Wednesday, October 11th, 2006

Epiware – Ajax Enabled Document Management

Category: Showcase

Document Management — or, if you’re charging $400 an hour, Knowledge Management — is the domain of some very expensive software packages, such as OpenText Livelink, Documentum and FileNet. These vendors pack so much meta information into their systems — permissions, audit information, tags, creator, owner, modifier, etc., etc. — that manipulating it all is a usability nightmare. Managing files or groups of files using a series of forms, frames and popups results in a veritable festival of clicking. I know of one instance where a company delegated the reorganization of a tree of resources in Livelink 9.5 to a small army of offshore folks.

It would seem that Ajax is a natural fit for simplifying these interfaces and reducing the number of postbacks and clicks to a manageable few. Unfortunately, the big vendors carry lots of technological baggage and don’t move quickly to embrace new technologies. Ajax for these behemoths is very much a do-it-yourself sort of development endeavor. Fortunately, a small Pennsylvania company called Epiware has developed a Document Management system of the same name that makes heavy use of Ajax. They have just released this formerly commercial system as Open Source.

Under the covers, Epiware is implemented on top of a LAMP stack (i.e. most of it is written in PHP and MySQL) and on the client makes use of Scriptaculous (drag-n-drop, effects), Xinha (HTML text editor), mygosuMenu (DHTML menus) and X (cross browser Javascript library).

epiware.jpg

There are definitely some things to like about Epiware. On the plus side.

  • Drag and drop within an explorer-like direct manipulation interface to manage documents.
  • Audit trail and document versioning.
  • Context sensitive right-click menus.
  • Project widgets like calendars, surveys and forums.
  • Some workflow around document publishing.
  • Has support for multiple languages.
  • User and group permissions for various system actions.

On the minus size:

  • The user interface isn’t exactly attractive; use of a widget library like Dojo or Rico would have helped here.
  • Some of the Ajax features, particularly in the Library view — having to select a file before it can be dragged, the display of a shadow box rather than the file being dragged — are counterintuitive to users of a Windows or Mac desktop.
  • Limited support of document types. This is where the big boys make their money. Unless you can view and search 1000+ different file types, you can’t be taken seriously. Only handles the content of Word and PDF files. If you want to search or view other file types without having the application on hand, you’re out of luck.
  • Uses Glimpse for indexing documents. Glimpse is supported by a small company in Arizona and is not open source. If you want to use it for anything serious, you’ll likely have to buy a license. Also, Glimpse is not exactly cutting edge anymore as far as fulltext search engines go.
  • Scaling and fault tolerance through clustering seems problematic.
  • No documentation or help files distributed with the Open Source release. In particular, customizing the system — as invariably happens — to a company’s specific needs isn’t documented or supported.
  • Epiware seems to be a small company. Who will support the system going forward? Will a developer community grow up around the system?

While the Ajax interface is leagues better than the competition, the lack of documentation and the limited file type support are enough for me to not consider using Epiware. Ultimately it’s not enough simply to provide a more usable interface by means of Ajax; you have to hit the other letters of the FURPS (Functionality, Usability, Reliability, Performance, Supportability) acronym as well.

Postscript: before anyone points out that Microsoft Sharepoint is less expensive than the big boys and can fit the bill (where’s the Ajax?), I challenge them to actually use Sharepoint for a real life project.

Posted by Dietrich Kappe at 7:00 am
7 Comments

++++-
4.2 rating from 31 votes

7 Comments »

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Very interesting actually. Their UI isn’t that great, but the app certinaly has potential. LGPL license too from the looks of it.

Comment by Mark Haliday — October 11, 2006

Nice review. Can you expand more on what you mean by “Scaling and fault tolerance with clustering is problemetic” ? I thought that clustering and redundant database servers are quite the way to go for addressing scalability issues.

Comment by Xfinity — October 11, 2006

Yes it was a good and fair review, just wanted to clear up a few things.
We are currently working on the manual, and will have it online this week.

We also support muliple file formats, Right now we extract and index the text for .PDF files and .DOC files. So we can only search the actual content of those types of documents, but you can upload any type of ducument, we just can’t index and search the content of other file types. (example, excel) you can still search on the meta data.

The code is released as GPL.

We have not placed out code on a cluster yet, but would love to help anyone that wants to try!

Comment by Jim Kern — October 11, 2006

Scaling and fault tolerance:

if you take the approach of deploying the DM app across multiple servers and used something like a load balancer across them, then:

1. Where is the object actually uploaded? Will you need NFS for a shared document store, or are you storing the docs in the database (ugh, in mysql)?
2. Will all of the index builders pick up the new document or will you have only one index service across multiple servers?

That’s the tip of the iceberg. I wasn’t able to dig into Epiware to the extent that I wanted to, so that’s why I qualified my statement with “seems problematic.”

Comment by Dietrich Kappe — October 11, 2006

I totally agree that there a real vacuum in the market for a lightweight, easy to use document management system (and yes, I have tried to use Sharepoint. Even installing it was a mission!) Good idea to make offering this open-source.

Please check out newly-launched hosted offering in this space, Koral (www.koral.com). Basic accounts are free.

It makes extensive use of AJAX to provide business users with an experience you’d expect from a consumer app, making it much easier to use.

We launched at the DEMO conference last month (http://www.demo.com/demonstrators/demo2006fall/79890.php)

Comment by Tim Barker — October 12, 2006

Yep, I totally agree about NOT storing documents in MYSQL. All of the uploaded documents are stored on disk. This location can be specified, and is recorded in the DB. What you can do, is just start with a standard linux server, If you outgrow your storage needs, you can always attach an NFS storage system or whatever your company uses to support your requirements. So the EPiware application would stay on the linux server and storage would pushed off to the attached storage.

We do not address services accross multiple servers, but would certainly consider adding this feature, if it was “highly” requested feature. I do agree that it is huge undertaking, and not sure if we are going to choose that path. We just need to listen to feedback now, and take the best approach to making a useful application. If fact, your comments and suggestions have already got us making changes and upgrades!

Comment by Jim Kern — October 12, 2006

I have to agree their document management web interface is really one of the better ones that I have seen.

Comment by Bob Vornat — October 21, 2006

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