Special Section

The Document Management Alliance

by Chuck Fay

The days when the corporate left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing will soon be over for users of document management systems, thanks to a recently approved standard, DMA 1.0. DMA will allow all document management (DM) systems in an enterprise to work together as a shared, universal DM system available to all departments and users in an enterprise. Isolated “islands of information” in the various departments of a large enterprise can be bridged with DMA, unleashing the power of information enterprise-wide.

Document Management Today

The use of electronic document management systems is accelerating today in both the public and private sectors. Increasingly, Fortune 1000 companies and governmental agencies are turning to DM systems to

The explosion of content on corporate and governmental Web sites on the Internet is further accelerating the need for DM systems, in this case for Web content management. At the same time, Web browsers like Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator are changing user expectations about how electronic documents can be accessed.

Electronic documents are stored in a variety of formats. Prior to the advent of the Internet, users were accustomed to using different application programs to view those documents, depending on their format. If they didn’t have the right application program, they couldn’t display the document. The pervasive use of HTML on the Internet has changed all that, along with the plug-in capabilities of the Web browsers for other document formats. Users now have uniform access to documents through a single browser interface. Having had a taste of uniform access to documents from around the world on the Internet, users are demanding this kind of universal access to all the information they need in their jobs. But there is a big bump in the road to universal access today: “islands of information” created by incompatible departmental DM systems from different vendors.

The Problem: Islands of Information

Before the creation of the DMA 1.0 Specification, there was no standard for hooking DM systems together and allowing access from any one application program to documents in all the DM systems. Without a standard application programming interface (API) to these DM systems, each DM vendor developed its own proprietary hooks between client and server or between application program and DM system. This has typically resulted in the isolated departmental systems we see in enterprises today (Figure 1). Users in each department can only retrieve documents from their own departmental DM system, because their software is not compatible with the systems in the other departments.

The lack of a DM API standard has led to a number of problems for users:

The Solution: DMA

The Document Management Alliance was formed in April 1995 to solve this problem of “islands of information.” DMA is a standards effort organized as a Task Force of the Association for Information and Image Management International. It is an open industry consortium made up of over 50 vendors, integrators, industry analysts and end users. It has defined an interoperability standard, the DMA 1.0 Specification, allowing document-aware applications to interact with document management systems from different vendors. DMA 1.0 was designed to allow uniform access to knowledge housed in widely varying document management systems across an enterprise, regardless of vendor or platform. DMA 1.0 bridges these islands of information to make the combined collection of knowledge available to everyone in an enterprise.

The online edition of the DMA 1.0 Specification can be found on the Internet at http://www.aiim.org/dma/dma10.

The home page for DMA -- with a white paper, presentations, lists of DMA members, the specification itself, a downloadable copy of the specification and more -- can be found at http://www.aiim.org/dma/

The DMA 1.0 Specification was unanimously approved for general use in December 1997. That means it is now prime time for software vendors, integrators and end users to build products and applications taking advantage of the API defined by DMA 1.0. A number of DMA members participated in trial use prototyping of DMA prior to its approval last year, to prove its readiness for general use in the industry. In February 1998, Xerox Corporation, Napersoft, Inc., and FileNET Corporation announced plans to ship DMA-compliant products in 1998 (see “Gathering Steam,” below). A number of other vendors are actively looking into supporting DMA in their product lines. End user members of DMA are now designing DMA into their enterprise knowledge management architectures and specifying DMA support in their RFPs.

Inside DMA 1.0

The DMA 1.0 Specification defines an API that standardizes the interaction between a user’s document-aware application program and DM systems. By standardizing this programming interface, DMA allows a single application on a user’s PC to access documents across the enterprise on any DMA-compatible DM system. With DMA, a user in the legal department, for example, can now have access to documents on any DMA-compatible DM system (Figure 2). At the same time, DMA preserves the ability for each DM system to limit that user’s access to just those documents for which he is authorized.

The specification defines standard interfaces for a fundamental set of features found in many of today’s state-of-the-art document management products:

Gathering Steam

DMA has been gathering steam since the DMA 1.0 Specification was approved last year. Three DMA member companies have already announced plans for DMA-compliant products, with more expected to follow. New members have joined DMA in the months since approval. Meanwhile, the DMA Technical Committee, while noting that building products to the 1.0 specification should be top priority this year, has also selected a handful of technical areas to explore further in the second half of 1998.

This is the year that DMA-compliant products will hit the market. So far, Xerox Corporation, Napersoft, Inc., and FileNET Corporation have announced 1998 plans for products that support the DMA 1.0 specification.

Other vendors are expected to announce DMA-based products later this year.

DMA and AIIM are working together to spread the news about DMA 1.0 in the United States, Far East and Europe. Their goal is to energize both vendors and the end-user community on the promise of DMA interoperability among products from different document management vendors. Several companies have joined DMA this year, notably Lotus Development Corporation. As more vendors announce DMA-compliant products, and more end users demand DMA compliance in their RFPs, DMA has the potential to become pervasive in the marketplace.

Future Directions

The top priority for this year is to encourage companies to build DMA 1.0-compliant products, but the DMA Technical Committee has also elected to explore a small number of high-leverage potential extensions to 1.0. It is committed to maintaining backward compatibility with 1.0 while extending the specification in four ways:

DMA and the Internet

WebDAV is a parallel and complementary standards effort within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). It promises to standardize extensions to the Internet HTTP network protocol that will map well to many DMA capabilities. WebDAV is still being designed by the IETF, but it has the potential to be cleanly integrated with DMA to provide standard-based Internet access to DMA-compatible DM systems (Figure 4). A number of DMA members are also working within the WebDAV IETF Working Group to maximize the interoperability between WebDAV and DMA. A full description of WebDAV is available on the WebDAV home page on the Internet http://www.icu.uci.edu/pub/ietf/webdav/

Summary

DMA 1.0, unanimously approved in December 1997, solves the “islands of information” problem plaguing large enterprises today as they deploy departmental DM systems, intranets and extranets. The first DMA-compliant products are arriving now, with more to come later in 1998. DMA, when combined with the complementary WebDAV standard being designed by the IETF, provides a solution for the problems associated with managing not just traditional DM systems, but also Web content on Internet, intranet, and extranet Web sites. DMA 2.0 and compliance testing are coming next on the DMA agenda.

With DMA 1.0, the corporate left hand will finally have no excuse for not knowing what the right is doing. Enterprise-wide sharing of documents -- and thus enterprise-wide sharing of information and knowledge -- is the promise of DMA. End user companies that demand and deploy DMA-based DM systems should reap the benefits of world-class collaboration that flows from enterprise-wide document management.


Chuck Fay is chair of the DMA Technical Committee and principal consulting engineer, Systems Architecture at FileNET Corporation. He can be reached by mail at 3565 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, CA 92626-1420; by email: cfay@filenet.com; or by phone: 714/966-3513.

Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science