Vendors team on content-sharing spec

Microsoft, IBM, and EMC are among those working to finalize the CMIS standard for letting different content management systems offer access to their content

A cadre of enterprise content management (ECM) software vendors is close to finalizing a standard for sharing data across their systems.

Next week, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, (OASIS), is expected to ratify the Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS), a set of bindings that would allow different content management systems to offer access to their content in a single, uniform fashion.

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CMIS is the effort of a number of ECM heavyweights, including IBM, Microsoft, EMC, and Alfresco. "At this point, pretty much every vendor in the ECM space is really motivated to start supporting CMIS in their respective products," wrote Ethan Gur-esh, the Microsoft program manager for the effort, in a blog post about the project.

It is a standard much needed by both vendors and their enterprise customers, observers say.

Today, the hooks for fetching and changing data in systems such as EMC Documentum and Microsoft SharePoint are different for each system. Each application programming interface is "completely unique," said Ian Howells, the chief marketing officer at Alfresco.

As a result, developers building applications that pull data from ECMs face a lot of work, especially if their creations need to access multiple content management systems. For each system, "the content is in a proprietary format, the metadata is in a proprietary form, and the API is proprietary. It's a nightmare," Howells said.

CMIS could simplify matters insofar as it offers a single set of bindings that a developer could write to, and not worry about the underlying CMS. The bindings are based on either the REST (Representational State Transfer) protocol or the Web services-based SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol).

Howells said ECM vendors have gotten behind the standard because they see the lack of easy interoperability as an obstacle to their growth. The CMS industry is looking to replicate the success of the database application market, he said, which flourished with the standardization of database queries with SQL, the Structured Query Language.

"Think of CMIS as SQL for content services," Howells said.

CMIS doesn't handle all the operations of a content management system, just those common actions that almost every system executes, Howells explained. Actions such as creating, reading, updating and deleting files can be undertaken. It also includes capabilities for file versioning and browsing through hierarchical files. Just like SQL, CMIS uses the SELECT-FROM-WHERE format for structuring queries.

Other aspects, such as tagging and records management, are not covered by the standard. "It doesn't expose all the capabilities of every single repository, but rather just a common subset of things you want to do," Howells said.

Tony Byrne, who leads the content-management research firm The Real Story, said he is "mildly optimistic" about CMIS.

CMIS could be helpful to customers in that it separates the "repository layer from the application layer," he said. This approach can free organizations to more easily use a wider variety of software, such as SharePoint for a front-end user interface and Documentum for storing documents on the back end.

What remains to be seen is to what extent the ECM vendors support the standard in their products. A vendor could claim to support it but do so only minimally. Also, this is not the first time the ECM community has attempted a cross-platform standard. The Java Content Repository (JCR), which aimed at cross-platform compatibility for Java-based CMSes, never took hold due to relatively poor adoption.

Thus far the vendors that have participated in CMIS seem enthusiastic. They have held a number of plug-fests to demonstrate that front-end querying software can draw data from a variety of back-end repositories.

And products are coming out that support CMIS: Earlier this month, Alfresco included support for the draft CMIS 1.0 standard with version 3.3 of its Alfresco Community Edition.

But even if the vendors are enthusiastic about the standard, it will take years for most of them to work it into their products, Byrne said. He also cautioned that the standard addresses only repository independence. It does not address process integration. "Because I have an application that can talk to a neutral standard doesn't mean my business processes have gotten integrated," he said.

Still, that the major vendors are participating in this standard speaks well for its adoption. "They all clearly see CMIS in their interest," Byrne said.

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