Alfresco: An open-source ECM alternative for SharePoint

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Companies that can't meet Microsoft's price for its SharePoint content management package might want to try Alfresco.

In any business organization, the need to effectively communicate and collaborate in a timely manner is very important. Contending with mobile workers and shifting schedules, many businesses look toward enterprise content management (ECM) systems such as Microsoft's SharePoint. Their purpose is to allow users within organizations to collaborate and share work inside of a commonly accessed website framework.

SharePoint creates sites to be used by workgroups, committees, or a whole department of workers. The choices are flexible, depending on your organization's needs -- you can organize SharePoint sites however you wish in order to create document libraries, data lists (which in turn can be task lists, agendas and discussion boards), wikis and personalized work sites for users.

With its tight integration with Microsoft Office and long exposure in the ECM marketplace, SharePoint is widely regarded as the gold standard in ECM systems, but its quality is reflected in its price, which can be considerable.

Alfresco's two interfaces

There are really two main interfaces in Alfresco: Explorer and Share. When I first started Alfresco with the alfresco command in the Alfresco subdirectory, I got the Explorer interface, which was initially the most confusing thing I had seen. Nothing appeared to resemble a content management system. There was no dashboard, no way to add widgets and so forth.

It took me a while to figure out what was going on. Explorer directly reflects the content of the repository and only runs on the machine where the repository resides. In SharePoint terms, it was the equivalent of the Central Administration server. What I really needed was the Share interface, which is much more familiar territory for ECM users in general and SharePoint users specifically.

Document management alternatives

Because document management and collaboration is often regarded as the primary function of SharePoint, several applications -- Box.net, Glasscubes and Google Docs/Sites -- are often cited as SharePoint alternatives.

That's not really the case. None of these applications are full ECM platforms, and they are nowhere near the level of SharePoint or Alfresco. They may share some functions with these two applications, but for the most part they are designed to handle document management and collaboration only.

Google Docs/Sites

Google Docs, indeed, the whole Google Apps product line, has sometimes been touted as a potential ECM player.

For those who don't know, Google Docs is the free Web application that serves up the basic features of a word processor, spreadsheet and slideshow presentation application. Google Apps adds more functionality that can be used in an "a la carte" way to create a series of solutions based on your company's needs. That's the theory, anyway.

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