Inside the mind of a solution – Selecting a general purpose document management system

“I started to write this a while ago… but never got round to publishing….” – Dan

A shared folder will do surely?

Back when I started in IT a network share was KING of the hill when it came to sharing documents and spreadsheets. Moving onwards from FAT based systems we could start giving access to groups (hopefully the correct type for those who have shared the pain when people haven’t used local groups) and having granular permissions both at the share and file system level.

Alas this shared pool of file storage still had many limitations, some can be augmented with search and shadow copy but mainly it’s a large pool, generally only separated by two dimensional folder structures (I’m ignoring access based control and metadata search but again this is an augmentation)

Document Management Systems

According to Wikipedia here is the definition of a DMS:

“A document management system (DMS) is a computer system (or set of computer programs) used to track and store electronic documents. It is usually also capable of keeping track of the different versions modified by different users (history tracking). The term has some overlap with the concepts of content management systems. It is often viewed as a component of enterprise content management (ECM) systems and related to digital asset management, document imaging, workflow systems and records management systems.”

So here we have some feature sets coming out such as version control, history, workflow and some form of audit.

Now all of this comes from a requirement. For each organisation the requirements may vary. I’ve left the purpose of this article to discuss a general purpose DMS as some features (such as storing multiple documents within a document) are not always needed.

Requirements

So prior to running out and grabbing any DMS we should look at the requirements that generally drive the need for a DMS:

  • Access Control
    • Must be able to restrict access to a group of user
    • Must be able to be audited if required
  • Security
    • The documents and the management system should be able to be secured to a reasonable standard
    • Encryption Methods should be supported
  • Version Control
    • Version control schemes should be able to be enforced to a customisable standard
  • Document History
    • Document versions must be able to be retained if required
    • A retention period should be able to configured on a duration basis i.e. retain the document for x versions or x days.
  • Document Location
    • Document location flow should be able to be managed centrally
  • Document Lifecycle Management
    • The system must support the use of workflows to control document flow
  • Accessibility (Connectivity)
    • Unlike file shares it would be advisable to have a web accessible platform (HTTP/S)
  • Customisable Views
    • Three Dimensional views should be able to be created so that data can be filtered and reported on based on multiple criteria
  • Data Loss Prevention
    • If possible the system should be able to cater for a level of Data Loss Prevention
  • Search
    • A central and localised search capability should be present. This should be able to align with the Access Control system if required.
  • Metadata capabilities (data to describe data)
    • The system should be able to store metadata, this metadata schema should be able to be customised.
  • Interoperability
    • Where possible it is advisable for this system to interoperate with other platforms for activities such as authentication and data transfer (email)
    • Application Programming Interfaces (API’s) should be accessible
  • Offline Caching
    • If possible a level of offline viewing/editing of data should be possible. A sufficient conflict detection process should be supported so accommodate multiple edits.

Further Considerations

  • Training
    • What training is required to get people up to speed
    • What cultural impact will this change have to people’s everyday lives? Howe will we ensure people are using the DMS?
    • Do we have in house skills to support the platform?
  • Cost
    • Finally the cost of purchasing, implementing, maintaining and transitioning should be considered.

 

Don’t run before you can walk

After reviewing the requirements it is fairly obvious that the difference between a file share and DMS are rather wide. The advantages of having a DMS are far longer list than a bucket of SMB storage, however with advancement also comes complexity.

A well thought out plan and design of a DMS system is required. Ideally I would recommend not biting off more than you can chew if this is your first DMS implementation.

Scenario – Infinity Storage Solutions

Ok so we are going to take a fictitious company of 50 users for this example “Infinity Storage Solutions” (IFS).

  • IFS have a central office with an active directory service.
  • The central office hosts 10-15 users in a standard working day (9-5)
  • The office has a 100Mib Internet Connection secured by a SOHO firewall device
  • NAT-P forwarding is available with a dedicated public IP address
  • The remaining users require access to the DMS over the internet (the solution cannot rely on a VPN Service)
  • Currently all file data is hosted on a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device which has SMB connectivity to the LAN.
  • The solution should be compatible with Microsoft Office 2007 and support integration features
  • The solution should support multiple web browsers (internet explorer, Firefox, chrome, safari)
  • Most of the systems in use by IFS are cloud based systems
  • The solution can be on premise, hosted or cloud based
  • IFS have an excellent level of experience and understanding of Microsoft Systems
  • IFS have skilled resource in open source platforms however there function is not to support internal systems
  • The level of effort required to support this solution must be low
  • The system should have a high level of availability

Solution Options

After reviewing the requirements and the scenario we can start to look at the potential candidates for the solution. I’m going to assume here that a general level of product knowledge is possessed.

  • Microsoft SharePoint 2013 Foundation
  • Microsoft SharePoint 2013
  • Microsoft Office 365
  • Google Docs
  • LetoDMS
  • Other DMS systems not specified (Exceed, IBM Document Manager Etc.)

Options that are not applicable

The following options have been ruled out:

  • SkyDrive
  • Box
  • Drop Box
  • Any other P2V based file sharing solution

Without going into every nook and cranny as to why these are not suitable I will provide an overarching statement:

These systems do not meet the requirements as described. Yes they allow files to be shared and some do have slightly better functionality than a file share. They do not fall into the category of a DMS due to the lack of features.

Making the short list

Ok so we have a list of possible solutions, I’m not going to go into a hugely detailed feature comparison but I will explain the major reasons when I remove an option. The following options have been dropped:

  • Other DMS systems not specified (Exceed, IBM Document Manager Etc.)
    • The main factors for me dropping systems listed here are cost and complexity.
  • LetoDMS
    • Seeing as LetoDMS is open source I have decided to remove this from the list as there is the issue of supportability and previous exposure to this product within the company has led me to take this option off.

The short list

Before I list out the options I must call out the hosted vs. on premise SharePoint assumptions. For the purpose of this exercise I am using the assumption that the service would be provided feature complete in a hosted environment.

  • Microsoft SharePoint 2013 Foundation
  • Microsoft SharePoint 2013
  • Microsoft Office 365
  • Google Docs

 

Requirement to feature Mapping

The following table provides a matrix outlining the requirement to feature mapping of each product:

Requirement SharePoint 2013 Foundation SharePoint 2013 Microsoft Office 365 Google Docs
Access Control        
Must be able to restrict access to a group or user x x x x
Must be able to be audited if required x x x x
Security        
The documents and the management system should be able to be secured to a reasonable standard x x x x
Encryption Methods should be supported x x x x
Version Control        
Version control schemes should be able to be enforced to a customisable standard x x x x
Document History x x x x
Document versions must be able to be retained if required x x x  
A retention period should be able to configured on a duration basis i.e. retain the document for x versions or x days. x x x  
Document Location        
Document location flow should be able to be managed centrally x x x x
Document Lifecycle Management        
The system must support the use of workflows to control document flow x x x  
Accessibility (Connectivity)        
Unlike file shares it would be advisable to have a web accessible platform (HTTP/S) x x x x
Customisable Views        
Three Dimensional views should be able to be created so that data can be filtered and reported on based on multiple criteria x x x x
Data Loss Prevention        
If possible the system should be able to cater for a level of Data Loss Prevention x x x  
Search        
A central and localised search capability should be present. This should be able to align with the Access Control system if required. x x x  
Metadata capabilities (data to describe data)        
The system should be able to store metadata, this metadata schema should be able to be customised. x x x x
Interoperability        
Where possible it is advisable for this system to interoperate with other platforms for activities such as authentication and data transfer (email) x x x  
Application Programming Interfaces (API’s) should be accessible x x x  
Offline Caching        
If possible a level of offline viewing/editing of data should be possible. A sufficient conflict detection process should be supported so accommodate multiple edits. x x x x
Scenario Requirements SharePoint 2013 Foundation SharePoint 2013 Microsoft Office 365 Google Docs
The solution should be compatible with Microsoft Office 2007 and support integration features x x x  
The solution should support multiple web browsers (internet explorer, Firefox, chrome, safari) x x x x
The solution can be on premise, hosted or cloud based x x x x

The Result

As we can see Microsoft offering supports all of the requirements whereas there are a few gaps with the Google Docs solution. For smaller collaborative ad-hoc scenarios Google docs would be a very viable option however for this scenario I have elected to utilise SharePoint technologies.

Different Versions

The following spreadsheet details a feature comparison for SharePoint Technologies. If we were looking at an on premise deployment I would recommend a single SharePoint 2013 Standard Server Solution. (SharePoint 2013 Feature Matrix)

For Office 365 I would recommend either an Office 365 Midsize Business Plan or the E4 Plan subject to a more detailed requirement/feature analysis. The key point to note is that Office 365 plan bands can’t migrate, if you don’t have an E plan today, you will need to do a complete migration to transition to one in the future.

On Premise, Hosted or Cloud?

As with many things there is no right or wrong answer. For this scenario based on the information above I would most likely recommend a cloud solution, specifically a solution utilising Office 365.

I will demonstrate my selection based on the key points for my decision rather than outlining every detail:

  • The level of effort required to support this solution must be low
    • A cloud solution provider will provide interfaces to administer and use the system. The support to the underlying mechanisms will be managed by the service provider.
  • The system should have a high level of availability
    • For this reason I would recommend a cloud platform over hosted as this should provide a higher level of availability with regard to maintenance windows. It should be noted though that there is never a true guarantee of availability.
  • Most of the systems in use by IFS are cloud based systems
    • This fits in with the existing service strategy
  • The solution can be on premise, hosted or cloud based
    • The customer is open to all options
  • IFS have an excellent level of experience and understanding of Microsoft Systems
    • Utilising a Microsoft Solution fits in with the current knowledge within the company
    • Vendor and 3rd Party support will be easy to come by

Overall I have tried to demonstrate the thought process that has led me to the conclusion to recommend Office 365 in the scenario above. The decision between on-premises, hosted and cloud SharePoint deployments can have even more elements that I have covered here. Each scenario may have particular requirements that will change the end solution. Some will even push SharePoint out of the picture. The main aim is to ensure the requirements are understood and that a suitable system is implemented that provides business value. Not a two minute job, regardless of the size and complexity of your business.