Alfresco on track for Curtin ECM

A three year project to implement the Alfresco Content Management System at Curtin University was well underway when Peter Nikoletatos took up the reins as CIO  in late 2008.

“We are two years into the project, and it was anticipated that at end of third year we would be in pilot mode however we are currently in pilot mode right now,” said Nikoletatos.

Curtin is one of two Australian universities to select the open source Alfresco platform (ANU is the other).  Alfresco is being integrated with Curtin’s HR and  Student management system and will provide a single repository from 2010.
“We have created an enterprise-wide taxonomy which we use to categorise documentation, policies, forms and intranet pages – a Curtin common vocabulary approach,” said Nikoletatos.

Work has commenced on making structured and unstructured data available through an existing staff portal. Curtin University is also evaluating SharePoint server and is investigating integration of SharePoint with the Alfresco ECM solution.

“SharePoint use is now so widespread and we already have it as part of our Microsoft arrangement. I think they will coexist,” said Nikoletatos.

Alfresco has not been able to satisfy all of the information management and presentation needs at Curtin. It is currently being implemented to provide document management capability while Open Text is providing a Web Content Management System for the University Web site.  SharePoint is being used by the University’s ICT group (Curtin IT Services (CITS)) to run the portal site for their online Project Office.

“The CITS Project Office is using SharePoint and evaluating whether Alfresco is the best fit for every requirement or are their situations where SharePoint may be a more appropriate outcome so we have contingency in case we can’t address everything via Alfresco.

Nikoletatos admits there have been challenges being an Alfresco pioneer in Perth, as he points out, one of the most isolated cities on the world.

“One of the risks of open source technology is that you can be limited in trying to obtain professional support services. With alternatives you may have higher license fees but you also get a more readily available pool of support. It’s easier to find a SharePoint expert tomorrow than it is to find an Alfresco expert if I need one.”

“There is definitely an appetite across higher education to support open source technology, but there are pros and cons, you may reduce your licence fees but you spend it on professional services.

“We are now very focused  with the Alfresco product and are keen to get it fully in production for our go live on January 1 2010 and heavily in pilot right now. We are also seeing more corporate take-up of Alfresco in Australia and we are encouraged by that. It’s not a bad product but when you get to a sticky situation resources are a little harder to find.”

“There are APIs for Alfresco integration with SharePoint and we see those two products as the core of our ECM strategy.”

The ECM program at Curtin began when the University faced the challenge of integrating a disparate approach to document and record management that was being handled in independently by all of the faculties. The aim was to provide de-duplicated access to student and corporate records while also making the process of updating Web site content more efficient. Reducing duplication of storage across the university was another key aim, by introducing s centralised repository of documents so that people could send pointers (links) rather than attachments. The higher education sector also faces stringent requirements for twice yearly auditing.

“Historically Curtin University has been a highly decentralised organisation,” said Nikoletatos.

“Universities are steeped in history out of this idea of collegiate decision-making unlike the corporate world which is generally more about centralised decision-making, so there is an onus on my office to ensure a more significant collaborative process is in place that has to be managed and communicated well.”

The centralised CMS replaces a system of distributed file stores, which led to inconsistent records management as staff weren’t always aware of their statutory requirements. It has been implemented on RedHat Virtualised Servers running a clustered SUN network filesystem.

While much of the student and corporate records nowadays is electronic, like any University, Curtin has a large backlog of paper records which must be retained for a long time as a statutory requirement. Curtin University has recently embarked on a program to scan and digitally archive high value records in Alfresco, utilizing a Kodak i440  scanner and Kofax capture software.

“The State Government has added  complexity by its requirement for JPG full colour single sided images of documents, which makes it difficult to automate scanning with this approach because documents aren’t always single sided , different sized paper, so there’s a few challenges for us. This task is therefore a highly resource intensive operation, notwithstanding the storage demands it creates,” said Nikoletatos.

The email platform at Curtin is Exchange 2003  and Nikoletatos expects to migrate to Exchange 2010 later next year.
“In the short term Alfresco will provide email archiving capability but in the long term we are looking to work with Microsoft as our strategic partner. Email specifically is around 10% of our corporate data (15Tb including backups).  We are hoping the ECM deployment will change the way our staff use email, enabling  them to point to a source document instead of using attachments.”