Simple Document Management: CIFS or SharePoint Protocol – which is best?

Introduction

One of the many benefits of Docs4Lawyers is the number of possibilities for users to access the document repository using the industry standard interfaces provided by the underlying Alfresco platform.  Users can take advantage of using a document management system without having to learn new applications or clutter up their desktop with unwanted programs or plug-ins.

Turning back the clock, many traditional products for the legal market used macros or legacy standards like ODMA (Open Document Management API) in order to achieve integration with word processing applications – whilst this standard made a good start it has not been evolved since late 1990s and is not compatibile with newer technologies.  Later attempts to provide more integration with the Microsoft desktop were were based on thick-client installations on the user’s PC which posed other challenges regarding training, performance, user adoption and deployment.

Other products adopted the approach of supporting more standard protocols like FTP and Webdav.  One major advantage of supporting a standard protocol is that no need to install anything on the user’s desktop.  However both WebDav and FTP are not really rich enough in functionality for intensive document management usage in law firms since they lack support for many common features and don’t integrate well enough with the user’s desktop applications.

New Era – Simple Document Management

Alfresco, being free of legacy technology, takes a fresh view of the requirements of the knowledge worker and the challenges of the IT department.  Since Alfresco released their document management solution, there has been a much simpler way to provide this integration by using an implementation of the CIFS (Common Internet File System) protocol.  The CIFS implementation exposes the document repository as virtual file server to the users through all standard desktop applications like Windows Explorer, Microsoft Office or other desktop programs.  Also CIFS does not need to be installed on the client PC, just a drive mapping configuration.  CIFS is multi-purpose and generic and can be used with any IT environment and any type of desktop application.  Not only is it easy to use, it is also very easy to deploy.  Everyone’s a winner!

The recent inclusion of support for SharePoint Protocol by Alfresco now provides another way to integrate the document repository into the user’s Windows/Office environment.  SharePoint Protocol is actually an extension of WebDav by Microsoft, and provides a better integration with Word, Excel and PowerPoint.  SharePoint Protocol can also expose the document repository through the Windows Explorer by defining a Network Place.  All the necessary components are already installed in Office since version 2003 and so once again no installation on the user’s PC.

Both CIFS and SharePoint Protocol can be used in a Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office desktop, but which has the most functionality? which offers the best user experience? and can they be used together?  To start with, let’s examine each of them in more details:

CIFS

The CIFS interface is one of the most impressive features in Alfresco, and one which really users were crying out for since document management systems first came on the scene.  In summary, CIFS changes document management from being some obtrusive and complicated tool and allows users to continue working with their documents and applications in exactly the same way as they know since they started using a PC.

These are the most useful features of CIFS:

  • Allows users to work with documents and folders exposing the repository through a mapped network drive (for example Z:\)
  • Supports all normal file system actions – drag and drop, cut, copy, delete, paste, rename, edit, new folder, shortcuts and search
  • Integrates with open/save/save as file menu commands in all desktop applications without installing any 3rd party plug-in or program
  • Supports compound documents and respects links to other documents and embedded objects
  • Supports off-line synchronisation and briefcase tools
  • Can open documents for edit through the classic Alfresco JSF web interface

Detailed Technical Info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CIFS and http://www.cifs.com

SharePoint Protocol

SharePoint Protocol is built on top of WebDAV to give SharePoint users better document management features direct with Microsoft Office applications – Word, Powerpoint and Excel.  Acting like a web folder will integrate into many desktop applications.

These are the most useful features of SharePoint Protocol:

  • Exposes the repository as a network place
  • Supports all most file system actions – drag and drop, cut, copy, delete, paste, rename, edit, new folder, shortcuts but NOT seach
  • Integrates with open/save/saveas commands to main desktop applications (e.g. office, acrobat, outlook) without installing any plug-in or programs, but not all including some Microsoft applications
  • Tight integration and extra options within Microsoft Office in File menu (version control and check-in/out) and the Task Pane (navigate sites, view collaborators, edit site details)
  • Supports compound documents and respects links to other documents and embedded objects
  • Supports offline synchronisation and briefcase tools (not tested)
  • Can open documents for edit through the new Alfresco Share web interface

Detailed Technical Information: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc339475.aspx

Comparison

The way CIFS and SharePoint Protocol operate  is very similar however there are some differenes.

General Usage – CIFS is more familiar to the users
CIFS acts like a mapped drive and is totally consistent with the way users are used to access network files.  Supports more common actions on right-click mene – e.g. search
SharePoint Protocol is displayed as a network place (not exactly complicated though).  Less options implemented than CIFS.

Versioning – SharePoint Protocol provides more client-side versioning options
CIFS does not support document versioning when actually saving a file back to the system.  Users can create versions (File, Save As, Tools, Save Version), but they are contained within the file.  Note: auto-versioning can be applied in the repository.
SharePoint Protocol supports users creating versions using this same option and are saved in the document repository rather than in the file

Check-Out – SharePoint Protocol provides nicer check-out option
CIFS support CIFS by the user dragging the document onto the check-out icon in the folder
SharePoint Protocol supports check out (File, Check-out) and from the Task Pane

Folder / Site Navigation – SharePoint Protocol provides additional support within Microsoft Office applications
CIFS supports browsing the repository or site from the Windows Explorer or when opening a file in an application (File, Open)
SharePoint Protocol supports the above and also by using the Task Pane

Applications Support – CIFS supports any applications
CIFS support any and all desktop applications
SharePoint Protocol has enhanced integration only with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and does not work with all applications (tested Notepad).  Also Windows Vista with Office 2007 needs some tweaks to get it working.

Authentication – CIFS seems simpler to configure that SharePoint Protocol authentication
CIFS requires the username password to be saved once on first connection and user never prompted again
SharePoint Protocol requires user to constantly validate the username and password on accessing folders and document (maybe be possible to avoid however)

Configuration – Both easy
CIFS works totally out of the box – just need to map a drive a drive letter to \\SERVER\SHARE
SharePoint Protocol Needs a registry change  on the client PC to work at all (apparently this is working as designed according to Microsoft) and to open documents directly in the editing application instead of the web browser needs configuration of File Types in Internet Explorer

Integration with Web Applications – Depends on preferred client interface
Out of the box, CIFS can be used to edit document directly with the classic Alfresco JSF client.  Currently SharePoint Protocol is available with Alfresco Share.  Should be fairly simple to make either of these option available from either web interface.

Compatibility

Both of these two interfaces can be configured on a user computer without any problems and they both work fine – there are no compatibility issues having both activated with the same document repository.  Both can be used to work with the same documents.  However, it is important not to mix these two when working on single document – for example, open through CIFS and save back through SharePoint Protocol.  There are some differences with the file locks implement during document edits, and also the way the versioning works.

Conclusions

Both CIFS and SharePoint Protocol are simple to use and a great help for users who want to work with documents in a simple way.   They are quite similar in that they provide the most common document functions through native applications without desktop installations.  Which one is best?  Well, as always, it depends…  If we take a scenario when a lawyer will used mainly Microsoft Office, then probably a good option would be use SharePoint protocol only to avoid confusion, also because the lawyer may often be working over web connection as well as in the office.  Probably of the other departments in a law firm (marketing, knowledge management, finance) would use applications other than Microsoft Office and therefore CIFS could be a better choice.

Docs4Lawyers v1.3 program files sent to Sourceforge!

Some people have asked about getting their hands on the source code in order to do installations on their existing servers, so in the true spirit of open source and collaboration, we are more than happy to oblige.  The code files are organised by folders and we have basic documentation about where to put the files and which there configuration files are:

Here is an image of the contents of the zip file:

can be downloaded from www.docs4lawyers.com or http://docs4lawyers.svn.sourceforge.net/viewvc/docs4lawyers

Docs4Lawyers New Version 1.3.

We’re pleased to announce the release of a new version of Docs4Lawyers (v1.3). This new version incorporates the following improvements and new features:

  • Creation, edition, deletion and search for Clients and Matters.
  • Access to stored documents using the CIFS, HTTP, Webdav and Sharepoint protocols.
  • Client-Matter foldering integrated in Share Sites.
  • Online document previews.
  • Integrated collaborative environment similar to Microsoft Share Point.
  • Sample users and sites including example knowledge taxonomy.

The new version can be downloaded from our portal at http://www.docs4lawyers.com, where you can also find updated documentation.

It can also be downloaded from SourceForge (VMware format) – http://docs4lawyers.svn.sourceforge.net/viewvc/docs4lawyers

Getting Started Guide v1.3 also available in Slideshare – http://www.slideshare.net/docs4lawyers/docs4lawyers-getting-started-guide-v13

Please direct any questions, suggestions to the email address info@docs4lawyers.com.

Here below some screenshots of the new version:

Version History and Roadmap Update

Here below is a summary of the functionality implemented so far in Docs4Lawyers.   We have some ideas for future versions, including moving the custom functionality to Alfresco Share, the new document-centric collaboration user-interface which is comparable to SharePoint in many ways.  Other areas we feel need some work is with the permissions model, after defiining some users and roles we will look at options on designing group structures and apply complex security rules.  Talking about security, shortly we’ll be taking a look at embedding digital signing functionality.

If you have any comments or ideas, please add let us know!

Released Versions:
Information relating to past and current versions of Docs4Lawyers

Version 1.0 – May 2009
Based on Alfresco 3.0
Legal metadata model – document details, search form
Client-matter dashlets
Document type and sub-type dashlets
Favourite client-matter folders
Synchronisation between client-matter dashlets and folders
Synchronisation between document profiles and document space location

Version 1.1 – July 2009
Label changes and icon changes
Replaced Image kernel PAE

Version 1.2 – July 2009
Replace CIFS mount to be \ipaddress\docs4lawyers
Replace URL to be http://ipaddress:8080/docs4lawyers
Change user start page to show document folders

Roadmap:
Information about future planned releases (subject to change)

Version 1.3 – Date TBD
Add new permissions role to manage client-matter view permissions
e-mail user notifications based on “critical date”

Version 1.5 / 2.0 - Date TBD
Add support for digital signatures
Port customisations to Alfresco Share 3.2 (Alternative to Sharepoint)
Configuration of e-mail management server
Add Docs4Lawyers splash screen to VMware image
Move metadata management to administration console

Benefits of Implementing a Document Management System in Law Firms

Maybe you are at the beginning of a document management project, designing the business case or projecting a likely return on investment.  If so, then this article can help you understand the many benefits of implementing such a solution.

So, what are the main reasons why law firms implement a document management system?  Cutting costs and increasing efficiencies are two key factors especially when justifying capital expenditure.  Increased control and security, improved team working and knowledge management are the other main drivers.

The benefits of successful implementations of document management are seen by lawyers, legal support staff, customers, IT staff and the law firm as a whole.  Here we have grouped these benefits into five themes:


Increased Productivity / Efficiencies (doing more law)

  • Less wasted time spending time browsing and searching for information in multiple locations (email, file systems, local drive).
  • No more wasted time retyping documents or working out which version of a document is the latest one.
  • Easier and quicker to share information with other users and groups, in different departments, across physical locations.
  • Work with documents anywhere and anytime.


Cutting Costs (saving money)

  • By centralizing document management services, it is possible to retire old file systems and simplify backups reducing server maintenance and administration costs.
  • By scanning in and promoting use of electronic case files results in multiple cost savings including savings on printers and paper, less administration, and freeing up valuable floor space previously occupied by filing cabinets.


Compliance / Control (minimizing risk)

  • Comply with legislative and regulatory requirements and help with specific processes: for example, new matter intake, conflicts of interest, e-discovery, chinese walls and matter billing.
  • Better document security: single secure central repository, rather than shared drives, local drives and email.
  • Provide detailed auditing of all document activities.


Quality of Product / Service (competitive advantage)

  • Better sharing of documents to external parties (customers, opposing counsel, third parties) through extranet portals or deal rooms.
  • Improved knowledge management leading to better informed lawyers.


Law Firms Reputation (marketing)

  • Is a matter of prestige that the firm is investing in the very best technology to manage their customers’ documents.
  • In order to attract the best lawyers, need to consider that many younger lawyers will have only worked with document management systems during their careers and will be used to the benefits that they bring.

What is Docs4Lawyers?

The Open Source Document Management System for Law Firms.

Docs4Lawyers is an out-of-the-box document management solution for small firms and a scalable and flexible platform for large firms.  It is free to download, quick to install and simple to use on a desktop computer, laptop or network server.

Docs4Lawyers has all the main document management features, is easy to use and integrates seamlessly with all desktop applications, including office and e-mail.  In addition, it incorporates a specific adaptation for use by legal professionals, like commonly-used legal metadata fields, a client and matter management module and matter-centric favourite folders.

Electronic document management is not a new concept for many law firms and by building on these well understood functional priniciples Docs4Lawyers delivers the first open source platform specifically designed for the legal market.

Objectives of Docs4Lawyers:

Provide all main features

  • generic document management services:- versioning, check-in/out, history, security, categorisation and full-text search.
  • easy to use:- intuitive web-based interface and seamless integration through the windows shared drive into any desktop applications (e.g. windows explorer, email, office, acrobat).
  • legal adaptation:- client/matter management module and folder system, legal-oriented document metadata fields, my favourite client/matters.

Reduce the complexity of implementation

  • easy to evaluate:- downloadable from http://www.docs4lawyers.com, with accompanying manuals and documentation.
  • easy to deploy:- no software installation on the end-users PC; supports Windows, Linux and Mac OS; integrates with all desktop applications.
  • easy to integrate:- supports industry standards and protocols; integrates with Microsoft desktop and other software packages (backup, time and billing, document comparison, fax, scanner, website design tools etc.).

 Reduce the cost

  • lower aquisition costs:- in the absence of expensive up front software licences, the total cost to implement the system is significantly reduced.
  • quicker return on investment:- resulting in a quicker return on investment than other traditional products.
  • lower total cost of ownership:- integrates with existing infrastructure, easy to extend, evolve, deploy and maintain.  Freedom to choose server and desktop software.

Better support and services

  • service is centrestage:- since the technology is free, suppliers are valued on the quality of their support and services.
  • open forum and collaboration:- through the community portal, members can seek assistance, share experiences and make contributions.

Welcome to Docs4Lawyers!

This project was started at the end of 2008 with the intention of taking a well established concept – document management for law firms – and creating a new pioneering solution to offer to all law firms (large, medium and small) as an alternative to the proprietary products currently offered in the market.

Many law firms will be very happy with their current products, but given the turmoil in the ECM sector over the past few years, many, we believe, will be looking for a new type of solution that is not tied into the software providers and the tight group of integrators offering such solutions.  Also, we believe that there are a great number of small and medium sized firms who wish to deploy this funcionality to their users but have been unable to do so due to the high cost and complexity involved.

We have seen at first hand the challenges faced when implementing the traditional solutions in law firms.  We have also seen in recent times the huge interest being shown in open source technology products and the tendency in the market to move towards a new model of acquiring and implementing IT solutions.  So, by combining high quality open source software with a mature and well understood requirement, we set about building a new document management system for law firms based on the principles of ease of use, ease of deployment, lower cost of implementation and total cost of ownership and above all freedom from the proprietary model of software development and licensing.

Docs4Lawyers is a solution framework built on top of the world-class document management platform from Alfresco Software.  For readers who are not familiar with Alfresco, the company was created in 2005 by the founders of Documentum, Interwoven and other companies like OpenText, Vignette and FileNet.  This domain knowledge combined with expertise from the world of open source and with the backing of an experienced management team and venture capital has provided the foundation for a very successful new player in the ECM market.  The first version of Alfresco was released in 2006 and today has achieved well over 1 million downloads and the company has approaching 1,000 subscribing customers across most market segments, and is one of the most succesful open source companies ever.

We have spent 6 months developing Docs4Lawyers and it is the first open source document management solution specifically designed for law firms.  This initial version is made available for any interested parties to download, test and use as they wish, under the commonly-used GPL licence.

Central to our philosophy is open community collaboration, and as such, we have created the Docs4Lawyers site within the OneWayClear Community Portal to enable people to get hold of useful information, share ideas, provide feedback (good or bad) and also to contribute back to the project.

Over the coming weeks and months we will be posting software updates to the site, and adding informative articles and training materials which we hope you will find useful.

For more information and to register to download the software and documention, please visit www.docs4lawyers.com.

Stay tuned!

Best Regards,
The Docs4Lawyers Team



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