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Migrating to a cloud content management system: pros and cons

Find out what you should consider before moving your enterprise content management system to the cloud, including the potential benefits and downsides of an ECM cloud approach.

There are various considerations to take into account when it comes to migrating enterprise content management (ECM) systems to the cloud – some of them in favor of cloud content management, others lined up against it.

On the plus side, cloud ECM offers potential advantages that might help IT and content managers overcome lingering doubts about the wisdom of adopting a cloud computing approach.

For example, a clear advantage from the outset is the fact that the cloud can accommodate a vast amount of content storage needs. In addition, internal installations of server and storage hardware, and related hardware lifecycle management processes, are no longer concerns. The cloud also offers a scalable, “pay as you grow” approach, so that companies pay only for their current application needs instead of having to invest in servers and storage capacity that might not ever be used.

Those factors can be particularly appealing in organizations where ECM systems have developed into repositories of all the documents, records and other unstructured content that accumulates outside of transactional systems.

In the long term, moving an ECM system to the cloud probably will reduce both your operating costs and capital expenditures, said Ashish Nadkarni, a practice leader at GlassHouse Technologies Inc., a data center infrastructure consulting firm in Framingham, Mass.

Less system downtime via cloud content management?
“Another ‘pro’ is higher availability,” Nadkarni said. Because content management systems can contain an all-encompassing range of information – from user-generated data on a laptop that has to be synchronized with the “mother ship” for business purposes to stored documents that need to be managed in compliance with specific regulations – companies with distributed infrastructures can benefit from the cloud’s promise of Web-based access to their content.

Compare that to using a virtual private network (VPN) to connect remote end users to an ECM system and other corporate applications. The network pipe has to be big enough to support the number of users who are looking to access the ECM system and upload locally stored content into it – or else the VPN could grind to a halt. And, of course, the VPN has to be up in the first place.

“If you move [the ECM system] to the cloud, you’re reducing the burden on the network, as all the synchronization now happens in the cloud,” Nadkarni said. He added that an ECM cloud typically would provide increased system availability while giving users the same, if not better, quality of service that they currently get from traditional systems.

But there are also potential downsides to the idea of creating a cloud content management system – data privacy and other regulatory issues being one of them, according to Alan Pelz-Sharpe, a principal analyst and director at Olney, Md.-based consulting firm Real Story Group.

“There is a lingering concern over privacy and email from a regulation standpoint,” Pelz-Sharpe said. “The cloud scares people. The perception is that you’re dependent on someone else. It’s about trust as much as it is about the technology.”

Cloud content management changes the compliance equation
“Compliance is a big concern,” Nadkarni agreed. “It may not be enforceable in the same way in the cloud as you would enforce it on your internal infrastructure.”

In addition, he noted that IT and ECM system managers may end up having to maintain two sets of user-authentication mechanisms. “Let’s say you have Active Directory to manage user accounts, but you might not use Active Directory to manage the ECM cloud,” Nadkarni said.

And while you’re likely to save on hardware costs by doing ECM in the cloud, the overall management overhead compared with your current implementation of ECM may or may not be lower. According to Nadkarni, that depends on the size of the migration. “The more customization you do, the more difficult it is to implement it on a commodity cloud offering,” he said.

Transitioning to a content management cloud also takes some work.

“It’s never just about moving documents from one place to another; it’s about the interrelated links or metadata and getting those links to go with the documents,” said Chris Riley, senior ECM and document capture architect at ShareSquared Inc., a Pasadena, Calif.-based consulting firm. “Getting those pieces to migrate correctly is always a challenge.”

Companies need to keep in mind that migrating an ECM system to the cloud is never a “push a button and it’s done” scenario, Riley cautioned. “It’s always an iterative process,” he said. “And it’s usually a process of doing a test migration, finding out what’s not working and gradually figuring out how to fix it.”

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

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