Content management cloud overview: Putting an ECM system in the cloud

Is a cloud-based enterprise content management system right for you? Get up to speed on cloud ECM basics and how to lay the groundwork for a content management cloud deployment.

The notion of moving any large data repository to a cloud computing infrastructure still makes many CIOs and IT managers nervous, but it may just prove to be the wave of the future for enterprise content management (ECM) systems.

And to some ECM experts, the content management cloud concept isn’t really all that new. Steve Weissman, executive director of Holly Group, a consulting firm that focuses on ECM and enterprise information management, points out that hosted content management systems have been around for years, starting with the rise of application service providers. ECM in the cloud “is basically a modern version of application outsourcing,” Weissman said.

He isn’t alone in adopting that kind of perspective. “Five years back, ECM went from client applications to Web-based repositories, so one could argue that ECM has been operating in essentially a private cloud for a long time and it’s rather mature,” said Chris Riley, senior ECM and document capture architect at Pasadena, Calif.-based consulting firm ShareSquared Inc.

Meanwhile, many organizations are moving toward a Web applications model “where everything is accessible through the browser” as a service, said Ashish Nadkarni, a consulting practice leader at GlassHouse Technologies Inc. in Framingham, Mass. As a result, “almost every company would be a candidate for examining an ECM structure in a cloud,” he added. “ECM is a low-hanging fruit for moving to a cloud platform.”

Content management cloud: No big deal for users?
The bottom line, Nadkarni said, is that end users shouldn’t need to care about what ECM platform they’re using, what hardware it’s running on or where the system is located. Behind the scenes, an organization with a properly designed system architecture could transition to an ECM cloud computing approach “with little or no difference or impact to the user,” he said.

It’s difficult to find organizations today that don’t have some type of ECM system in place, even if it’s in a rudimentary form. Full-function ECM systems include features such as document and records management, content taxonomies, auditing capabilities, check-in/check-out and other workflow controls, and security mechanisms.

It’s not like a file share, where you just save the documents; you have to make sure that the metadata associated with [a document] is categorized correctly,” Riley said. “That way, when it’s saved, there’s an audit trail associated with that document.”

The primary goal of an ECM system, according to Riley, is to eliminate ad hoc content management processes that can expose an organization to regulatory compliance risks and other potential problems.

“There’s a ton of risk around having duplicate copies of a document and not knowing if you’re working with the wrong copy,” Riley said. And when control of documents is left entirely in the hands of individual users, they typically aren’t thinking about content management best practices, he noted.

Laying the groundwork for a content management cloud
With an ECM system, on the other hand, proper document management practices can be established enterprise-wide – so if an organization does decide to move toward a cloud ECM infrastructure, Riley said, the content is less likely to be put at risk of being compromised.

He added that installing or migrating to a cloud content management system doesn’t materially change the nature of using or managing ECM technology. “The term ‘cloud’ really implies nothing more than infrastructure,” he said. There are potential pros and cons to consider, of course, and pitfalls to avoid – but moving to the cloud doesn’t require a wholesale re-engineering of ECM processes.

Content management cloud infrastructures are coming from two directions: ECM vendors that have created or are working toward cloud offerings, and online storage and computing services vendors that understand the cloud side and are trying to build up their ECM capabilities. “They want enterprise play, so they’re entering ECM,” Riley said of the latter group.

Whatever cloud ECM technology choice you make, he advised, it’s important to be sure that you end up with a full set of content management, taxonomy and auditing capabilities. The cloud equivalent of a basic file share isn’t enough, according to Riley. “That’s what we want to get away from,” he said.

Catherine LaCroix is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. She covers technology used in business, education and health care.

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