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Open APIs key to successful collaboration platforms

APIs could be the future of collaboration platforms, enabling enterprise content management data to be available.

Many collaboration platforms are built with enterprise content management technologies. The systems most actively used are built for a specific task, such as contract management. Taking a focused approach can achieve success in solving a specific business problem. The challenge begins when each new system that is purpose-built creates a silo. The traditional approach to solving the silo problem has been to use a single ECM platform for every content-centric solution. After over a decade of trying, it is clear that the ECM approach has failed, and the new approach may rely on open APIs.

The problem with enterprise content management is that most content-centric business needs are solved as custom applications built on-top of an ECM platform. Building and maintaining these applications can consume a lot of resources. As they are custom-built, the applications are limited functionality-wise and don't always meet employee needs. Maintenance is a problem, because the heavy customizations to the underlying ECM platforms hinder upgrades and bug fixes.

The solution has been a return to specialized solutions -- but with an important new requirement: openness. The goal is to not force everything onto a single platform. It is to ensure that all systems can readily communicate with one another without requiring specialized information to make it happen.

Open APIs make it easier for content technologies to call on data from multiple applications and platforms without requiring extensive programming or bolt-ons so that users can access external data easily. Open APIs enable IT to provide users data regardless of location -- and in the user interface in which they are accustomed to working. With the data continuing to reside in its original location, upgrades are easier, reducing the need for migrations, and day-to-day use of far-flung data is simple.

What does it mean to be open?

Being open starts with an open API. This means that the API set is documented and open to anyone. There are no special features restricted to the vendor's developers or to paying partners. It supports the complete functionality of the system. If the system can do it, there is an API to make it happen.

There is more to openness than open APIs. A Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS) standard is a defined set of APIs that represents the features that every ECM system should support. More importantly, it includes a well-defined domain model that gives any content system a shared vocabulary.

A critical piece of an open system is that its open components are supported over the long term; the level of support demonstrates the underlying commitment to them. Are those APIs there for show, or are they core to the strategy for success for the vendor? Is support for the latest version of a standard important to the vendor? If the APIs or standards are strictly for show, their usefulness will diminish over time.

What is left for ECM platforms?

Any vendor can claim to have an open API. Unless supporting those APIs long-term is core to their business model, those APIs may vanish or become closed in the future. While any ECM vendor may have open APIs and standards, open source software (OSS) and software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendors are the ones whose business depends on being open.

OSS is a natural tool in creating open ECM ecosystems. Being open is core to who they are, making their APIs open by default. Documented and supported APIs are very useful, but when the code is open source, the ability to see exactly how those components behave makes even the most complex integration challenges feasible.

The other API-centric business model is the SaaS model. In many ways these vendors seem the exact opposite of the OSS vendors as they keep the entire application infrastructure in their data centers. This is what makes the need for open APIs critical for businesses. If their focused applications cannot readily communicate with other systems, enterprise-class business solutions are impossible to implement.

For both OSS and SaaS vendors, being open is critical to their long-term success. When combined with their subscription model, they are forced to remain answerable to clients long after the initial sale. This strengthens their commitment to following through on promises made to their clients.

What should you do?

Don't panic. You may have a lot of closed systems in your current environment. Some are likely working well and others clearly are not. The key is to focus on point-forward collaboration systems. Replacing all existing closed content-centric systems at once doesn't make sense. It puts you back into the big-bang approach for ECM, which never works.

You can define your preferred ECM platform, but don't restrict yourself. Make sure that the requirements that make for an open platform are applied to selecting open solutions. The goal is delivering solutions to the business that allows IT to map and manage the flow of information. This enables each system to consume information from others without duplicating information or write complex systems that have to translate everything.

This can put all the necessary information and actions in one place for each business problem that evolve as your business evolves. That is what people really need, and open systems allow that need to be met.

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