Many business applications are moving to the cloud -- especially, with the proliferation of remote work -- and ECM software is no exception.
Traditionally, organizations installed enterprise content management applications within their own data centers. With the emergence of cloud computing, however, most ECM tools are now cloud-based.
Legacy, on-premises applications often bring challenges related to maintenance, costs and business continuity. A cloud-based ECM, on the other hand, can ease IT management, automate software updates and easily integrate with other tools in a cloud-based ecosystem.
Organizations should review the benefits and best practices of moving to a cloud-based ECM.
What is ECM?
Enterprise content management, or ECM, is a set of defined processes, strategies and technologies that allow a business to effectively acquire, organize, store and deliver critical information to its business stakeholders both inside and outside of the organization.
Enterprise content management systems have evolved to accommodate the different forms of content being introduced to the workplace, but its key focus has remained the same: the management of a company's information assets in a formalized central repository, made available at the right time, right place and right format to support business processes.
What problems are associated with legacy, on-premises ECM?
There is a variety of problems associated with maintaining on-premises ECM software, including:
- Managing the ECM server infrastructure. Upscaling an on-premises ECM environment consumes IT's infrastructure and people resources. New servers and upgrades to existing servers consume memory, disk storage, processing power and network bandwidth.
- Maintaining the ECM software. There is often a lag in deploying updates and feature releases for on-premises applications. This is often due to complexities in applying the upgrades or the effect the update will have on availability and uptime of the product. Expiring product versions with no vendor support can also be problematic. Additionally, organizations' internal processes, resource availability and priority constraints can lead to delays in scaling the ECM platform.
- Providing remote access. Organizations can struggle to scale user access to an extended network of users, especially third parties that present specific security constraints. This prevents crucial parties, such as partners, suppliers and customers, from accessing content remotely.
- Delivering business continuity. To provide business continuity, organizations must create fault-tolerant environments, provide rapid recovery from backup or offer the ability to switch to alternative data centers. Any of these business continuity approaches presents challenges to the organization in terms of cost, people resources and business-acceptable downtimes for access to business-critical content.
- Supporting adequate service levels. Most businesses demand high service levels in terms of continuous hours of operation. Unavailability of the ECM, whether planned or unplanned, will increase the cost and complexity of the platform.
- Managing software licenses. On-premises ECM platforms typically involve multiple licenses, including a server installation license and a user license component. User licenses are typically based on a fixed number of users, so there can be some redundancy in license purchases and greater capital expenses than is necessary. The need to fund licenses for development, quality assurance, production environments and business continuity environments can also drive high overall license costs.
- Integrating with cloud-based offerings. The cloud services market surrounding ECM is large and includes cloud-based tools for scanning, optical character recognition and AI-driven tagging and classification. Integrating the on-premises ECM platform with cloud services can be complex, constrained by network capacity and integration techniques.
- Meeting regulatory needs. It is challenging and costly to ensure assets within an on-premises ECM system comply with regulatory needs. For organizations that conduct business internationally, a country-specific regulation may dictate that information assets be stored within the jurisdiction of those countries. This requires the organization to engineer the ECM platform at a global level. GDPR is one example of a content-specific regulation that has forced many to move to a cloud-based ECM that can enforce content rules based on geographic location.
What are the benefits of moving ECM to the cloud?
There are several benefits to using a cloud-based ECM application, including:
- Eases IT capacity management. Introducing any IT platform to an organization affects the resource needs of the IT infrastructure. Cloud platforms aim to reduce the burden on IT management by providing elasticity, or the instantaneous scaling of processing power, memory and disk space based on business needs. The elasticity provided in cloud environments simplifies the management and capital costs compared to that of an on-premises platform.
- Offers high levels of service. Digital transformation initiatives should always include an agreement with the business on expected operational availability, or a service-level agreement (SLA). For example, will the platform be available 24/7? How will the vendor arrange downtime for routine maintenance and what affect will it have on the business? In-house data centers and on-premises platforms present challenges and high costs to service SLAs. Cloud services, on the other hand, are geared to provide extensive and high levels of service.
- Automates software updates. Cloud service providers routinely update software with bug fixes and feature enhancements. The IT team may have applied routine maintenance updates to traditional on-premises software installations, but there is often a lag due to internal resources required to keep the software updated or because of the effect on SLAs.
Vendors that have both on-premises and cloud versions of their software will often prioritize the cloud version with frequent and regular updates, while on-premises versions experience less frequent updates.
- Simplifies mobile and remote access. Organizations often need to share information assets with third parties. A cloud vendor makes it easier to deliver these requirements because it only requires internet access. For on-premises platforms, the organization would need to provide network access or virtual private networking, as well as additional levels of login security.
- Eases adherence to regulatory controls. Many industries are regulated differently according to local geography and international country restrictions. Meeting regulatory controls is wider than a vendor's software; it involves the whole operating environment, including people, processes and technology.
Regulatory compliance is a complex area regardless of whether an organization deploys an ECM on premises in the cloud. Cloud services, however, may have an edge in some areas due to the experience of the cloud providers and their networks of geographically dispersed cloud data centers.
The opportunity to use cloud data centers in specific geographies is appealing. It's a more complex problem, however, to ensure the documents with a specific country regulation are located in those data centers.
- Offers flexible license models. Cloud providers usually offer user-based subscription model licensing such as per user, per month. On-premises vendors usually license by quanta, such as packages of 25, 50 or 100 users on an annual basis. The former provides fluidity, with the flexibility to add and remove users at will and costs treated as operational expenses, and the latter costs treated as a capital expense that the organization can depreciate over time. It's important for organizations to rely on cost models that provide predictability, and cloud services do just that.
- Integrates with other cloud services. Many business applications that were traditionally installed in on-premises data centers such as email, calendar, ERP, CRM and collaboration applications are now widely consumed as cloud services. Cloud services allow applications and users to more seamlessly interoperate across all of the organization's tools.
- Enables business continuity and disaster recovery. There is no better example of how cloud-based ECM supports business continuity than the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of knowledge workers were required to work from home with very little notice and for an unknown period of time.
Organizations that were already using cloud-based products such as Salesforce, Google G-Suite and Microsoft Office 365 had a much smoother transition to the new reality. Those with traditional on-premises ECM platforms struggled to ensure their employees could access the tools and information they needed to do their jobs.
Best practices for moving from legacy ECM
- Define ECM product requirements. Organizations should create clear business and technical needs that the ECM should meet. Then they should assess each vendor offering against those needs. These requirements may include:
- Ease of use and configuration
- Integration paths to the organization's key tools
- Built-in compliance and regulation management
- Support for appropriate range of information asset types, especially storage-hungry assets such as image, video and audio
- Provisioning of built-in usage and performance analytics
- Ability to scale
- Strong product roadmap that inspires confidence for future use and protection of investment
- Review existing content processes. Organizations should audit their current content infrastructure. They should anticipate any upcoming changes to the file plan and tagging schemes. Then organizations should build in those changes to the cloud-based ECM product before they migrate current information assets.
- Plan change management. Organizations must successfully introduce the cloud-based ECM. This includes effectively communicating the purpose of the initiative and project schedule to end users. Business leaders should ensure users receive relevant training before the migration happens. The users' experience of the ECM platform will be the determining factor on effective adoption across the organization.
- Map the ECM content lifecycles and workflows. Information assets have a lifecycle -- meaning they are created, changed, stored for some period, and then archived or deleted. Understanding these flows -- and, specifically, who is ultimately responsible for the integrity, accuracy and retention periods of information assets -- will inform the migration team of who the business stakeholders are and how they should be involved with migrating information assets to the ECM cloud service.
- Build a roadmap. There could be hundreds of thousands of information assets in an organization. Businesses should concentrate on the high-priority information assets first. It's helpful to build a migration framework and repeatable process to move all the information assets and users of those information assets to the new ECM.
Cloud ECM vendors
There are many vendors in the market offering ECM platforms with varying degrees of pedigree and capability. At a bare minimum, a comprehensive ECM platform should provide file sharing, document management and records management. Vendors include:
- Alfresco Software and Hyland. Alfresco has an open source approach that will appeal to some organizations. Hyland -- another leading player with its OnBase product -- acquired Alfresco in October 2020. This is likely to present both opportunities and challenges for their clients and the companies themselves, but it is too soon to see the direction the merged companies will take.
- DocuWare. DocuWare has its roots in high-volume document scanning and is connected to Kofax, which is widely used in financial services and legal industries. It supports on-premises and cloud-operating models, boasts low-code implementations and is built upon Microsoft Azure.
- IManage. IManage began as a niche player in legal organizations to support the drafting and publishing of legal artifacts. It has matured to be a widely capable ECM offering that supports both on-premises and cloud deployment.
- Microsoft. Microsoft provides a broad range of content services within the Office 365 suite, offering extensive integration with a range of common tools from the same vendor. It has a mix of tools across on premises and cloud. SharePoint Online is a good starting point for organizations already investing in Office 365.
- OpenText. OpenText has achieved growth through multiple acquisitions, including vendors such as Documentum and Captiva. OpenText tends to be seen in large corporate environments. Its long-established partnership with SAP would be of interest to organizations who have SAP deployed as their ERP platform. It supports on-premises and cloud deployments.