Will the CMIS specification help prevent a digital dark age?

The recently ratified CMIS specification and other open content management standards can help preserve information for future generations, according to experts.

The Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS) specification and other open standards can help organizations ensure that critical business knowledge and information is easily accessible and properly preserved for future generations, according to experts and technology professionals.

We have to be diligent about how we're handling and ultimately storing our electronic content.

Cheryl McKinnon, ECM technology evangelist and vice president of marketing at Nuxeo

The vast majority of organizations today run multiple enterprise content management (ECM) systems that handle everything from records and document archiving to business project collaboration and Web content management, according to experts. But what happens if a major content management vendor goes out of business or a popular file format becomes obsolete?

Without open standards, such unforeseen events could lead to the loss of important business knowledge and historical information over time, according to Cheryl McKinnon, a well-known ECM technology evangelist and the vice president of marketing at Cambridge, Mass.-based Nuxeo, an open source content management software firm.

Open interoperability and document format standards like CMIS and PDF/A are becoming increasingly critical because they guard against such dire possibilities, McKinnon, a longtime industry veteran said at a recent AIIM user group meeting in Waltham, Mass.

CMIS, which was ratified by the OASIS standards body last May, helps ensure that disparate content management systems can easily communicate with one another. PDF/A, which was introduced in 2005, is an open file format designed primarily for long-term archiving and retrieval of electronic documents.

"I often worry about [the possibility of] transitioning from an era of information overload to an era of the digital dark ages, perhaps 10, 20 or 50 years from now, because we are not paying attention to how we preserve and store the electronic output that we create today," McKinnon said. "We have to be diligent about how we're handling and ultimately storing our electronic content."

The possibility of a digital dark age may be somewhat far-fetched, but McKinnon was absolutely right to stress the importance of open standards in ECM, according to Laurence Hart, director of technology solutions with Washington Consulting Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based IT consulting firm.

"I think she was trying to exaggerate to get the point across," Hart said. "But there have been a lot of silos created [and CMIS allows] those silo doors to be opened. Open standards make it so that -- even if [ECM vendors] start going down -- we can access all that content down the road."

McKinnon's comments made sense to conference attendee Dave Nathan, an assistant records manager for the city of Boston. Nathan attended the event to learn about different ways to get Boston's many content management systems to interoperate more efficiently.

"We have a lot of silos because the city traditionally operated agency by agency, and the idea of citywide [interoperability] is something that people have to get used to," Nathan said. "Even though it might not make sense to have one big system, at least [with CMIS the systems will] be able to talk to each other and be able to exchange necessary data."

Technology pundits often talk about the need to "knock down information silos," but for many organizations like the city of Boston, any plan to replace silos with one large ECM system would be prohibitively expensive and time consuming.

"That wouldn't be feasible for the city," Nathan said. "A great example is dealing with email issues. We have a situation where one department alone, the school department, is responsible for about 75% of all the email addresses in the city. A solution that works for them might not be appropriate for the other departments. [But] having certain agreed-upon standards might allow for that necessary exchange."

CMIS represents ‘a turning point’ for ECM

The introduction and ratification of the CMIS specification constituted a major turning point for ECM because it was a prime example of what can happen when vendors in the space play nicely together, according to McKinnon.

The idea for the specification was first proposed in 2006 by about half a dozen software vendors known as the Committee for Interoperable ECM. The number of vendors involved in the project soon grew to 19, and in 2008 the first draft of the specification was submitted to OASIS. Some of the organizations involved in the project include IBM, EMC Corp., Adobe Systems Inc., Nuxeo and Microsoft, which added support for CMIS in SharePoint 2010.

"What gives [CMIS] legs is that it has very deep and broad participation by most of the big names in the business," McKinnon said. "If you build an app or buy an app, and it supports CMIS, you are guaranteed at least some basic level of integration with most of the mainstream document management ECM vendors in the market."

The current version of the CMIS specification was designed with the idea of helping organizations create collaborative content applications, such as document management systems with some team collaboration capabilities or portals that leverage content management repositories.

Vendors, consultants and user groups involved with creating CMIS have already begun preliminary discussions about what should be included in the next version of the specification. The specifics of CMIS version 2.0 are far from finalized, but McKinnon and Hart said there is a good chance that it will address records management for compliance and Web content management-related use cases.

The addition of records management for compliance standards would be a boon to ECM technology end users because it would give them the ability to centrally manage records housed in multiple systems, according to Hart.

"But I think what's more important from an end-user perspective is that it would also support the e-discovery process," he said. "You could do [e-discovery] from one place and centrally manage it."

CMIS just the beginning

In addition to CMIS and PDF/A, McKinnon said organizations interested in open content management standards should also consider OpenSocial, which allows for interoperability between collaboration and social networking products.

First released in 2007 and initially developed by the likes of Google and MySpace, OpenSocial defines a common application programming interface for running social applications across various websites. For example, a homepage within a document management system that supports OpenSocial could pull in a list of bug fixes from a blog or Wiki.

"Now all of these systems can interoperate, making it very easy for business users to consume the content the way they need to," McKinnon said.

While the remote possibility of a digital dark age may always loom, McKinnon said things like OpenSocial, PDF/A and CMIS offer hope for a brighter future.

"There is a long way to go," she said, "but we do have some really good starts out there."

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