Wikis evolve as collaboration tools

Latest offerings get users swapping knowledge quickly

Content management systems usually won’t work as collaboration tools. Although a CMS does ease content creation, the resulting Web sites have rigid navigation and formal publishing workflows. Wikis, on the other hand, empower users to create new pages ad hoc as well as create links easily within the content.

These relaxed controls make Atlassian Confluence, Near-Time, Socialtext, and Traction important enterprise applications that can streamline internal processes through more efficient communications and knowledge sharing.

Although all four of these packages espouse a wiki’s simple content creation and editing, my testing demonstrated variations in remaining areas that formed my evaluation criteria.

For one, enterprises need strong access control to prevent unauthorized changes. Products vary in the depth of e-mail and RSS notifications. The way content is searched, tagged, and organized ranged widely, too. For example, file uploads could be placed in one large area or segmented into a more friendly hierarchy. Finally, I considered scalability, integration with existing authentication systems, and open standards or APIs to customize the solution.

Atlassian Confluence 2.2.10

Confluence has multiple personalities: a collaboration tool, intranet, document repository, and project monitor. Throughout it all, however, the system stays true to its wiki roots. Spaces hold pages that are easily organized, can reference attachments, and turn into discussion forums using comments. Moreover, everything is searchable  — subject to enterprise-grade security that extends permissioning to individual pages.

Still, Atlassian doesn’t try to make Confluence into a collaboration Swiss Army Knife; although the software integrates with other systems through provided Web services interfaces, you won’t find a spreadsheet or other built-in applications. And that’s fine, in that it means you don’t have to be a genius to use or administer this application. Further, more than 100 plug-ins and Confluence’s internal component system (built on the Spring Java framework) provide great extensibility.

The only option I’d like is the capability to import user accounts from an Active Directory or LDAP server; currently you have to create individual user accounts and apply permissions.

Just about everything in Confluence shows polish and attention to detail. You can instantly create pages in the designated space and edit with standard wiki markup code or a rich-text editor. Linking to other pages is simple, and the system ensures links don’t break if you reorganize pages into a different hierarchy. Further, categorizing pages into logical parent and children groups is point-and-click simple. Each page has a printable view and can be exported to PDF.

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Besides standard content pages, Confluence provides News pages (blogs). These could hold time-sensitive content, such as announcements for your team — while comments attached to these items help teams collaborate. A great RSS Feed Builder let me create a feed from pages, news items, comments, and attachments. What I liked most, though, was an RSS function that enabled me to integrate external RSS feeds (such as InfoWorld.com’s own blogs) directly into a Confluence news page.

Wikis are often touted as an e-mail replacement. While that’s a viable use, this solution recognizes the value in messages and serves as an e-mail archive. Simply cc: messages to Confluence’s mailbox and content is automatically indexed and becomes searchable. Similarly, attachments are not just uploaded; they’re fully versioned, linkable, and searchable.

Built-in search accuracy was very good, providing flexibility to search by space, type of content, or date.

There are seven types of plug-ins — from macros (such as the one I used to insert RSS feeds) and Java servlets to theme packs and event listeners (which trigger events, such as sending an e-mail when a page is updated).

I quickly controlled these extensions from the Web administration console; there’s no messing with configuration files. The same usability let me edit users, groups, and permissions; alter the site’s look; and perform server maintenance, including one-button backup and restore.

The more I used Atlassian Confluence, the more I appreciated the thought behind its design. It doesn’t go overboard with extraneous features, yet still stuffs in an amazing amount of functionality — all surrounded by a good-looking, friendly interface. This adds up to an enjoyable, productive experience.

Near-Time

The self-service Near-Time lets team members share ideas and files through a group Weblog (News). Users also contribute unstructured knowledge by creating pages in traditional wiki fashion. All this content is assembled within spaces that are public or private. In both cases, podcasts and RSS feeds can be created to communicate with broad audiences. Information is organized and discovered using categories and tags, which also help refine searches. Last, Near-Time’s Event calendar helps track activities.

As a hosted product, Near-Time requires minimal setup time. I tested the Power Plan option ($699.95 annually), which provides all possible management controls, SSL data encryption, Roles and Permissions, and 1GB of file storage. Registering users by sending e-mail invitations is a one-step process. Similarly, controlling what these users can see and do within a space only requires checking off appropriate roles (such as editor, author, commenter, or reader).

Accompanying Near-Time functions follow this simple model. For example, a tab in the clutter-free Web interface let me create pages, which included links, images, and file attachments. Editing controls are among the most complete I’ve encountered, with advanced options to insert Word documents, draw tables, and insert anchor links. Creating and editing News posts works identically. Further, I had no trouble sending e-mails to my News and Pages addresses, which automatically created entries from the content in messages.

The system’s intelligence streamlines linking to other content. In the editing toolbar I typed link text followed by a partial name of the desired page or attachment. Near-Time then displayed the best matches and I merely clicked the correct target content to construct a working link. However, Near-Time sometimes had its own idea where links got inserted within the page, placing them at random rather than where I positioned my cursor.

Near-Time doesn’t support a formal hierarchy for wiki and Weblog entries. As an alternative, you create Categories and Tags, which are applied to pages and articles. By filtering on these classifications and metadata in the well-done search engine, I quickly found relevant content. Further, searches (the ones you own and those of colleagues’) can be saved and placed on the search page.

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Files are managed more traditionally, where you create main folders and subfolders underneath. Document management functions are ample, with the ability to replace, edit, check-in, and check-out documents. But I would like versioning control (currently, when you check in an update, the original file is overwritten).

Near-Time’s main Dashboard consolidates what’s new in all your spaces, including recent files, pages, and events. Between this display, RSS subscriptions, and e-mail notifications it’s easy to stay informed about colleagues’ activities.

Although Near-Time is primarily a private collaboration tool, I exposed some content to the public. This was simple, by changing a space’s access settings. You can further restrict viewing to just content categorized as public.

Near-Time generally performed well in creating content, collaboration, and sharing knowledge — all at a low price. It doesn’t have the granular permissions, organizational capabilities, and extensibility of some other products. But it’s nonetheless a smart choice because there’s no need to learn wiki markup or jump through hoops to administer users and spaces.

Socialtext Workspace 2.3

Socialtext was first with a commercial wiki product and has a strong presence in Global 2000 corporations. It has the most deployment options of the test products: hosted Professional and Personal versions, an Enterprise appliance, and community-supported open source software. I tested the Professional version, which lacks only a few features found in the Enterprise version, such as integration with a directory server.

On the surface Socialtext seems pretty vanilla compared to other products. Yet that simplicity is a main attraction of this product; most tasks are accomplished with one or two clicks. Once inside Socialtext, however, I discovered an assortment of wiki collaboration and Weblog publishing functions.

The main dashboard, like those of other products, provides a quick summary of what’s new, specific pages that you’re watching for changes, and quick navigation to all your authorized workspaces. New users will be up and running in a few minutes.

Workspaces are created using a simple form, and a single button-press builds pages and switches to the edit mode. WYSIWYG editing eliminates knowing any wiki markup; toolbar functions include basic text formatting, tables — along with straightforward linking to other pages (free-form page titles are links), external sites, and files. Moreover, I linked to pages in other workspaces, which would be helpful when teams work on projects that may not be within their usual workspace. Copying and pasting from Word and Excel was problem-free.

I liked Socialtext’s uncommon ability to compare revisions side-by-side and to restore any previous version. For file management, this solution let me upload documents and view versions. But there’s no way to build a folder structure, which would be a big help in organizing a lot of files.

To make finding information easier, I assigned tags to build virtual categories. These markers, along with advanced search of keyword or page title, helped me pinpoint pages of interest.

The Weblog element provides a customary listing of recent posts to the site, along with a comment function that lets you attach files. Any wiki page or Weblog is updatable by sending an e-mail. I also viewed categorized pages as a Weblog, which is a nice way to filter content. Still, Socialtext has a few distinctions, such as integrating with instant messaging clients so you know when colleagues are online and can start an IM conversation.

Administration functions aren’t extensive, but should suffice for general needs. For example, Workspace Privacy let me control who could see each workspace (such as only invited users). But Socialtext wouldn’t let me drill down into each user account and establish specific roles and permissions.

The Enterprise edition adds useful capabilities, including digital certificate support, backup to networked file storage, and the capability of searching your wikis and Weblogs from an existing enterprise search engine.

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Socialtext performs core wiki functions that you’d expect, making it faster than collaborating using shared documents or e-mail. There are many deployment options and versions, as well as features that aren’t at first apparent. Although I’ve tested more sophisticated solutions, Socialtext still has much to offer — especially if you don’t need a lot of accessories.

Traction TeamPage 3.7

Much sets Traction TeamPage apart, starting with the company’s core hypertext engine. This technology handles all the indexing, cross-reference, and navigational elements of TeamPage, so you can build extremely large enterprise wikis, yet quickly organize all the content. Traction has excellent usability together with the best — and most flexible — look and feel of the products tested. For instance, different skins can simultaneously display different views of content to employees, partners, and those using mobile devices.

The system’s permission model is equally substantial, so each user sees filtered lists of reports, open issues, or related articles or interest. For search, you can select Traction’s own engine — or the company bundles an OEM version of FAST (Fast Search and Transfer) enterprise search.

I had TeamPage running in under an hour on a Windows Server 2003 setup. There’s an optional plug-in for authentication using Active Directory, LDAP, or other systems simultaneously. Yet, even if you set up users manually, the polished Web administration speeds the job – along with other tasks, such as building sites. In the latter case, TeamPage’s default Front Page (dashboard) and workspaces should be more than adequate for most enterprises out-of-the-box.

Still, project administrators can easily configure the Front Page and project pages to display query-driven sections — along with changing pages to match corporate branding. For instance, I created several groups including project managers. Then, when a manager logs in, he or she would see a list of status reports and meeting notes. Conversely, team members’ main page displayed issues to address, questions requiring answers, and articles of interest.

I also liked the way TeamPage simplifies getting around. The navigation pane provides one-click access to different projects, sections (such as issues), and also let me sort by labels.

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