 Alfresco announced an AWS Reference Architecture and the availability of an AWS Quick Start Service (using AWS CloudFormation for best architectural practices) for its Content Services, which deploys to a customer’s own private AWS cloud environment “in less than 45 minutes”. In March 2018 Alfresco released an AWS Quick Start for Alfresco Process Services, providing similar deployment capabilities. In addition customers can deploy an Amazon Machine Image (AMI) to launch an instance of Alfresco Process Services in the AWS cloud via the AWS Marketplace.

As the cloud platform market has evolved, along with Alfresco’s partnerships (with AWS, for example), the company has announced that it’s actively “evaluating replacements for Alfresco in the Cloud (my.alfresco.com)” and so is no longer adding new functionality to that service.

GDPR and regulatory compliance

Alfresco Governance Services already provide DoD 5015.02 certification for the company’s records management capabilities and satisfies a variety of mandates and standards such as NARA/OMB 2016 and 2019, ISO 15489, MoReq and VERS.

In addition, the company has also leveraged the Digital Business Platform’s security, automation, monitoring, and reporting capabilities to assemble a compelling offer to help customers prepare for – and set in motion on-going compliant operational processes in support of – the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) (which comes into force on May 25th 2018).

It covers the management of policies and certification of users; identification, protection, and management (including controlled access by role) of GDPR-sensitive content; operationalisation of GDPR processes (such as subject access requests, requests for data rectification, portability, or erasure – i.e. the ‘right to be forgotten’, and management of breach notifications, etc.); preparation of compliance and audit reporting; and Alfresco partners (such as GeoLang, Crawford Technologies, Ephesoft, Simflofy, Discover Technologies, Valora, Snowbound, TeraDact, and Xenit) are able to provide extensions to the core platform with add-ons for redaction, personal information notification, data loss prevention, and electronic signatures, and so on.

Future plans

Alfresco’s release cadence is approximately monthly for the Community Editions, and approximately annually for enterprise editions.

The company plans to enhance the capabilities of its intelligence and analytics Insight Engine. It’s initially focused on content; updates will herald a move into the Alfresco Digital Business Platform’s process and records management areas, widening the scope for contextual assistance. It’s also looking to leverage partnerships with AWS further, making it easier to extract value from content through AWS’ raft of machine learning services (covering areas such as topic and sentiment analysis of text, image and video processing).

The company has also published a number of roadmap goals for the development of its Content Services (with many of them also affecting Alfresco Community Edition ECM), including improved integration across the Alfresco Digital Business Platform (including a shared authentication system), and enhancements to the REST APIs. Alfresco Process Services is moving to a cloud-native, microservice architecture to support scalability and cloud-based deployments, whilst Alfresco Governance Services is set to provide additional content and record classifications (making it easier for customers to manage compliance requirements).

The launch of the Alfresco Digital Business Platform brought updates to Alfresco Share (with priority given to bug fixes and security issues), and it’s still Alfresco’s UI for out-of-the-box collaboration use cases. However, the company now states that although the product remains “under development”, it’s not prioritising developer features and will gradually simplify Share to focus on its most commonly used capabilities (and therefore removing lesser-used ones – including site blogs, site calendars, site data lists, site links, and site discussion forums). Alfresco advises that these are better served by dedicated interfaces born of integration with third-party applications or custom developments (built using the Application Development Framework – making them easier to assemble and maintain).

Suitability

The concept of ‘making content work for you’ has evolved quickly from the nexus of process / case management use cases that Alfresco One and Alfresco Activiti combined were adept at exploiting when we first profiled the company’s offerings towards the end of 2015. Now, AI / machine learning has effectively become the killer app for content processing in the cloud, with myriad services from the likes of AWS, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and others available as components in a platform ecosystem – all with the potential to leverage the value inherent in an organisation’s content as a driving force behind its digital transformation.

Alfresco’s move to offer content management, business process management, and records management capabilities as microservices on the Alfresco Digital Business Platform less than 18 months later therefore makes good sense. It opens up an organisation’s options for leveraging best-in-class third-party services to build applications that deliver the experiences their customers and employees alike now demand, as well as providing richer and easier-to-exploit integrations with the business applications these users ‘live in’ (such as Salesforce, Outlook, Google Docs – internally; and highly personalisable, customer-facing applications – externally).

Alfresco focuses on ‘time to value’ as a key metric when it comes to the developer experience with the Digital Business Platform. It’s looking to partners to build out the ecosystem of Alfresco-powered applications (as well as its own homegrown and customer projects) – which means developer-friendly environments and a commitment to enhancing the REST APIs and providing easier installation, configuration, administration, instrumentation and monitoring (at scale, for cloud deployments). The pursuit of easy elasticity and suitability for large-scale deployment in the cloud have seen Alfresco deepen its partnership with AWS; anchoring Alfresco’s ‘functional PaaS’ offering firmly to the developer-friendly AWS ecosystem.

This isn’t without consequences for existing Alfresco customers, though – the company is de-emphasising its previous ‘Alfresco in the Cloud’ offering, instead committing to discuss replacement services and timelines for migration as its new cloud products mature.

It’s less about the product, and more about the experience now – and if that requires delivering, say, Alfresco’s content or process management capabilities in another application’s UI; or chaining together services that augment the core capabilities with, say, specialised AI to provide extreme personalisation within a custom application; then embracing a platform ecosystem is the smart way forward.

The company’s roadmap and priorities reflect this shift in approach. With platform-first and API-first development, rather than separate product-orientated enhancements taking the lead, Alfresco’s Digital Business Platform is well positioned to provide an open, cloud-ready platform upon which to create those experiences. The platform ecosystem is coming together well, a year into the Digital Business Platform’s timeline; and a with continued focus on developer wellbeing, and the care-and-feeding of key partner relationships, Alfresco is in a good position to offer a well-stocked functional PaaS for both content and process services combined.

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