atlassian_logo_2010.jpgIf you don't want to go down the SharePoint route, Atlassian (newssite) could be the alternative you're looking for

The Basics

Vendor  Atlassian
Product Name
 Confluence
Product Category
Wikis, intranets and collaboration
Typical Scenario
Rapid creation of office spaces for teams to work and share information for those outside of the all-Microsoft ecosystem.
Bad Fit Scenario
Smaller companies that could do just as well with one of the many niche products.

Company and Product History

The company, Atlassian, started out in Sydney, Australia in 2002 and now has offices around the world including San Francisco. Atlassian offers its products under a "visible license" in that users can modify code  but cannot resell, so it is closer to closed source than open, but still flexible for the user.

Popular products include the JIRA issue tracker and FishEye revision control, all valuable little off-shoots that have seen the company continue to grow organically without external investment.

Confluence means "a coming together" and has been helping workers do just that since 2004. Starting out as an enterprise wiki, it has evolved through the years into an all-round collaboration tool. With constant evolution, including the recent addition of support for OpenSocial, Confluence is available as a SaaS or hosted product, powered by Java. As with all good ecosystems, it is designed to work with other Atlassian products.

Confluence is clearly a rival for SharePoint in the enterprise, but could also be considered as a step up for users of Huddle, Campfire and so on. Atlassian claims some 8,100 customers including the likes of Autodesk, Lockheed Martin and many more.

Market and Pricing

Atlassian firmly aims its products at the enterprise space. Its client list is littered with big names across the technology, banking, high technology and academia verticals. Many of those must have SharePoint too, so it would be interesting to know why the choose this as well. Certainly Confluence has a SharePoint connector, so will play nicely -- we suspect it is just easier to get results with a dedicated product like Confluence.

Confluence has the widest spread application of Atlassian's products, it could be applied in almost any environment. It is free to open source institutions and non-profits. Pricing starts at just a charity donation of US$ 10 for hosted smaller installations for less than 10 users.

Price breaks go neatly up through the ranks until you are only paying US$ 1 per user, if you have 2,000 of them for the Hosted version. The initial outlay for the Server edition is bigger, but will pay for itself over time.

confluence_pricing.jpg

Key Features

Somewhere in the mists of time, the terms intranet, wiki, portal and workspace have become largely synonymous. The last three do suggest more user input, but basically anywhere workers can find and upload information is now fair game as a collaboration tool.

Confluence offers the ability to create one or many sites, for the whole company, different teams, groups or classes of worker. Managing them is done through an elegant set of administration tools and dashboards.

confluence_groups.jpg

Confluence can help create sites and groups rapidly and effectively

Setting permissions, for example, is just a matter of ticking the boxes through the various elements of each site, the work of only a few seconds. Sites can be styled and formatted as needed. If a page is designed where lots of postings are expected, then the comments section can take pride of place at the top of the page. If a community needs to refer to a blog on a regular basis, drag that to one side where it is easily accessible, but not obtrusive.

Communities and People

Communities are built out of people and Confluence does all the usual tricks to get users to express themselves, with deep bios, pictures, home pages and so on. To help people find each other, they just have to hold the cursor over someone's name, not even a click needed, to see a brief bio. Click on that and they visit the main page.

confluence_users.jpg
Users can make themselves heard in many ways

Users can chart work progress or personal anecdotes through blogs, their status updates can be seen by other users in the group and home pages can be jollied up with YouTube videos and Twitter-style updates, so even the most socially-aware users will feel quite at home. Users will also get notifications (or can create an RSS feed) when someone edits an entry or changes a file.

Content and Search

For work content, the main appeal of Confluence is keeping all the documents in one place, accessible to all relevant users and to watch the data grow and mature over the life of a project. When combined with Atlassian's JIRA, users can create step-by-step workflows that will see tasks completed in a by-the-numbers fashion and everyone's contributions and input can be tracked.

With all that data and piles of documents building up, Confluence makes it possible to find anything in the haystack, by making the whole thing searchable. Searches, updates and other entries can also be filtered to limit the hits from popular terms and newcomers can be assisted by features like autocomplete to help get them up to speed.

Productivity For a Wide Range of Users

With all these features, it might sound complicated to create something useful and practical for the wide range of users that make up the typical workforce. However, with styles for the most typical areas such as human resources, design projects and so on, along with templates for common tasks like inductions, meetings, project plans, a good company intranet or team project page can be set up in short order.

In addition the ability to connect to applications like SharePoint and with full Office compatibility and smartphone access, Confluence ticks all the right boxes when it comes to flexibility and accessibility. With more people telecommuting or working on the road, having somewhere to call home is increasingly important and, apart from a fireplace, Confluence will help users provide everything they need to be productive.

Try Out The Sandbox

Easy to build the spaces that your workers need is only half the challenge, the tools need to be easy enough for all levels of user and Confluence has taken the best of the social networking sites and moulded them into a slick system. Whatever your group or remote working needs, Confluence can provide it.

Rather than just take our word for it, you can go play in the Confluence Sandbox to try its features out for yourself.

As a SharePoint Alternative

If you are using SharePoint for document collaboration and social computing/communities, then Confluence is a great alternative. It doesn't offer the full platform capabilities that enable deep integration with business systems like SharePoint does, but it doest provide the ability to create mashups based on OpenSocial Gadgets and offers some of its capabilities via the same. This means that there is some level of business system integration available.

If you are looking to use SharePoint for business intelligence, records management or deeper document management/business process management, then Confluence is probably not the right fit.