The New ECM Crowd: Little Guys with Big Ideas

Is enterprise content management the right tool for data management?

The Storage Networking Industry Association’s (SNIA) Information Lifecycle Management (ILM) roadmap notwithstanding, data management—or rather storage capacity management—has become a key component in strategic thinking about solutions to the intractable problems of data growth. While most of the industry clearly wants us to throw more “cheap” capacity at our data explosion, both IT and business managers appear to be waking up to the need to manage data itself more effectively. Only in this way can companies hope to slow the rate of capacity expansion and hardware expenditures, and to improve the efficient use of what storage assets they already own.

Not surprisingly, vendors of document management software systems, who are busily recasting themselves as enterprise content management (ECM) purveyors, are seeing enormous potential opportunity. Most of the 20 or so players in the market today have grown out of the same space: document image management.

“Document management” itself once referred to a now-mostly-arcane process for scanning paper documents into an electronic database, mainly for ease of storage and expedited access. From these humble beginnings, many ECM vendors are now seeking to ply their organizational abilities to managing electronic data itself—not only reports and other output from medical imaging systems, or credit card databases, or applications with predefined workflow data entry screens—but all data, including e-mail, groupware, and the most hard-to-manage data type of all: files from end-user productivity applications.

Arguably, it was EMC that paved the way for this thinking, with its acquisition of Documentum in 2003 for $1.7 billion in stock and cash. Part of Hopkinton’s one-stop-shop “information lifecycle management” play, the company saw the software as part of a tool set designed as "cradle to grave" support for data from the time it was created until it was, if ever, deleted. It made for a powerful story.

It has also touched off often acrimonious competition between players in this space that too often overwhelms a central issue: whether ECM is really the right tool for the job. Costa Mesa, CA-based FileNet may be correct in asserting that its platform-agnostic approach yields greater overall advantage than a hardware-plus-software solution from EMC, but the real question that should be asked hasn’t gotten much play: whether ECM can offer a truly granular solution to the problems of “unstructured” (file-based) data management.

To companies such as Systemware in Addison, TX, and Xenysys in Auburn Hills, MI, smaller players that have served specific business niches for decades, the answer is a qualified "maybe." One cannot help but admire their honesty about both their products' capabilities and limits.

Frankie Basso, vice president of marketing at Systemware, says his is not a utilitarian content repository. It is very scalable, supporting the high volumes of data generated by Systemware’s customers (which number over 300 and include some brand names from the Global 2000). Basso says the company caters to unique customer needs and custom builds application interfaces to fit whatever the customer is using to generate its data.

Basso carries his firm’s privately held status like a shield, “We are nimble. We don’t need to report to Wall Street, so we can jump through hoops to respond to customer needs.” He says his blue-chip client base and consistent growth since 1981 are testimony to his company's doing many things right.

Systemware leverages some technology from third parties, such as Fuego, which provides a workflow engine “for process- or context-based management.” However, according to Basso, the core value of the product from a data management standpoint is its ability to index application output based on key metadata and business rules.

He says managing user files with a fine degree of classification is possible with his product today. Systemware’s secret sauce includes text-search capabilities that can read end-user memos and other work files, and segregate those that contain certain content that must be handled differently for regulatory compliance. It isn’t foolproof, he admits, and offers little support for rich media such as graphics or multimedia files, but it is an improvement in the way that many companies sort their files today and is getting better as the underlying technology improves.

Equally honest about his product is Steven Leichtman, CEO of Xenesys. His product, Xenware, is targeted at specific market niches, such as small and medium financial institutions, including savings and loans, where the company has established a solid footing and reputation.

Targeting these enterprises specifically, Xenesys has elected to integrate itself with the dominant OS vendor in the segment, Microsoft. Says Leichtman, the Microsoft connection has been a valuable one. “We are totally .NET compliant and Microsoft funded some of our testing with VeriTest so we could obtain our SQL certification and become a Gold Partner.”

Leichtman says Xenesys is aligned with Microsoft and “riding the wave” as Redmond releases new products such as its beta database replacement for the file system, WinFS, with which output from Xenesys will automatically integrate. Other ECM vendors are worried about changes like WinFS and what it will take for their products to be made compatible with them.

The Microsoft connection also helps drive down the cost of the overall solution, Leichtman says. His company recently found itself competing for the first time with EMC and Documentum, he reports, and early indications are that Documentum’s heavy cost has resulted in another win for his product. “Documentum starts out at $200,000 and goes up from there. Our solution for a middle-tier company, which includes Dell server hardware and some RAID 5 storage, totals about $75,000 to $80,000. We deliver reporting and flexible database searching, just like they do. They claim to have some [more granular capabilities for unstructured data management], but there is a price to pay for these things, to the extent that they exist, that a lot of mid-tier companies can’t afford.”

Like Systemware, Xenesys steers clear of hype about its product capabilities. Leichtman notes that it pays to be honest in a small market. “Some large vendors may have a lot of money to spend on spinning the value of their product—they have to, in fact, to get some return on all the money they spent to buy a company like Documentum to begin with. But this is a small market and the word gets out pretty quickly when someone is misrepresenting what his product can or can’t do.”

The positives of implementing an ECM approach to data management come down to its potential to automate the sorting and arranging of data into a more refined and easier-to-manage set of data classes. This strategy works well with workflow data already. With respect to end-user files, developing capabilities such as text searching algorithms that can figure out the class or category into which a particular file should be placed is a potential boon. Such functionality would help to remove end-user cooperation with a data-naming scheme from the equation, long an impediment to data management.

Issues Remain

Even if some “deep blue Googling” capability is developed, the ECM data management story is not complete. One issue that remains to be addressed is whether the introduction of ECM requires the formation of a cadre of content management system managers who must review the automated selection and segregation process and approve the “classification decisions” that were made by the ECM system. The personnel costs associated with manual review and approval might be daunting.

Another issue is transparency. Capturing end-user files without disrupting their work processes requires a high degree of integration between the ECM system as well as the end user’s applications and the working methods of the users themselves. It might sound good on paper to propose the replacement of Microsoft Word on all laptops with a browser-based client that connects the user to an interface screen of an ECM system at the home office, but as anyone who has used a virtual private network can tell you, just try accessing a centralized application from your laptop when you are working from a hotel room in Kalamazoo or Kuala Lumpur that offers only Internet dial-up access. You can almost smell the smoke pouring out of the road warrior's ears.

In the final analysis, it still remains to be seen whether any ECM product can make a serious difference in the economics of storage. A lot of money is being poured into refining the capabilities of traditional scan-and-store document imaging and management systems to broaden their reach into different types of data, but it is by no means certain that mapping all of your files to an external index—that itself must be monitored and managed—is significantly better than what we have today.

Your opinion is welcome, especially if you have first-hand experience with any of the products discussed in today’s column. Please e-mail me at