Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why use open-source code in document management?

The first answer to be given to this question is because it makes things easier. In its current state, the document management sector, which is still counting on private solutions such as SharePoint or Documentum, is becoming more and more integrated by open-source solutions, which, by using an interoperability component, manages to share resources with other existing applications (free or proprietary), making it easier to carry out transactions in collaboration with business and business can save money with lower development and programming costs.

Some defenders of proprietary software place value on the safety and stability you get from always having a company who can answer questions about the software. This couldn’t be further from the truth, because in the world of document management there’s more value in having scalable solutions that can be personalized, according to the needs of each business. What’s more, proprietary programs very rarely include service agreements (and then they do, they are, in most cases, just to provide client testimonials). The business model behind proprietary software is based on the assumption that a large number of users will have identical needs, though this isn’t the case with businesses that implement document management solutions (each of which would have its own problems and interests). What would be both useful and practical would be the creation of document management solutions for specific sectors. Nonetheless, this practice, from an open- source code point of view, would be far from a generalist sense of a production model, whose main source of profitability consists of the sale of user licenses (which favors the producer, and doesn’t think of the satisfaction of each client.) Consumers of proprietary software don’t usually need specific adaptations to the program, something which would happen to businesses who are interested in using document management. 

To satisfy the needs of each business, the best thing to do would be to bet on open-source code software, which offers significant advantages. According to some open-source code evangelists, business opt for open-source software because having free access to source code lets them scale their applications themselves and, in that way, keep control over growth, without having to depend exclusively on the business that originally created the program. What’s more, the possibility of incorporating open-source tools in the program guarantees that it will always be up-to-date, in terms of functionality. Done another way, it would be a lot more difficult because it would mean having to develop each one of the product components from nothing.
The use of open-source code adds a component of innovation (thanks to contributions from the community) in the area of business information management, as well as better flexibility (since it counts on the possibility of using functionalities from other applications) and considerable support savings that come from reduced costs of previous production.

Counter to what some skeptics might think, to be more affordable doesn't mean lack of quality. This type of software is being used in the banking sector, in aerospace projects and in big businesses for management processes that require high performance.

From a technical point of view, the adaptation which the vast majority of solutions have carried out by offering supported use in the cloud makes the use of open technology the most interesting use, especially with questions of technological compatibility. Apart from a large number of servers around the world that are administered with version of Linux and that many web technologies (such as PHP or CSS) are free, there should be some atmosphere of freedom which favors the creation of solutions that can be adapted to each specific case, with the possibility of sharing functionalities via interoperability (thanks to the CMIS standard) and with an accessible API that permits new integrations and future development

I’d like to finish with something that seems important to me. The context of the information society with the cloud and cloud computing projects as protagonists is an atmosphere of cooperation and shared knowledge in which the collaboration among professionals and among machines, applications and digital objects is vital to guarantee the survival of business. In my opinion, proprietary software, with its restrictive model of production and gains, is left out of this atmosphere in which scalable applications, the sale of software as a service, community contributions (thanks to APIs) and the most comprehensive models with the possibilities of investment for business (such as pay-to-use) form a part.

The key lies in regulatory norms, which are responsible for the opening or impasse of one or more models. If we choose open-source code software we will find, among its licenses, one that will allow us to integrate the solution with other applications. Though some of those solutions might be proprietary (such as using Microsoft Office for documents or being able to communicate with SharePoint), it’s not about using an austere legal instrument that is destined to watch over exclusivity. Quite the opposite: in the case of proprietary software, which is normally protected by intellectual property legislation, opening is neither possible nor considered legal, and anything provided from the community doesn’t exist, which means that the innovation component is reduced to whatever the business that produces it can bring to it, themselves. 

This way of thinking goes against the free and open spirit of the web and doesn’t permit users to take effective advantage of existing technologies, nor of the creative potential of other people. Document management unfolds in businesses as a complex system of information which includes various interconnecting processes such as document capture, information recovery and the use of functionalities of produced applications by third parties, as well as software installed in the cloud which is advantageous for businesses who don’t have much technological infrastructure. The way in which all of these components work together in one system depends on many parties (the scanner manufacturer, the programmer of the main repository, the creator of the invoice management application, etc.) Within the CMIS interoperability standard, it’s possible to get the system to integrate everything and the use of open-source code licenses lets us have the necessary attitude to allow the integration of current technologies and those that might come in the future. That would not be allowed (and not even legally possible) if we produced propietary document management software – not forgetting the question of the huge investment in infrastructure and the hours of programming involved, which wouldn’t be guaranteed, in favor of earning higher profits.

About the Author:  This article was written by Adrían Macias, Managing Director of, which provides resources to Spanish and Latin American professionals working with information and documentation.
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