Content: The Other Half of the Integration Problem - InformationWeek

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9/21/2005
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Content: The Other Half of the Integration Problem

Counting file systems, e-mail servers and disparate repositories, unstructured information is all over the place. Content integration consolidates search, access and management control, but which approach is best for your enterprise?

All business integration initiatives, whether involving applications, processes or information, are driven by the same idea: It's too difficult to replace legacy systems with a single, enterprisewide standard, even if those systems have become information silos that impede efficiency, agility and regulatory compliance. So why not leave them in place and use middleware to make them appear as a seamless whole?

Content integration is just one manifestation of this idea. Content management (CM) is increasingly viewed as a cross-functional, enterprise-scale challenge. Regulatory compliance, business processes, customer service and real-time information delivery all demand unified access to and management of content across the entire organization, including everything from Office documents and e-mail to scanned documents, Web content, structured reports and graphics.

But a multitude of incompatible CM islands are scattered throughout the enterprise. The typical enterprise has at least three content repositories, and 40% have six or more, according to Forrester Research. Even customers of a single enterprise content management (ECM) vendor may have separate repositories for each content type — for example, document images, revisable documents and Web content. Mergers and acquisitions only compound the problem. Meanwhile, most enterprise content remains entirely unmanaged: Stored in network file systems and on Web sites, it's a compliance risk as well as buried corporate knowledge.

Content can be integrated with middleware that provides a common interface to query, version or index content in any repository from client applications. This article examines the business needs driving content integration and the trade-offs of different approaches. Even if you decide you must consolidate on an enterprisewide platform, integration may offer an affordable quick fix for your current content access and management problems.

What Drives Content Integration?

ECM vendors would love to sell you a gigantic new enterprise repository and migrate all your legacy content to it, but they know that's unlikely. Migration costs can overwhelm the potential savings on software licenses, maintenance, training and administration. And besides, you may have business applications and workflows that depend on specific functions of legacy CM systems missing in the new enterprise repository.

Enterprise information portals have been called a form of content integration because they aggregate information on the user's screen, but true integration involves managing content stored in multiple, diverse repositories as if it were stored in a single repository — not just search and retrieve content, but edit, approve and secure it.

Middleware-based integration projects are being driven by a variety of business needs:

The content silo problem. CM historically has been deployed departmentally, so you could easily have FileNet in one department, EMC Documentum in another and IBM, Open Text or other vendor or home-grown systems in other corners of the enterprise. Mergers and acquisitions only multiply the problem. To maintain customer service, regulatory compliance and employee productivity, various enterprise applications, business processes and records management solutions must integrate with an ever-changing list of content repositories. The conventional approach — point-to-point integration via custom code — is expensive and time-consuming. By providing a consistent middleware layer, content integration helps simplify dynamic environments.

The intrasuite integration problem. Even if your company has standardized on one ECM vendor, don't assume the entire suite behaves as a single repository. Many ECM suites have separate repositories for each content type, and legacy versions of the suite may be isolated from newer ones. Integration helps here, too. For instance, FileNet's P8 Content Federation Services integration middleware bridges the separate FileNet repositories for production imaging and revisable content. It also connects P8 with older FileNet Panagon systems, as well as third-party repositories. Thus, legacy content need not be physically migrated to leverage a new workflow or compliance solution.

The unmanaged content problem. In most organizations, content is simply stored in network file systems, which makes it a compliance and discovery risk. Integration lets you convert file properties to metadata and apply library services — check-in/check-out, versioning and access control — without moving content to an ECM repository. Once integrated, it can be included in the same enterprisewide queries, compliance policies and workflows that encompass managed content.

The managed migration problem. Migration from legacy repositories makes sense as a long-term strategy. By consolidating content into a single repository (or at least fewer repositories), you reduce license and maintenance costs, improve security and scalability, and cut down on the number of separate vendor negotiations. But migrations often must be managed gradually, since certain departments may depend on customized features of the legacy platform unavailable in the new one. Content integration supports a managed migration strategy. For example, McDonald's cut costs by migrating mountains of real estate documents from FileNet to Day Software's repository, but the legal department needed to stay on FileNet. With Day's built-in content integration software, compliance processes were able to access both repositories as if they were one.

To solve all these problems, applications don't communicate directly to the repositories but access them indirectly via integration middleware. The diagram on page 34 shows the functional layers of content-integration technology.

Connect, Map the Metadata

Content integration provides a content bus, a single API that shields developers from the connectivity details of various repositories. Like other forms of business integration middleware, content integration relies on connectors: software modules that translate between the common programming interface of the integration hub and the specific APIs of each repository. Connectors are typically available for leading ECM servers as well as databases and file systems. Vendors also provide tools so developers can build their own connectors when necessary. In addition, content integration usually provides single sign-on and session management to multiple repositories, referred to as federated access, so accessing multiple content stores appears to the user as connecting to a single repository.

Within the Java world, a new standard promises to simplify ECM connectors and perhaps eliminate them in some situations. JSR 170 specifies a standard Java API to access content repositories independent of vendor implementation. Level 1 defines read-only functions, including search, retrieval and export to XML, supporting presentation templates and portal applications. Level 2 adds writing to the repository and import from XML, as well as optional features such as versioning, check-in/check-out, access control and event notification. The final release of JSR 170 was published in June, and so far Day Software, which led development of the spec, is the first to offer a commercial implementation. As ECM vendors make their repositories JSR 170-compliant, applications will be able to access all basic functions through a single API, without connectors.

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