Alfresco Share SharePoint (WSS) Killer?
SharePoint, dear SharePoint. We talk about this business collaboration tool -- sometimes called an enterprise content management system -- on almost a daily basis. You either love it, hate it, integrate with it or try to replace it.

Alfresco has chosen the last option.

The Alfresco Share solution can integrate with SharePoint, but more importantly, it can replace it. The software from Alfresco can provide organizations with an open source SharePoint alternative that does all the things Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) does, and a little more. What is under the covers of Alfresco Share? Come, let's have a look.

Many analyst have said that SharePoint can be a beast to implement and maintain. The hidden costs associated with the platform also tend to catch many by surprise. Yet it is still one of the most implemented content management and collaborations solutions today.

So while most have elected to figure out how to integrate with SharePoint and grab a piece of that enterprise pie, Alfresco believes they have built an alternative that will do the following:

  1. Escape the lock-in to a complete Microsoft stack
  2. Escape the burden of Microsoft Client Access Licenses (CALs)
  3. Lower total cost-of-ownership
  4. Re-use existing skills
  5. Increase scalability
  6. Increase collaboration through additional Social Computing

Is Alfresco Share the SharePoint Services (WSS) killer? Will it help Alfresco take their own enterprise content management platform (which includes Alfresco Share) deeper into the enterprise, forcing SharePoint out the door?

An Overview of Alfresco Share

When Alfresco put out version 3 of their Enterprise Content Management System, they included with it, Alfresco Share. Alfresco Share is built on top of the Alfresco enterprise document repository and offers collaborative content management functionality.

Features of Alfresco Share include:

  • Dashboards: Site and Personal Dashboards, drag and drop customization, a number of out of the box dashlets (web parts)
  • Document Library: New features include thumbnails, the ability to preview a document using a Flash Viewer, commenting and tagging, multi-file upload, version control
  • Search: Search for people and experts in addition to content
  • Virtual Teams: Create virtual teams for projects and communities. Teams can include both internal and external people
  • Activity Feeds: Keep track of what is new or changing in content and people
  • Personalized Dashboard: Configure a customizable dashboard or site based on roles or projects
  • Content Creation Tools: Create content in wikis, blogs, MSOffice, discussion forums
  • Calendar: Track deliverables and import the information into your personal calendar using iCal
  • User Experience: AJAX-driven UI using the Yahoo YUI Library, Drag and drop dashboard configuration, user-friendly URLs and more


Alfresco Share Document Library -- View Document Details

A SharePoint Look a Like

When you look at Alfresco Share it looks a great deal like SharePoint...or Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) to be specific. Alfresco Share has all the functionality you would find in WSS, and then some.

For example, WSS does not have activity feeds, but it does have the document library, virtual teams, calendar, blogs, wikis and search.


Alfresco Share -- Activity Feeds

A Look Under the Covers

It can get a little confusing understanding the difference between Alfresco Enterprise Content Management and the Alfresco Share component -- especially since they are packaged together for the Enterprise version (Alfreso has an Enterprise and a Community version, compare here).

Alfresco's enterprise content management platform has a number of components, of which Alfresco Share is key .


Alfresco's Enterprise CMS Platform Components

Alfresco Surf: Presentation Platform

To have a discussion about Alfresco Share, you first need to understand what Alfresco Surf is all about, as it is the underlying platform to Share.

Alfresco Surf is the enterprise web application and site assembly framework used to develop Alfresco websites and web applications.

It is a lightweight XML-driven platform what builds upon the custom Web Scripts technology that Alfresco developed. Alfresco Surf provides developers with a scripting environment that is made up of components, pages and templates that can be easily combined to create applications and sites.

It also includes a Site Dispatcher which enables the creation of a page and it's link to the site navigation, the ability to render pages in different formats (hand-held device formats for example), the ability to link information in from different content repositories (e.g., blogs, wikis, or even SharePoint) and a credentials vault, to enable seamless cross-application logins.

Alfresco Surf includes the Web Scripts Runtime and is built upon a Java-based technology stack which includes Java, JSP, HTML, Web Scripts, server-side JavaScript and FreeMarker.

It is Alfresco Surf that provides the presentation tier framework for Alfresco Share (in fact it is the presentation tier framework for the entire version 3 of the Alfresco Enterprise Content Management System).

Alfresco Content Repository

The Alfresco Repository is the underlying content store for Alfresco Share. It is enterprise grade, which means it provides as standard features: fail-over, clustering, distributed cache management and LDAP integration.

As you can see in the diagram above, there are a few ways to access the repository including REST and Web Services, CMIS, Java and the MS Office SharePoint Protocol.

Learning Opportunities

MS Office SharePoint Protocol

The Office SharePoint Protocol is one of the big achievements that Alfresco has come out with to sell Alfresco Share as a true viable alternative to SharePoint in the enterprise.

Microsoft Office is still the most widely used productivity suite in organizations today. That's a huge reason why SharePoint has been so successful -- Microsoft created a protocol to enable Office to interact directly with SharePoint. This means you don't have to leave the discomfort of our Office application to create, edit and manage documents and calendar events in SharePoint.

For Alfresco, the break came when Microsoft released a number of technical specifications to the public (including the spec for SharePoint 2007) in the name of interoperability.

Alfresco used this information to implement the Office and SharePoint protocols as a compatible server -- thus the same functionality users get working between Office and SharePoint, they can now also get natively with Office and Alfresco.


Alfresco SharePoint Protocol Support

The protocol is not specific to Alfresco Share alone, but is a great example of how Alfresco Share can work with the current popular productivity tools.

Is Alfresco Share a SharePoint Killer?

Jeff Potts of Optaros created a couple of screencasts on Alfresco Share that walk you through the functionality from a users perspective. You can clearly see that is is very easy to create a site, or workspace, just like you do in SharePoint, and customize your views using dashlets, the equivalent of webparts.  You can also get a more detailed look at the features of each Share component on the Alfresco Community Site.

The Share Platform is definitely one to consider if you prefer an open stack but want the same document management and collaboration capabilities that one gets with WSS.

Aside from its features and functionality, Alfresco Share's ability to integrate seamlessly with MS Office and the built-in CMIS support inside the content repository (something we are just starting to see with SharePoint) make it an alternative worth considering.

The fact that the next version of SharePoint and MS Office are going to be bundled together is another reason to consider Alfresco Share. It would enable you to keep your productivity suite separate from collaboration tools.

Alan Plez-Sharpe of CMS Watch had this to say about Share, "Where Alfresco may find a particular sweet spot is with those organizations looking to take SharePoint beyond its limits. In some of those cases Alfresco may well be more developer-friendly both in terms of the technology (AJAX and RESTful) and more digestible in terms of pricing."

Problem: Wanted One Bean, Got Whole Burrito

Perhaps the biggest concern we see with Alfresco Share is that it is bundled with the complete Alfresco Enterprise Content Management System.

From a price perspective, this may not be a problem -- it may still be cheaper to implement Alfresco ECM than MOSS. But from a component perspective, what if you have already invested in an Enterprise CMS and you really only want the Share collaboration bit?

This could be an issue. Remember, if you're already running Windows Server, Windows SharePoint Services is free and possibly simpler to manage than a full enterprise content management solution.

With that said, it's our belief that competition in this space is a good thing. Having alternatives (and challenges to Microsoft) is healthy. But it is still hard to imagine that Alfresco can get in the very same door that SharePoint seems to be standing so firmly behind.

Now that you've had a closer look, we'd love to hear what you think.