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This is typically the time when companies begin to prepare for the coming year. One of the key unknowns is how new approaches, or technologies, will disrupt the status quo. To prepare for the new year, here are some potential disruptors to enterprise content management (ECM) and how you might begin to plan for this disruption.

Technology Disruption: How Does It Happen?

Disruption happens when a technology is displaced by a new approach. The approach can be introduced as a cheaper and/or better alternative. For example, the emergence of fax disrupted the requirement for business documents to be sent by mail. In this case, the fax was definitely faster and possibly cheaper, depending on postage rates and phone charges. Later, fax was disrupted by email, as it was also faster, better, and cheaper.

ECM: Understanding the Stack

Understanding the components of an ECM architecture is key to understanding how those components might be disrupted. For example, one of the key components that has been introduced and disrupted is full-text search. Back in the 90s, most ECM players did not have full-text search and relied solely on a relational database for metadata-only search. As ECM added full-text to the stack, the reliance on the relational database for search was disrupted, and vendors like Verity and FAST began to be part of the ECM stack. Beginning in 2004, we have started to see cheaper open source solutions, based on Lucene, disrupting Verity and FAST.

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

We predict that the biggest disrupter of the ECM stack this year will be IaaS, like Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure. The most costly components of any ECM implementation have traditionally included the firewall, application servers, database servers, load balancers, and storage area network. All of these components can be replaced with a rentable approach from an IaaS provider, with the ability for clients to feel confident that their documents are securely controlled. For the majority of ECM customers, IaaS provides both a cheaper and better approach to internal data centers, giving them the flexibility to quickly add capacity as required on a timely basis.

Browser-Based Viewing and Annotations

Many ECM architectures rely on client-side plugins for viewing and annotation of documents. This could be something as simple as Adobe Acrobat as well as a variety of different ECM add-on solutions. Often, information technology (IT) had to support these add-ons and, with the proliferation of different browser alternatives to Internet Explorer (e.g., Chrome, Safari, Firefox), have struggled to keep these add-ons functioning as updates and patches are pushed out to individual computers. Most of the add-on vendors as well as open source alternatives now support browser-based solutions that require no IT support.

Software as a Service (SaaS)

Software as a service is something that often comes up as an alternative to an ECM infrastructure. For this approach, a vendor would provide a complete infrastructure along with the software and entire ECM stack. The most relevant example is how Salesforce has been able to successfully disrupt customer relationship management (CRM) infrastructures and CRM software vendors by providing this solution in the cloud, with no infrastructure required. In discussions with clients, we have seen SaaS solutions struggle to replace ECM infrastructures for a variety of reasons, including cost, security, integration, functionality, as well as content ownership issues. While we recommend ECM customers consider SaaS in 2017, most have been focused on IaaS for cloud capabilities.

Open Source

In addition to Lucene (and now Solr/ElasticSearch) disrupting the full-text component of ECM, we are seeing open source disrupt all of the major components of the ECM stack. This includes vendor solutions like Alfresco and Nuxeo disrupting the legacy ECM vendors as well as database alternatives like MySQL and PostgreSQL disrupting the relational database component of the stack. In most cases, the open source solutions are newer and have better support than legacy ECM solutions developed in the 1990s. We highly recommend ECM customers to continue to consider open source for ECM in 2017.

Future ECM Disruptors: Big Data and Analytics

We predict that two big disruptors on the ECM horizon will come from the "Big Data" movement as well as analytics. In working with most clients on their ECM architectures, one of the biggest issues has always been setting up (and paying for) the underlying relational database for their ECM platform in a fully clustered, fault-tolerant solution. We have been doing some interesting work for clients leveraging open source Hadoop and HBase as an alternative for a clustered transactional relational database. Hadoop provides massive scale, NoSQL approach for metadata, and fault tolerance out of the box. Combined with Solr, our clients have not noticed a difference between Hadoop infrastructures and legacy ECM alternatives, without the legacy ECM cost. You can see our thoughts on Hadoop as an ECM disruptor here.

Analytics are another potential disruptor. IBM Watson is the obvious example of more document analytics, but we have seen success in other areas, including contract analysis. Analytics seem to be more hype than reality, but it is an area that we recommend companies to consider in 2017.

For more information on innovative ECM approaches, don't miss our special session, "Beyond the Big Three: Alternative ECM Technologies," at DSF ’17, May 1-3, 2017 in Downtown Chicago.

Dave Giordano is the Founder and President of Technology Services Group (TSG), a Chicago technology consulting firm with 40+ enterprise content management (ECM) consultants. Previous to founding TSG in 1996, Dave worked for nine years for Accenture (Andersen Consulting). Follow the TSG Blog or follow them on Twitter @tsgrp.