Jul 20, 2010

Microsoft SharePoint 2010 offers a lot to businesses. SharePoint includes a content management system, search, wikis, the ability to build intranets and external Web sites, all in one bundled solution. However, it also comes with a steep price tag and a number of dependencies that businesses might want to avoid. The good news is that open source solutions like Alfresco, MindTouch, and Drupal can be suitable replacements for SharePoint in many organizations.

Many businesses want the functionality of Microsoft SharePoint without the limitations and lock-in that come with building on a Microsoft platform. While SharePoint 2010 is undeniably a strong product, it has hefty system requirements and its use limits an organization’s IT choices in other areas. The only way to get full functionality out of SharePoint 2010 is by using Windows Server 2008 and Microsoft Office 2010 on the desktop – upgrades your organization may not be ready to deploy.

SharePoint 2010 is a bit better than its predecessor in regard to vendor lock-in. SharePoint 2007 required ActiveX controls, shutting out everybody on Macs and Linux. SharePoint 2010 isn’t as restricted, and even works in a limited fashion on iPads and iPhones.

But SharePoint 2010 also limits browser choice. While you can work with SharePoint 2010 with Firefox or Safari, they aren’t treated as “first class” browsers for SharePoint 2010. Only Internet Explorer (later than IE6, which has been rightfully deprecated) can exploit all of SharePoint’s features. Note that even some features in 2010 require ActiveX controls that are not available for 64-bit versions of IE.

Probably the most compelling reasons to deploy an open source solution instead are price and flexibility. The licensing costs of SharePoint, plus Windows Server, plus SQL Server and the rest of the bundle are not insignificant. If you’d prefer to avoid becoming too deeply entrenched in Microsoft-based solutions, you’ll find several open source alternatives — and three I personally recommend: Alfresco, MindTouch, and Drupal.

Why those, and not some of the other open source CMSes? Alfresco and MindTouch are two of the most feature-compatible replacements for SharePoint. Drupal is not a direct replacement for all of SharePoint’s features, but handles many of the use cases for which SharePoint is popular. All three not only enjoy a strong user and developer community, but also have strong commercial support, making them much more suitable for enterprises that choose open source but still seek support and training services.

Alfresco

Alfresco is an enterprise content management platform (CMS) that runs on Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and others. Its a Java-based system that utilizes Hibernate, Lucene, Spring, and other enterprise-class open source components. It’s billed as faster than proprietary systems, and (of course) is cheaper.

Like SharePoint, Alfreso provides content management for documents, records, images, Web pages, and it allows users to collaborate on content development.

Alfresco can be extended and offers a number of third-party solutions. It provides a CIFS connection to Windows so that your users can connect and share files in a similar way to SharePoint. Users can also access repositories over WebDAV and FTP.

The underlying platform, of course, is radically different from SharePoint. Organizations with a Java bent will probably prefer Alfresco to SharePoint, while Microsoft shops may choose SharePoint over Alfresco.

In most cases, users will find Alfresco an adequate substitute for SharePoint. Alfresco is integrated with both Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org, so your organization can continue to use the Microsoft suite or migrate away from both SharePoint and Microsoft Office.

Organizations have a couple of licensing options. The company offers an entirely open source stack that’s licensed under the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) as well as an enterprise subscription. The Enterprise edition also work with MS SQL Server, Oracle, and proprietary Java application servers like BEA WebLogic and IBM Websphere.

The Enterprise Edition also has system monitoring and clustering features not present in the community edition, which may or may not be vital for your organization. The licensing for Alfresco’s Enterprise Edition is, obviously, more expensive than the community edition, but provides technical support and additional options like platform certification, system monitoring, and enterprise extensions that might be interesting to large organizations.

Drupal

Drupal is not a drop-in replacement for SharePoint if you need a records management system. It’s not a enterprise content management system by any stretch. But for organizations that adopted SharePoint for intranets or building external websites, Drupal should not be overlooked.

The Drupal CMS has scaled to power some of the world’s busiest sites. Drupal is used by the U.S. Federal government to power sites like Recovery.gov, but also can be (and is!) used by much smaller organizations.

The Drupal tagline is “community plumbing,” which is an apt description of the project. Drupal alone is useful for developing websites, intranets, blogs, and the like. However, Drupal’s real power is in its developer community and the thousands of modules that extend the CMS’ functionality. Your organization’s developers can extend the platform or simply take advantage of Drupal’s existing add-ons. With the modules on Drupal.org, you can add file management, e-commerce functionality, LDAP authentication; you name it, it’s probably been added to Drupal.

It can be a bit of a beast to tame. Drupal’s user interface is, charitably, best described as “unintuitive.” This is something that’s been acknowledged by the Drupal community, and it’s one of the focal points of the Drupal 7 development cycle (which should be complete by autumn of this year). Drupal’s APIs are not universally loved by developers, either. In short, Drupal has its flaws,but it’s very widely and successfully used and for all manner of content management.

Drupal is written in PHP and licensed under the GNU General Public License. It runs on Apache or Microsoft IIS, uses MySQL, PostgreSQL, or Microsoft SQL Server, and PHP 4.4.0 or higher. Because the Drupal community has tried to push towards compatibility with PHP 5.x, many modules may require PHP 5.x or better even if Drupal runs on 4.4.x.

Commercial support for Drupal is available through a number of vendors, most notably through Acquia, a company run by Drupal founder Dries Buytaert.

MindTouch

If your company has a strong Microsoft bent, but would like to avoid SharePoint for some reason, MindTouch may be a good compromise.

MindTouch is a collaboration platform for internal and external work. In addition to the expected content management features, MindTouch’s “mashups” extend the software and enable connections to popular Web services and sites (such as Windows Live and Amazon).. It also works with popular open source publishing systems like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, and Mambo.

MindTouch has “desktop connectors” that provide similar functionality to SharePoint for Windows users, and has Active Directory and LDAP support for authentication.

The downside to MindTouch is that much of its functionality is only available in paid releases. MindTouch Core is the fully open source release, available under the GPLv2. The Standard edition doesn’t have connectors for Microsoft Office or the features needed to easily scale MindTouch for larger organizations. Still, even the paid versions are likely to be less expensive than SharePoint, and having a open core provides the ability for third-party vendors to offer support.

MindTouch is built on top of PHP and .Net, and programmers can add functionality using PHP, C#, JavaScript, and other languages. You can deploy MindTouch on Windows using the .NET framework or on Linux with Mono. MindTouch uses MySQL on Windows or Linux, and also requires PHP 5.2 or better.

Final Thoughts

Should every organization run out and ditch SharePoint? Of course not. If SharePoint is already a working solution for your organization, it’s a bad idea to rip and replace just to implement an open source solution. If the business has made a large investment in SharePoint already, a switch would be expensive and probably would bring unwanted costs in terms of training users and dealing with user dissatisfaction. (Assuming users are happy with SharePoint, of course.)

But if SharePoint isn’t deployed widely in your organization, now’s a good time to consider whether SharePoint is a requirement or if open source solutions would be a better choice. It many cases, Alfresco, MindTouch, Drupal, or another open source solution — I’ve mentioned only a few of the dozens of open source CMSs — might be a suitable replacement.

All are easy to deploy for testing purposes, so there’s little reason not to road test an open source solution to judge if it’s a suitable option.

If SharePoint is part of your infrastructure, consider keeping it in check and using an open source solution for new deployments. Don’t try to rip and replace, but if you need a new Web site for the organization, use Drupal. Need a records management solution for a department not yet using SharePoint? Roll it out using Alfresco instead of SharePoint.

Open source solutions and SharePoint can co-exist. If your organization is mostly a Microsoft shop, deploying a few open source solutions can introduce the IT department and your knowledge workers to alternatives. If nothing else, the in-house use of open source CMS is useful negotiating tool with Microsoft when discussing licensing and future purchases.

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COMMENTS

  • Aug 27, 2010 | Frederic Vontramp says:

    what about Plone.. Doesn't have Alfresco's crappy 'tiered' GPL, some GPL and No GPL license crap, has search, templating, wiki.. you name it.. and has a pretty great security track record..

  • Any list of serious content management systems not mentioning Plone is incomplete. Plone has all the features that systems like Drupal and mindtouch have and more. It has been consistently been voted as one of the best CMSes, even in comparison to commercial ones.

    It has a large community, a competent and open administrative body (Plone foundation) and a huge list of vendors providing commercial support. You shoud include Plone in this list.

  • Aug 28, 2010 | sclapp says:

    don't forget that there's a great package installation of Drupal (built on drupal, but with functionality & themes optimized for this purpose) designed just for intranets called OpenAtrium. Development Seed put it out in public beta last year & continues to be improved, expect it to be fully in production soon – http://openatrium.com/.

  • Since your Loyal Editor-in-Chief (that would be ME) is married to a Plone committer, I asked Zonker the same question when he handed in the article. (At least the "What about Plone?" question, not the expression of personal preference.)

    His view — which is fair — is that he could only know what he wrote about from his own experience. It's HIS article, not mine, and HIS perceptions of which CMSs are best for enterprise use.

  • This story just scratches the surface and leaves out the most comprehensive CMS on the planet:

    Plone. Powerful Stuff.

    I stake my reputation on it.

  • Great article. Thanks for including MindTouch. It's important to note that the real power of MindTouch for this use case is in the packaged Intranet solution. It is used by some very big names including a team in Microsoft Unfortunately the Collaborative Intranet solution currently is not part of the download or Cloud service. However, if you're interested in this just ping someone at MindTouch and we'll be happy to walk you through it.

  • Um … Nuxeo? http://nuxeo.com.

  • I must admit… I've never heard of nuxeo! (I can't speak to whether Zonker has.)

  • Sep 2, 2010 | joe says:

    recovery.gov is on sharepoint btw…

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