Streamlining Document Management in the Life Sciences Industry

If you took a snapshot of document management around 20 years ago, the general situation was that in my industry sector (semiconductors, comms, electronics) we didn't use 3rd party DM software tools. But we were aware of their wider use in the Life Sciences and Pharma industry.

One thing we knew was that they were paying enormous license fees for those products. We put their need to pay down to the fact that theirs is a highly-regulated industry and instead we spent our money on equally expensive licenses for CAD and IC design tools.

At the time, those big name vendors were companies such as Documentum, Interwoven and OpenText. Most got acquired by the likes of Autonomy and EMC over the course of the decade. Even though products like Documentum started in the Life Science industry, many changed focus to things like governance and e-discovery because that was then the hot topic. The other characteristic of those products was that they all had a client/server architecture and web technologies came into it very slowly. 

I'm researching what the Life Science industry is currently using for document management. If you're willing to read the views of someone who has a vested interest (lack of "NPOV", as Wikipedia would say), then I'm happy to share my reading with you.

Luckily, my research coincided with a DocuLabs blog on how to select a Life Sciences document management solution which is a good summary of the status quo. DocuLabs are a consultancy / services company who have been advising on content management solutions for 20 years, and they've got a special interest in Pharma. They focus on EMC Documentum and Microsoft SharePoint, which is probably where most consulting dollars get spent as they are both complex platforms.

So what are the options for the Life Science companies?

One option they could use is Documentum and especially D2 - that's the name of the newer web-based client replacing DCM, Webtop, etc.

But that requires migration, and migration needs tools that are only usable by their consultants because it requires migration from Oracle DB to MS SQL Server in a very direct manner.

The marketing says Documentum can be cloud-based, but it seems to be all consultancy / services driven using EMC or a partner. There's no concept of signing up for a service with or without a free trial or even a free entry level edition. Because it's about migrating from a current solution there are no pricing details either.

Documentum pricing is complex - this is the product whose catalogue runs to hundreds of pages and takes an account manager to interpret correctly. But one thing is clear: by the time you've set up the core repository; added applications from the suite such as document management, search, connectors, etc); and chosen a client access tool (such as D2) then this is going to add up to a hefty price tag. If you're bringing in the consultants as well, then I can't see how a small or medium-sized business could even consider it.

Price is one reason why Microsoft SharePoint has been taking away share from ECM vendors since 2007. It's wonderfully clever marketing, the way so many are convinced that SP is free as part of their site license.

Suffice it to say that for our customers who use Cognidox alongside SP 2016 or 2019, the document control features they need is not out-of-the-box in SharePoint. Anyone doing a budget estimate needs to look at add-on solutions from MSFT partners. I'd put in a cost line for external SP consultants as well, if it were my project budget. So, it isn't cheap either.

Why not just use SharePoint as a document management system?

Next up for consideration might be the commercial open source products such as Alfresco. There's been a decline in options here (some vendors no longer offer a community edition) but Alfresco are doing well. It's more of a platform than an out-of-the-box solution, and so there are partners in their ecosystem who provide installation, integration, customisation and support services on top. There's no disputing that Alfresco has disrupted the hefty pricing once prevalent in enterprise content management software. We've installed the community edition a few times and it isn't for the faint-hearted, especially if you are not conversant in the Java toolchain. It has many features in common with CogniDox, and we sometimes end up on the same RFQ short-lists.

One of the things that Alfresco helped to pioneer was removing the burden of managing named user licenses. Their early pricing model was to sell a subscriptions-based Enterprise edition that gave access to certain features not in the community edition but more importantly it gave access to Support. In the early days all their pricing was transparent and published on their website, so it was clear that support was tied to the number of CPUs used by a company to serve the Alfresco application. A company that used clustering to link four or five different locations would pay more than a company with one server in one location. They've changed their pricing model recently and most of it is now "request a quote".

The magic ingredient

So what do I conclude about document management for the Life Sciences industry? It seems to me legacy software vendors are still using sales techniques that combine a truth (massive volumes of regulated content) with a fear factor (delay to market entry caused by submission delay). I've searched feature lists for some evidence of a 'magic ingredient' to save you from these delays, and found nothing out of the ordinary for a good DMS. I've watched videos of the latest EMC client technologies - nicer to use than before I admit but at >$300 per user just for that part alone?

It eludes me why any new startup or growing company would shell out for the costs of a Documentum or SharePoint solution when Alfresco offers the same for a much lower TCO.

The interesting question for us in Cognidox is whether we should take on Alfresco in that space - from what I've learned so far I see no reason why not.

The DocuLabs blog post goes on to advise how a Life Sciences company might approach the purchasing decision, and there's no point in repeating their good advice here. If you are tasked with such a project, it's recommended reading.

This post was originally written in June 2013 and has since been revised and refreshed for accuracy and relevance.

The value of DMS for Product Development

Tags: Document Management and Control

Paul Walsh

Written by Paul Walsh

Paul Walsh was one of the founders of Cognidox. After a period as an academic working in user experience (UX) research, Paul started a 25-year career in software development. He's worked for multinational telecom companies (Nortel), two $1B Cambridge companies (Ionica, Virata), and co-founded a couple of startup companies. His experience includes network management software, embedded software on silicon, enterprise software, and cloud computing.

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