Rethink Open Source

[originally published on, April 1, 2010]

Large firms may be surprised to find viable options.

Content management encompasses not just storing information and making it available, but managing the workflow process. Proprietary products are common in law firms, but open source content management systems belong on any short list when evaluating a new or replacement content application.

Proprietary vendors such as Open Text or IBM may offer a menu of software for each aspect of content management: records, document, web, etc.

Other products, such as Microsoft’s SharePoint, offer a single “container” that may be customized to support document and web management. Open source content management systems tend to be more focused. Two areas where you will find mature open source applications are web content management and document management.

A commonly heard reason for selecting open source is that the price — free — is right. But don’t expect open source software to be free. You can definitely download open source applications for free, but when you are talking about your business, and a critical application to manage your website or documents, you need the correct support structure around it.

Fortunately, open source content management provides this structure. One common open source business model is for a service or development company to provide the primary support for an open source product. Examples include Ubuntu and CanonicalDrupal and AcquiaEvergreen andEquinox. These for-profit companies are part of the open source community around the product; they provide additional services directly to users and may even provide enhanced versions of the software to their own customers.

This is nothing new for many firms. The 2009 International Legal Technology Association Technology Survey indicated that 20% of responding law firms said they were using Linux and 3% were using Unix. The most common – Red Hat, Ubuntu, and Novell’s SUSE — all follow the model of freely-downloadable software that has a paid support service behind it.

Web content management is one of the most obvious areas to use open source applications. Software such as JoomlaPlone, and Drupal has been developed over more than a decade, and contains the same features you will find in commercial web software. They run on both Windows and Linux servers, offer WYSIWYG editing of content, and can be completely themed or skinned to reflect the firm.

They also provide workflow. Multiple content creators can have their content reviewed (whether for grammar or for legal reasons) before publishing. Version control and the ability to roll content back mean you can meet regulatory requirements for knowing what a site looked like on a given day.

More importantly, they all support free extensions or supporting products. These extensions plug in to the main content management system to provide all of the add-on functionality you need. They are as simple as online polls or surveys or as complicated as search engine optimization or taxonomy tools.

Commercial products tend to have commercial extensions, so you are either paying your original vendor or a third-party for extending and customizing your system. For example, when you are reviewing the features of your commercial web content management software, you may find that the social features you want to add, like wikis, bookmarking and tagging, are all enhancements beyond the core software, if they are available at all.

In fact, you may find that a comparison of open source with so-called “leading” proprietary software shows the latter to be substantially deficient.

I recently participated in a web content management selection and was surprised at how weak some of the commercial offerings were. It is not enough that open source software can sometimes be more agile in creating new features because it is community-driven.

The commercial web content management market is undergoing consolidation and it is clear that some of the products being absorbed are not being developed as aggressively as open source competitors are.

It is worth noting Microsoft SharePoint’s dominance in the legal market. Its ability to integrate with other Microsoft products and external data resources means it can provide a powerful content management tool.

This does not mean that it is ideal for every function, however; and even in a law firm where you have implemented SharePoint for one function, it is worth considering open source options.

Where the learning curve for developing SharePoint to support an internet or intranet site may be high, a web content management system may start closer to your end point with a lower learning curve.

There are fewer options among open source for that kind of integration. It depends on what the community has developed — which features the companies are using — and who is willing to underwrite development. For example, you can use Microsoft Word to publish directly to a Joomla or Drupal site, so your staff can work in an application with which they are already comfortable.

Document management systems should be a significant part of the legal world. The 2009 American Bar Association Legal Technology Survey Report shows that 87% of respondents at firms with more than 100 lawyers had DMS. But only 55% of firms overall are using DMS, and less than 30% of solos. Even among the 2009 ILTA Technology Survey respondents, 6% responded that they did not have document management software.

Open source is an excellent option in any firm, but especially in mid-size and smaller firms where there are fewer options. While World Software’s Worldox is hugely popular among ILTA survey respondents with 49 or fewer lawyers, 6% of all respondents identified their document management software as Other.

Some of those may be like the ABA survey respondents who are using their practice management software to do document management functions.

But document management isn’t just a matter of filing and organizing, or slapping search on top of the content. When you look at applications such as AlfrescoOpenKM, and Nuxeo, you can see the same kind of indexing and integration that you would expect from Open Text or Autonomy’sInterwoven. In particular, Alfresco offers the broad content management options — web, document, etc. — that integrate in a way that is directly comparable to commercial software.

The enterprise or supported versions of these open source applications are even more important with document management than with web content management. For example, workflow is an important part of managing documents, and it is only available in the supported, enterprise version of OpenKM. If you use the free-to-download community version, you will miss this important component.

Unlike commercial software, using open source with a support company still gives you the option to go on your own. Software maintenance fees for proprietary software are due regardless of the value they bring, in order to keep using the software. If your firm can support its own open source implementation, it can go it alone. You can participate in the community supporting the software, rather than being limited to your primary vendor’s ability to staff and support your application. If you want an enhancement, you can create it. Both Alfresco and Nuxeo offer a subscription model, where you pay a fee to participate and then can decide what level of additional service you need.

Add open source content management systems to the mix when you take your next look at web content or document management. The systems are mature, well-supported, and offer different business models that make them excellent alternatives to commercial products. They are not without cost but they can free you from constraints that come with commercial software.

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