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:
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
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
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.
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.
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.