The benefits of cloud storage for ECM: Is it a no-brainer?

There's a lot going on in enterprise content management and a lot going on in the cloud. But there's not much ECM going on in the cloud. What gives?

As companies explore cloud-based enterprise content management (ECM), cloud-based storage technologies become important

to consider as well. The benefits of cloud storage begin with eliminating some management headaches and costs, improving access to content and the ability to accommodate growth.

Scott RobinsonScott Robinson

Both ECM and cloud storage technologies are still fairly new, so it's not too surprising that, according to a 2013 AIIM survey "ECM at the Crossroads," the majority of organizations have more than half their content residing outside an ECM. And it's not an easy decision: The pros and cons of storing enterprise content in the cloud require serious consideration.

Hesitation may stem from some of the downsides of cloud storage.

The good news

First, we may need to overcome our initial concerns about data control and that our ownership has been hijacked. If you've done even a casual inquiry into the benefits of cloud-based storage, you know that there are many, and even more so when applied to ECM. Here's a list of some benefits to consider:

Hardware and licensing costs, and maintenance expense, are greatly reduced. When you keep everything tucked away in a third-party's infrastructure, your own infrastructure costs plummet, and you recover all the time your staff would spend building, configuring and maintaining that back-end system.

Cloud storage shifts emphasis from data storage to data strategy. The less effort you have to invest in data storage, the more resources you have available to make the best use of it.

By its nature, cloud-based storage for ECM violates several tenets of data privacy standards.

Scalability is no longer a problem. Engineering, maintaining and properly using a data storage system that scales as you need it to requires forethought, execution and diligence. By its nature, a cloud environment scales easily and effectively.

Easier enterprise access. Connecting with your organization's network via the Internet is a pain most workers have experienced away from the office. The most common relief is the VPN -- an extra layer of software, security and administration, but one that adds complexity. The cloud can potentially alleviate that extra layer, giving the user in the field essentially the same access experience as in-house.

On-premises network traffic is greatly reduced. If some or all of an organization's content resides in the cloud, rather than on-premises, the in-house network burden decreases significantly, making everyone's user experience easier and lifting the efficiency of the entire in-house system.

But this, of course, isn't the whole story.

The bad news

When it comes to enterprise content management, there are a lot of benefits in cloud storage. But, the bad news is substantial.

Compliance issues. Healthcare reform and the increasing prevalence of health information exchange have underscored the importance of federal privacy laws and standards where personal health information is concerned. This highlights a serious drawback of ECM and cloud-based storage: By its nature, ECM in the cloud violates several tenets of data privacy standards. While this aspect of the law is being addressed, we're not there yet. This needs to be a factor in considering cloud storage for ECM systems that fall under privacy regulation.

Email, Exchange servers and other ECM components. ECM isn't just a parking lot for Word files and spreadsheets anymore. Increasingly, enterprise content includes email and other peripheral documents that need to be enterprise-search discoverable, not as a matter of convenience but as a matter of business necessity. This is tricky enough to accomplish on-premises, let alone in the cloud.

Getting there is more than half the battle. While setting up and using cloud-based storage is increasingly convenient, putting existing enterprise content in the cloud can be painful under the best of circumstances: It's not just the data; it's the metadata, without which enterprise search is iffy, if not useless. The effort required to migrate metadata as well as content and have it come across cleanly and without issues is formidable.

Custom ECM features could break. Another serious drawback to cloud-based enterprise content management is the user interface that accesses the content. Typically, a cloud deployment is intended to service users who are out in the world and on the road, communicating with your enterprise over the Internet. And typically those users tap the content with mobile devices.

Unfortunately, most customizations of a user interface for on-premises ECM can be problematic for mobile devices and in the cloud (SharePoint suffers from these limitations). Putting enterprise content in the cloud may mean letting go of customization.

Do these drawbacks discourage you and your enterprise from cloud deployment? They shouldn't. In the first place, the benefits of cloud storage are many, and all these other issues are nothing more than growing pains, to be expected with new technology. And each can be overcome, with creativity, industry and resolve. For better or worse, cloud storage is the future, and ECM is here to stay.

What do you think? Write to us at lhorwitz@techtarget.com, tweet it at @sContentMgmt or comment below.

This was first published in February 2014

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