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Jan 31

Alfresco is a Monster…and That’s a Good Thing

I’ve recently been up to my neck in an implementation of Alfresco Community for a forward-thinking law department.  The process has highlighted a number of thoughts on OS business models, the challenges of bringing enterprise grade OS tools to the legal community, and the impressive power and flexibility of Alfresco.

One of the objectives of the OSLawTools project is to make best-of-breed open source projects accessible to lawyers that don’t necessarily have extensive IT skills.  Installing desktop software is pretty familiar to most users.  Configuring enterprise-grade server applications, particularly within the requirements of a company’s IT infrastructure, not as much.  A long-term goal of this project is to package enterprise tools (including Alfresco) into pre-configured virtual machines that can be put into use in law practice as easily as possible.  There are, and perhaps will always be inherent challenges in simplifying implementation of these complex tools.

Alfresco Community provides what I believe to be the single most essential feature to make a document management solution worth the learning curve and adoption burdens for law practices: drag and drop filing capabilities directly from nearly any email client into the repository (case files).  So much of what goes into any modern ‘legal file’ originates and arrives as email, that this feature is crucial.  In my experience it is quite often the case that an entire matter file is composed solely of email and attachments.  Many systems including popular commercial on-line practice management systems have workarounds involving forwarding email to central or matter specific inboxes.  While these approaches technically get the job done, they do so by adding complexity and losing the grace of drag and drop operation. To me, that is an obstacle to adoption in already time-crunched workflows.

Alfresco, and to my knowledge, Alfresco alone among enterprise open-source DM platforms, implements this through IMAP.  Other systems implement similar drag and drop functionality, but typically through a client side install almost universally (understandably) targeted to Outlook on Windows.  Some otherwise open-source projects further limit this already restrictive scenario to commercial/proprietary status.  I’d love to find a more entry-level type open-source DMS server with this capability, but at this time the search continues.

Some of the challenge in simplifying the deployment of enterprise open source projects arises from the fact that the more powerful and flexible a system is, the more complex it is likely to be.  This is certainly the case with Alfresco, which packages much, much more than robust document management.  In my opinion, there is often little incentive for enterprise open source projects to simplify configuration and administration where the business model for the project involves selling commercial support and installation assistance. I don’t begrudge such business models, especially where they make projects economically feasible, I merely note that they are a fact of life.

I will need to sharpen my startup scripting skills if I hope to make these tools (in VMs) useful to those for whom editing configuration files from the Linux command line is simply never going to happen.  Bitnami may provide some inspiration in that regard.  If anyone knows of an another open source DM server that implements client-agnostic drag and drop email filing directly into the repository please let me know!