Creating a scalable content management solution

Content management is all the rage these days, full scale CMS solutions are pricy and complex. What does your organization really need in terms of managing documents, images and other content? We discuss how to evaluate your needs and various vendors' offerings.

Most companies create a large amount of content, or digital information. This content is found in many forms: financial data in spreadsheets, internal memos and external correspondence in word processing documents, customer/client information and product inventories in databases, creative work in graphic, video and audio files, and so forth. Much of this information is unstructured, and can include such things as email messages, handwritten documents and drawings.

When your company is small, you generally manage this content at the document level. In the smallest businesses, files may be stored on individual workstations where they're created, although you’ll most likely quickly outgrow this stage. Your next solution is to store user-created content on one or more file servers. You may implement RAID for fault tolerance and you’ll almost certainly have a backup program to ensure that there are redundant copies of your critical data.

As the amount of content grows, the problem becomes how to manage it from the creation process to the need to access it later. Large projects will span multiple documents, often of different types, and involve many different authors and reviewers in the creation process. You may need to reuse content and collections of content. Tracking different versions of individual documents, tracking all the documents that relate to a specific project, and accessing specific content within an in-progress or completed project quickly and easily can be a challenge when you have thousands or hundreds of thousands of documents in your data repository.

At that point, you need to start thinking about a complete content management system (CMS) that will allow you to keep tabs on the location of and relationships between all of the information you’ve collected at the content level. And as with any complex technological solution, it’s important to consider future growth and scalability when you choose the best content management solution for your network.

Evaluating your content management needs

The first step is to determine whether you need a content management system. If your company is approaching or already at the enterprise level, you probably do. Other large companies seem to think so; according to a survey conducted by Information Week recently, large companies in the U.S. are investing in CMS technology to a greater degree than ever — in many cases, spurred on by compliance regulations such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and other electronic records-retention and privacy laws. If your company is part of a regulated industry, CMS can help you document compliance.

The next step is to determine exactly what type(s) of content you want to manage. The term "content management" is used by some software vendors in the broad sense described above, but other content management solutions are designed to deal only with the content of Web sites.

The Information Week survey found that the most commonly used form of CMS is document management, with Web content management, record management/archiving and retention following closely.

Once you know what you want to manage, you’re better prepared to evaluate the many content management systems that are available.

Content management options

The sheer number of CMS solutions on the market can be overwhelming. Here are a few examples:

Microsoft’s Content Management Server 2002 (MCMS) is an enterprise Web content management system that runs on Windows 2000 Server and integrates with other Microsoft products such as their Commerce ServermBizTalk Server, Application Center and SharePoint Portal Server. Content can be stored on a Microsoft SQL server, and Word can be used for authoring and publishing content.

Many other vendors, such as Vignette, RedDot, offer both Web content managers and enterprise CMS solutions (ECM) that allow you to centralize and share your documents and automate and manage business processes. Some vendors focus on specific industries and markets. Hummingbird Ltd, which acquired RedDot in June 2005, is a major provider of enterprise CMS with solutions specifically targeted at the legal, government and financial services sectors and offers a suite of products that work together to provide management of email, correspondence, contracts, Web content and content lifecycle, as well as compliance solutions.

There are open source CMS solutions, too. OSCOM is an international organization that's devoted to developing standards and promoting open source content management solutions.

Content management software isn’t confined to PC platforms. IBM’s DB2 Content Manager runs on their mid-range iSeries and mainframe zSeries computers.

To keep up with content management trends and new solutions, check out CMS Watch. In addition to reports on different aspects of CMS/ECM technologies and vendors, their site includes a very helping section on building a business case for implementing content management in your organization.

Choosing a content management solution

Once you’ve determined your content management needs, you can better evaluate different options in terms of cost, ease of deployment, usability, and scalability. Since CMS solutions are generally high dollar items, it’s critical that you choose wisely.

Some important considerations in selecting a CMS/ECM solution include:

  • Ease of use for content creators/authors (for example, authors shouldn’t have to learn HTML or have programming/technical skills to create their content).
  • Ability to manage different platforms from the same content source.
  • Ability to easily create cross-links that will survive restructuring of the content.
  • A workflow model that you can customize to fit your organization’s needs.
  • Good archiving, backup and version control functionality.
  • Ability to integrate with other systems and applications you have in place.
  • Security mechanisms to protect the content.
  • Support for all document formats in use in your organization.
  • Extensibility so you can upgrade features or add custom features (such as support for additional formats) later.

In doing your research prior to selecting a CMS solution, you should ensure that the vendor provides adequate training, documentation and support.

Don’t overlook the "people factor." Even though the new content management system may offer great benefits to the enterprise and to individual users, most people don’t like to change the way they work. A system that requires them to drastically change the process of creating content will be met with resistance by many — perhaps most — users unless you can convince them that there’s really something in it for them.

Scalability considerations

In terms of scalability, you’ll want to know the capacity of the system (for example, for a Web content management system, is there a limit on the number of Web servers supported? For a document management system, is there a limit on the number of documents or file size?) You should also be sure to clarify whether additional software must be purchased to upgrade to a greater capacity as your company and document load grows, and investigate what hardware requirements will be necessary so those costs can be factored into your scalability projections.