April 22, 2010 By Andy Opsahl
Photo: Michael Armstrong, CIO of Corpus Christi, Texas/Photo courtesy of the Corpus Christi, Texas, Office of the CIO
For a city or county agency, the routing and maintenance of documents is much like the human body's circulatory system -- there is a lot of complexity and many pathways.
And like health care, document management systems can be expensive. But that's not necessarily a set-in-stone cost. For example, Corpus Christi, Texas, CIO Michael Armstrong believes document management can be cheaper by utilizing companies that combine free open source document management software with traditional maintenance support -- a hybrid solution that can yield bargain-bin prices.
In May 2009, Armstrong acquired a document management system from open source provider Alfresco which included a contract offering maintenance support for the entire city at only $11,000 annually. Armstrong decided to start small with a pilot in the Corpus Christi Water Department. He is in the process of a wider deployment of the product, which he found mentioned in a magazine article and on a few websites.
"I happened to see this application that looked an awful lot like Microsoft SharePoint. It had a lot of the same capabilities," Armstrong said.
Those capabilities included "check-in/check-out," which allows one person to edit a document while others can only read it. Another capability called "versioning" enables users to view the different versions of the document throughout the editing process and work within any of them. Armstrong also liked the search capabilities and multiple options for organizing files.
"It also has collaboration features, such as being able to do group sites for projects," Armstrong said. "It has wiki capability, discussion groups and group calendars."
Government IT decision-makers usually think about open source for website content management systems, but not as frequently for the larger infrastructure functions, like e-mail, payroll and human resources. Armstrong thinks the combination of free open source software and paid service support could change that. He doubts the completely free model would ever be adequate by itself. Governments needing IT bugs fixed can't wait for programmers in the open source community to do it for free, Armstrong said.
"When you're spending taxpayer money on an application, you need some assurance that if something goes wrong, you're going to get the assistance you need right then," Armstrong explained.
He said training end-users on the software was remarkably easy.
"Fifteen minutes of instruction is generally plenty for anybody," Armstrong said. "They have been loading master documents into it. It will store and view virtually anything you throw at it -- CAD [computer-aided design] drawings, spreadsheets, graphics -- whatever you want."
One risk of using a lesser-known provider is the fear that the company might someday go out of business and be unable to support its product. Armstrong said that didn't worry him.
"We're also impressed with a number of very large firms that are using this application. They're some of the larger companies in the world. That gives us a level of confidence that it's going to be around for a while," Armstrong said.
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