The topic “Document Management System” (DMS) is discussed very intense in the literature. Most authors understand under the term DMS a product by a large company, for example the Sage DMS system. In the theoretical literature a DMS is sometimes called an Enterprise Content Management System and is equal to the central backbone of a company. But who exactly can such a system be realized? I’ve found a lot of potential examples:
– A wiki which allows uploading of binary files (for example Word files and PDF documents)
– sometimes WordPress is recommended as a DMS and it allows also attachments
– network-filesystems like SMB and NFS can be used to store files for a team
– the version control system SVN is a centralized system which allows storage of files too
– sometimes the Microsoft exchange server is called the central hub
What we can see are two groups. At first, the OS-specific solutions like SMB and Microsoft Exchange and on the other side, the web based systems like Wikis and Blogs. But what needs the user in reality? Then i found a third category, called WebDav. Webdav is comparable to NFS and SMB but works like HTTP. It is mixed system which combines classical operating system technology with modern Internet backbone. The good news is, that Webdav can be used by Linux, Windows and Mac OS X. It is usually integrated into the filemanager.
In the screenshot, the starting point for webdav is shown. But to be honest, I’ve never tried out in practice. In theory, it works similar to an FTP Server, but with an integrated version control system and authentication. The most interesting feature behind Webdav is, that it is not a PHP application which runs in the webbrowser and where the user must uploads his files, instead it is some kind of network filesystem. In theory, many users can edit the files in parallel.
Like I mentioned in the beginning, the topic of Document management system is very complex. There are hundreds of papers available and dozens of products on the market. The main problem is to manage the documents in a company by many users in parallel. A document management system is different from a simple wordpress installation and it is different from a single user PC in which one person stores his documents in folders. It is something in between. The conditions are usually defined by needs from outside the company, that means, the company gets hundreds of E-Mails and Letters and must manage this information. In contrast to scientific documents, each paper has a low amount of information. On the other hand, the amount is high, that means, every day around 200 billion e-mails are send worldwide with a growing rate.
As far as i understand, Webdav is similar to a cloud in which users can upload and download files. They are doing so either by a filebrowser, a command line or with external programs like Alfresco (a commercial DMS). The interesting aspect of Webdav is, that it can be called an advanced form of SMB and NFS. It works on Linux and Windows both.
Let us explain which problem Webdav can solve. It helps to prevent, that users are storing files on their local harddrive. What Webdav doesn’t solve is the question, how the workflow in the network file system is organised. Every user put his file into the directory and then?
Documents in company vs scientific papers
The handling of scientific papers is from a technical perspective trivial. A paper is always stored in the PDF format and the amount is very low. That means, a simple webserver where the users can upload their PDF documents is all what researchers need. They are creating the paper on their local PC and for publishing they transfer the file to a server. In contrast, documents in a company are more tricky. Usually the documents itself are trivial, for example it is an invoice or something similar, But the problem that the amount is higher, and that they are modified by many people in a workflow, sometimes at the same time. How document processing in a company works is unclear. Mostly it doesn’t work or it works but the costs are too high.
We can call the processing of scientific papers from a technical perspective a solved task. A modern webportal like Arxiv is everything what researchers need. Such portal scales well up to million of documents which is equal to hosting all the papers from the world. In contrast, document handling in company is an open question. Existing solutions called Document management systems are mostly a theoretical idea but not realized in practive. What the users are really doing is to send e-mails back and forth, they are deleting important files and nobody is there how is able to manage the chaos.
A while ago, Wikis were introduced as an answer to document handling. And in theory a wiki is great, if all users are using the wiki markup language. But the reality in the company is, that not the publishing of information is important (like in the famous Wikipedia project), but in most cases, the company is a hub in which documents are coming in and going out. It can’t handled by a wiki.
More about Webdav
Webdav seems to be a here to stay solution. Because a document management system needs some kind of network storage. The main problem with webdav is, that apart from a network storage the user has no other option. He can browse through 10000 files, created by other users but doesn’t know what to do with them. There is a need for something on top of Webdav. According to Google, it is possible to create a python application which connects to a Webdav drive. This goes more in the direction of a document management system. Suppose the user is creating a Python GUI app, for visualizing his workflow. Then he can use the frontend, for searching and editing existing files.
A more advanced idea would be to replace a Python gui with a PHP GUI which runs inside the webbrowser and is layered to the need of the user too. But I’m not sure, if a normal Python GUI is better.
But perhaps it is possible to use Webdav in it’s plain version. Let us make a short example. A company consists of 5 employees. Each employee has a clear amount of tasks. These tasks are not defined by the software or by Webdav but by the manager of the company. Every user is creating his own directory in webdav. /user1, /user2 and so on. And in this folder he can store all the files, the employee wants. That means, from the company structure there is no need, that user1 can edit the files of user 3 and vice versa. What is wrong with this workflow? Nothing, because it is the preferred management style in the paper based office, and it works also great in the internet age. It must be called an ideology of software companies, to promote a new working style in which all employee is able to edit all files, which might be from a technical perspective correct but makes on the topic level no sense. Or to make the point clear, the precondition for using Webdav with high productivity is a management structure which is already there before the computer boots up. If the organization structure let it open which user has to do which task, the best document management system in the world can’t answer this question.
The main problem with advanced document management systems is, that they promise make work easier. They don’t. What a good DMS can provide is nothing more what Webdav can provide. That means, the user can connect to a network directory, he can see his own files and that’s it. It is up to the user to decide what to write in the files, and what to do next. IMHO modern Document management system are deliver to much. They have apart from simple file access many other features and the users believe, they must utilize them all to be highly productive.