Alfresco: An open-source ECM alternative for SharePoint

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.

Fortunately, SharePoint isn't the only game in town. In this review, I take a close look at SharePoint's top open-source competitor: Alfresco. The goal is to see if Alfresco can perform at SharePoint's level -- or even exceed it.

I also look at three document management alternatives --, Glasscubes and Google Docs -- which aren't on the same level as SharePoint or Alfresco, but which could provide an easier (and adequate) way for smaller companies to handle one of ECM's primary functions.

Alfresco: An open-source ECM

Alfresco is a full ECM platform that, like SharePoint, is built on an entire Web application stack. In other words, when you get Alfresco, you get everything it needs to operate, including the Apache Web server and the Apache Tomcat application server. Soup to nuts, it's all there.


The Share Web application is a remote interface to the Alfresco repository.

Click to view larger image

Like SharePoint, Alfresco is a stand-alone application, which can be installed on Linux, OS X or Windows. There are two flavors of Alfresco; each offers similar functionality. The free Community Edition provides the basics for developers and technology enthusiasts, while the Enterprise Edition, which charges an annual subscription fee, adds much more extensive support, certification on Alfresco's use for specific platforms, an extended quality-assurance process, stress testing and other features. You can try out the Enterprise version for 30 days free of charge.

I installed Alfresco on Ubuntu 11.04 and OS X Lion, to compare the installation methods between the two platforms. It turns out I needn't have bothered; both installations used BitRock's installer tool, InstallBuilder, and performed the job identically. BitRock has gotten pretty good at building these installation tools, which use a familiar wizard-based dialog box to get everything in place.

The only real quirk about the installation time was the sluggishness of the Alfresco download itself. My network was traffic-free, and the 400MB file seemed to take forever to come down the pipe (it actually took around 25 minutes).

After that, installation was smooth as silk. The process of installing the entire Web application stack took about 20 minutes. I do recommend that you read the Readme file that comes with the package, because it contains a key bit of information that you might need: the user name for the default user. I missed it and had to guess, although it wasn't too difficult -- it's "admin."

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