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The perils and promise of ECM in the cloud: Five considerations

Cloud-based enterprise content management software can alleviate pressure on IT infrastructure. But match needs with ECM provider capabilities.

Today, more than any other time in history, enterprises are dealing with vast amounts of content.

The promise of the cloud as an ever-elastic and infinitely available storage facility for all your content is alluring. Many organizations are running up against the limits of their infrastructure's processing power or storage. In fact, a cloud-based enterprise content management (ECM) technology may solve the problem of your ECM challenges. But the reality may differ somewhat, or drastically, depending on company needs.

The promise of the cloud as an ever-elastic and infinitely available storage facility for all your content is alluring.

As your organization weighs the issues in managing some or all corporate content in the cloud, consider the following to ensure that your goals are aligned with the state of content management outside your data center. It's also important to consider your needs in light of certain key considerations, including these five.

1. A company's ECM needs

Part of the confusion about which ECM software to choose involves the state of the market itself. Enterprise content management vendors offer a wide range of services that fall under ECM but differ vastly.

Cloud vendors' services, for example, fall under every dimension of content management, from storage to editing to lifecycle management to workflow. Few offer the full range of these services, however, and you may or may not require multiple vendors to suit company needs. Here lies the first challenge: matching your needs to a particular vendor.

Just as with on-premises software, cloud vendors very greatly. Two vendors may appear to offer similar technologies, but the models may differ significantly. Google Docs and SharePoint, for example, both offer browser-based editing tools. Users may prefer one tool over another, such as the ability to edit offline or for users to collaboratively edit a document at the same time. Or perhaps Box.net's more regimented content management approach looks better, compared to a more file-share-like experience from Dropbox. Both Box.net and Dropbox are ECM systems, but their focus is on file-sharing.

In the end, document what you need and match that list with the available ECM software technologies.

2. Content location concerns

Cloud offerings are everywhere and, if you take vendors at their word, you can get your content anywhere. Unfortunately, that may only be partially true and only if your needs fit a specific profile.

In moving your content into the cloud, you are turning it over to a third party to watch for you.

Data location. Depending on your industry, local laws or simply the physics of data travel over a wire, the location of your data can be important. In certain regulated industries, there are strict rules about where data can be stored and how it's managed. The lack of "cloud" adoption in the pharmaceutical industry and government relates, in part, to control over storage location. Is the data center housing your data in the United States, Europe, India, China or a mix?

Performance. Performance is also a consideration. Your industry and geography are important considerations. Will your end users in Sydney, Australia, have a good or a poor experience retrieving documents stored in Seattle? Performance (retrieval and updates) could be improved with content delivery networks (i.e., caching or geo-replicating certain content), but this has a cost dimension and introduces control concerns. Further, it tends to work better for non-transactional, read-only scenarios.

User control. Finally, when evaluating cloud-based ECM vendors, dig into how much control you have over where your content is stored. Larger vendors may have direct control over their own storage and may offer options. Some smaller vendors rely on cloud "platform" vendors like Microsoft and Amazon. As a result, the vendor itself may not even have control.

3. Storage

The cost of cloud-based software usually involves two main drivers: the number of users and storage consumption. While the number of users tends to be relatively easy to calculate and control, storage consumption is often a challenge.

Enterprises have been buying massive storage capabilities from vendors like EMC Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM for decades. Home users, too, have caught the storage bug, as evidenced by the proliferation of low-cost, mainstream storage devices, such as USB-attached hard drives and network attached storage appliances. As a result, data center professional have to give little, if any, thought to storage consumption; storage is cheap, available and easy to add. As you consider moving content into the cloud, storage remains easy to add and available, but costs can increase considerably. So it is critical to plan future storage usage, to ensure that the economics of cloud-based ECM works for your organization for the present and the future.

4. Lifecycle management

Lifecycle management describes how ECM software maintains content from creation through disposition (or deletion). For much of the content that gets created by an enterprise, little will need rigorous management. However, for a certain percentage of content, you will be required, by law or policy, to effectively manage the integrity of that content for its entire life.

Practically, this means that you need to understand how the ECM software you purchase handles documents from the time that a document is created. Does the technology, for example, offer versioning (maintaining all the changes to that document over time)? Does the vendor's tool record which individual(s) have made changes or have otherwise affected the document (e.g., downloading to editing to deleting)? Can you automate your work process to review content after certain periods of time (e.g., three years after creation, route the document for review)?

Depending on your needs, various cloud vendors may not enable you to manage your content's full lifecycle.

5. When the party's over

In moving your content into the cloud, you are, in effect, turning it over to a third party to watch for you. This is roughly equivalent to buying a storage locker: You rent space and move your stuff into your locker. But questions about access become important. Can you get to your belongings at midnight? What happens if the vendor goes bankrupt? If there's a dispute, does the provider padlock your storage locker and prevent you from accessing your things?

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These kinds of scenarios are critical to consider in choosing your ECM cloud vendor. Like location affinity (and all of the related issues), reclaiming your data from an ECM vendor, even if you're simply changing vendors, is not trivial. The simplest solution is using a vendor like Dropbox to store a few gigabytes of data. At the enterprise scale, we may be dealing with terabytes of data. Moving that much data, primarily over public networks, not only poses a security risk, but also is expensive and time-consuming.

You will end up moving your data. Ensure that you have established a good plan with your vendor to plan for this inevitability before committing to any provider.

The beginning of the journey

Moving to the cloud for content management presents a great opportunity to reduce your infrastructure burden, expand access to the data (especially for remote employees) and potentially reduce the overall cost of ECM software. But there are real concerns that need to be addressed. I've listed five that are critical to your success. These considerations should be the start of your evaluation, though they are not an exhaustive list.

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