Having the right collaboration tools is a key to success, even in a small business. If you're running a small or medium-sized business, you might want to consider setting up the Alfresco open source content management system to boost document sharing, collaboration, and more.
The Benefits of Content Management
Before we get into what Alfresco does, let's back up a moment. Why does a small business need collaboration, content management, and document sharing in the first place? If you do any kind of knowledge work, even in a smallish business, you're probably producing quite a bit of information. I've worked for quite a few startups and small businesses, and the amount of data that ends up trapped in email is astounding.
This leads to a couple of problems. First, consider collaborating on something relatively simple like a presentation or proposal for a customer. Any Word/Office document that needs editing by two or more people means a slew of emails -- and usually requires prodding of that one person who loses the thread.
A good content management system with a workflow solves that problem by ensuring that each person knows what's expected and when they need to give input. It also lets managers sidestep some collaboration problems by defining a workflow that highlights who needs to provide input and who doesn't. Defining the "who-doesn't" part is sometimes just as important as who does.
Second, each employee in a small business is usually responsible for a variety of disparate tasks, and they end up carrying vital information in their heads or buried in their email. When an employee gets promoted, fired, or otherwise moves on, this makes it doubly difficult to extract information.
Using Alfresco or another content management system -- in addition to concrete and very firm policies about using said software -- helps mitigate that problem by ensuring that information is stored in an accessible repository where the employees within the appropriate groups can get to it.
Alfresco is an open source content management system (CMS) or enterprise content management system according to the marketing materials. You might think of a simple publishing platform when you think CMS, but Alfresco is a bit more than that -- it supports document sharing, storage, workflows, collaboration, and it serves as a publishing platform. For many businesses, Alfresco functions as an alternative to Microsoft Sharepoint.
In addition, Alfresco's Community Edition is open source -- so there's no cost to start working with it and testing it out. The company offers an Enterprise release that is not entirely open source, but it does offer a lot of features you don't have in the open source release.
Specifically, the Enterprise version has support for SQL Server and Oracle, and for the BEA WebLogic and Websphere app servers. It also has features to help set up clustering, enterprise extensions, and (of course) support and Service Level Agreements (SLAs) that you should expect to pay for.
If you're running a larger company, you may need those things. If you're running a small business with fewer than 50 or 100 seats, you probably don't. For the purposes of this column, I'm assuming you're going with the Community Edition.
Getting Started with Alfresco
If you're looking to get started with Alfresco without any startup costs or fiddling with installation, I'd recommend starting with the BitNami Stack. BitNami produces "stacks" of software that include the full gamut of software needed to run a complex application like Alfresco. In this case, they configure MySQL, Java, Tomcat, and so forth.
You have several options -- a "native" installer for Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X, which will whip Alfresco onto a server or onto a desktop without touching other system software. So, for instance, if you happen to have Tomcat installed, BitNami's Alfresco installer won't touch the system's existing Tomcat installation. Instead it sets up a director with Alfresco and all its dependencies that you can use to manage Alfresco.
Another option is to grab the virtual machine images. These are VMware images, and should run on any recent version of VMware. I've tested BitNami virtual machines on Linux and Mac OS X under VMware Workstation and VMware Fusion. If you bump up the RAM and disk space (the defaults are 512MB and a 17GB disk), the virtual machine instance should do pretty well for a small business.
If you don't have the hardware on hand, or simply want to avoid managing your own server, you'll also find BitNami "cloud images" that run on Amazon EC2 or GoGrid. This will come at a monthly cost, but for a small business this should be fairly minimal.
Once you've set up Alfresco, you can begin creating users and content. The install only includes an admin user to start, so you'll need to set up users and then begin creating projects. You can start using Alfresco with the Bitnami stack in about 15 minutes, but when I say "using," I mean interacting with the software. You need to set up users, groups, and so on to start being productive.
I recommend starting with the installation and configuration guide to Alfresco after setting up the BitNami stack. Out of the box, you can have things like file sharing and collaboration workspaces set up in a few minutes -- but it's really not obvious what Alfresco can do from the Web interface.
When I said that it could be a replacement for Microsoft SharePoint, I didn't mean in an "it kinda does the same things" way. You can use an Alfresco Share as a repository in place of SharePoint with the SharePoint Protocol (SPP) from Microsoft Office.
If your business has standardized on LibreOffice or OpenOffice.org, there are extensions that allow Alfresco to act as a SharePoint repo for those office suites as well. For most small businesses, this is plenty. But if not, check out the Alfresco Forge for extensions to add functionality to Alfresco.
Alfresco does have a bit of a steep learning curve. You're probably going to have a break-in period of a few weeks to not only get it configured correctly, but also to get employees to use it rather than just mailing files back and forth.
The ultimate result, however, is worth it. Alfresco isn't the only game in town, of course, but its features and maturity make it a top choice for small businesses that are open to using FOSS to solve their problems.
Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier has written for Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many other publications. Brockmeier is also a FLOSS advocate and participates in several projects, including GNOME as the PR team lead. You can reach Zonker at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.
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