Clearview and Microsoft: An ECM Bright Spot

Clearview may the best value-add to work with MS SharePoint Server

Regardless of whether you view Microsoft as a component of enterprise infrastructure (given that roughly 80 percent of servers and most desktops and laptops are running a Microsoft operating system and productivity applications), Redmond remains a force to be reckoned with in most businesses. Some IT professionals view Microsoft apps as the bane of their existence: Outlook and Exchange have their quirks, but Office productivity apps are blamed for the proliferation of "unstructured" data (e.g., user files) that has become a thorn in the side of any data management strategy.

In its defense, Microsoft has long provided the means within its Office suite applications to add keywords and other metadata markers that could facilitate an intelligent classification management scheme for all those Word, Excel, Visio, PowerPoint, and other output files.

Unfortunately, in the Microsoft world, users rule. When classification and management screens are turned on in the applications on end-user computing systems, they are often the first thing the user turns off. Users find the screens annoying: after working on a document for several hours, nobody wants to be bothered by an additional task -- filling out a form to add a more granular description to a file -- before saving and closing the file.

We won't debate the plusses or minuses of Microsoft products here. Instead, we dedicate this week's column to a discussion of an interesting development in the area of data management that involves Redmond and a small company you might not know about: Clearview Software.

Under the capable leadership of CEO Phil Pascarelli, Clearview (formerly Xenysys) has been building out an enterprise content management (ECM) technology since 2004. Beginning in 2005, Pascarelli's corporate strategy was re-focused on Microsoft's SharePoint Server (soon to be released as a "free" service component of Microsoft Server 2007).

To hear Pascarelli tell it, SharePoint was strategic because it went to the heart of the biggest data management challenge confronting businesses today: user-file sprawl. Databases can be archives using internal routines or external tools that extract older data into warehouses that can in turn be archived. E-mail archiving tools have proliferated quickly and many options were available to businesses seeking to rationalize their e-mail archiving processes. The only solution to user-file proliferation, however, seemed to require the replacement of productivity apps by workflow applications such as EMC Documentum (among others).

Says Pascarelli, "Despite the marketing blitz from the vendors of workflow systems, I doubted that business users would be quick to replace their Microsoft applications with prefabricated fill-in-the-blank screens. SharePoint was Microsoft's strategy for adding control, manageability and retrievability to user files without requiring the rip and replacement of the productivity apps themselves. "

Clearview developers saw the value proposition that Redmond was building early on, and have become overnight leaders in the SharePoint-centric ECM marketplace. Microsoft is returning the compliment with supportive quotes about the Clearview ECM suite.

James Lakes, a solutions strategist for business productivity in Redmond, credits Clearview's solution for surmounting "several key challenges that hindered enterprise-wide ECM implementations and adoption for many years." He says the product delivers user friendliness and seamless integration with common Microsoft desktop applications and server-based repositories that are two gating factors determining successful user participation in enterprise content management schemes. He further credits Clearview with adding value in the form of customer education and service and support that complements the evangelism of Redmond field teams around SharePoint. This view is echoed by Gabor Fari, a Microsoft solutions specialist for the life sciences industry, which is a strong vertical market for ECM wares.

Dave Healey, a senior product manager for SharePoint Systems Integrators, adds that Clearview's suite "extends SharePoint's core content services with high-value, ECM features that are elegantly integrated with the Microsoft technology platform. This next-generation ECM solution provides system integrators, ECM resellers, and Microsoft partners with new services opportunities and consulting engagements in the ever-growing enterprise content management market while solving operational, compliance, and governance issues for their customers."

Beyond the endorsements, there are significant differences between Clearview and its competitors in enterprise content management. According to Mike Ball, senior vice president of marketing and product strategy at Clearview, the incumbents in the ECM market have taken an "co-existence" approach to integrating Microsoft's SharePoint services into their wares. Since they have already developed "organic capabilities" in the areas of document management, forms management, e-mail, and web content, SharePoint's services in these same functional areas are being either ignored altogether or "bridged" into the third-party software's native approach in any of a number of klugey approaches. In some cases, purported SharePoint integration in what Ball calls "legacy ECM products" is meaningless hype -- more brochure level than code level.

Ball probably knows what he is talking about, having been recruited by Pascarelli to Clearview from his previous gig as general manager of EMC Documentum's imaging and document management products. (Ball also serves on the executive committee of Michigan's chapter of AIIM.) He notes that Clearview's ECM suite has been built atop Microsoft SQL Server and "natively leverages Microsoft SharePoint core services."

This statement is echoed by Ron Sielinski, senior product manager for Microsoft's Office Suite/ISV Partners unit, who notes, "One of the most interesting things about the Clearview solution is the extent to which Clearview leverages [SharePoint] and the 2007 Office system -- not just as a platform for delivering core ECM functionality, but also as part of the core user experience. The integration is seamless and delivers the power of both SharePoint and Office system document management features in a very comprehensive Microsoft-oriented user experience."

Ball says that the decision to integrate with Redmond so tightly is driven by the reality of enterprise content management itself. "What the Documentums, the FileNets, and others don't get is that most of the business world isn't ready for a single centralized repository, which is how they are built. The adoption of ECM is different. It is departmental."

Ball says that the SharePoint approach is built on such a model, providing the means to create virtual ECM domains, and adding mechanisms for federated search and access, intelligent folders, and the means to organize content via metatags for enhanced organization, auditability, security, access control, etc. It fits that many companies are following the departmental ECM approach. Clearview integrates Redmond technology, then expands on it "in the form of core ECM transactional content functionality such as document scanning and imaging, report management, and enterprise-class business process management (BPM) are not provided natively within SharePoint today.

"The bottom line is that you don't need to worry about creating a huge centralized database that grows exponentially. We map to a common set of indexes that are created by SharePoint so you don't need to replicate all of your data or confront big scaling issues," Ball says.

Ball says that enormous effort has been made to put a user-friendly wrapper around ECM, something needed for a long time. Microsoft's and Clearview's approach is easy to understand, integrates with what users already know, and fits the way that they want to manage their content. Their work is being validated by a growing number of partners signing up to resell the "next generation ECM suite" to those who want to enhance their control of all types of business information. Ball says he is well ahead of Clearview's business plan for partner recruitment.

As 2008 gets underway, there seem to be some bright spots in data management. Data management solutions, such as Clearview ECM, are beginning to appear, and both vendors and consumers are beginning to smile for a change. We think Clearview ECM is worth a look. If you are currently a user, are considering an ECM strategy for your firm, or wish to comment on this column, contact me at jtoigo@toigopartners.com.