Alfresco 3 Business Solutions: Types of E-mail Integration

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Alfresco 3 Business Solutions

Alfresco 3 Business Solutions

Practical implementation techniques and guidance for delivering business solutions with Alfresco

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  • Each and every type of business solution is implemented through the eyes of a fictitious financial organization – giving you the right amount of practical exposure you need.
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(For more resources on Alfresco 3, see here.)

It is becoming more and more common that an ECM solution should include the possibility of storing e-mails in the repository, so they can be managed and searched in the same way all other content can. When we talk about managing e-mails in the content management system, it is important to know exactly what we mean by that. Today most companies and organizations want to use Alfresco for e-mail archiving, which is not something that is easily supported out of the box.

E-mail integration solutions

There are a number of different ways that an e-mail system can be integrated with the Alfresco CMS system. We will look at three of these and present advantages and disadvantages with each one.

The three different e-mail integration solutions are:

  • E-mail client talking directly to Alfresco via the IMAP protocol
  • E-mail client talking to Alfresco via custom built plugin and Web Scripts
  • E-mail server talking to Alfresco via custom module and Web Scripts

E-mail client talking directly to Alfresco via the IMAP protocol

This is the solution that is available out of the box with Alfresco. From version 3.2 and onwards Alfresco supports the IMAP protocol, which is one way an e-mail client can talk to e-mail servers (the other way is POP). So, with this solution Alfresco can behave like an IMAP e-mail server.

The following image illustrates how this solution works:

The e-mail clients typically receive an e-mail in their Inbox and then they can drag-and-drop that e-mail into an Alfresco folder via the IMAP channel. Any attachment can be extracted and handled separately to the e-mail in the Alfresco repository.

This is a manual process that requires the end user to manage what e-mails he or she wants to be stored in Alfresco. Nothing happens automatically and no e-mails are stored in Alfresco unless a user manually drag-and-drops them there

To achieve automatic archiving of e-mails, a user could set up an e-mail rule in their e-mail client that automatically files some or all e-mails into an Alfresco folder. However, we would still have to manually set up this rule on all users’ e-mail clients. So we could not say that this would be an archiving solution that is transparent to the user, as it does not automatically force all e-mails to be saved for auditing purposes. Further on, the e-mail client has to be running in order for the e-mail rule to execute.

This solution is best thought of as an e-mail management solution where users collaborate and share information in e-mails.

The advantages of this solution are:

  • No client installation:In most e-mail clients we can set up an extra IMAP account connecting to Alfresco without the need to install any extra software on the client workstation. This includes Outlook, Lotus Notes, Mozilla Thunderbird, and GroupWise.
  • Users don’t have to change working style:This is a big thing, users do not want to start learning a complete new way of managing e-mails, they just want to work in the same way they always have. The Alfresco account just shows up as another e-mail inbox in the e-mail client. Users can drag-and-drop e-mails between mailboxes just as they normally do. They do not have to learn any extra functionality.
  • Users don’t have to change working style:This is a big thing, users do not want to start learning a complete new way of managing e-mails, they just want to work in the same way they always have. The Alfresco account just shows up as another e-mail inbox in the e-mail client. Users can drag-and-drop e-mails between mailboxes just as they normally do. They do not have to learn any extra functionality.
  • Supported out-of-the-box:No need to install any extra Alfresco modules, just configure some properties and the solution is ready to go.

The disadvantages of this solution are:

  • No document search:Users cannot search for documents in Alfresco and then attach them to an e-mail they want to send.
  • Cannot set custom metadata:Because this solution does not use any custom plugin on the e-mail client side there is no possibility of setting custom metadata for an e-mail, such as for example customer ID, before it is stored in Alfresco. However, you can often solve this problem by creating business rules on the server-side and apply custom metadata based on which folder an e-mail is dropped into.
  • No archiving solution:This is an e-mail collaboration and e-mail sharing solution, it does not force e-mail to be stored in the repository for compliance and regulatory reasons.

Because this solution doesn’t require any client installation, or updates to the Alfresco server, it will probably be the most popular e-mail management solution. It can also easily be extended with folder rules to create sophisticated e-mail filing solutions.

E-mail client talking to Alfresco through custom built plugin and Web Scripts

There are one or two products out there that have taken a different approach to integrating e-mail clients with Alfresco. One of these products is Anovio Email Management solution for Outlook 2007 (http://www.anovio.de/aem). This product provides a solution that enables you to also work with documents from the e-mail client, and search for documents via the e-mail client.

To do this they had to implement a plugin for the e-mail client that is almost exclusively Outlook, and use Web Scripts to talk to Alfresco. The IMAP channel approach is not used as it can only handle e-mails.

The following picture gives us an overview of this solution:

This solution is also an e-mail management solution as it is up to the end user to actually save the e-mail into the repository. There is no automatic archiving going on.

The advantages of this solution are:

  • Document search: You can do a full text search for documents in the repository via the e-mail client. A document can then be attached to an e-mail that is about to be sent.
  • Users don’t have to change working style: Users can drag-and-drop e-mails into the Alfresco repository in a way they are used to. They do not have to use, and learn, the extra document management functionality in the Outlook plugin if they do not want to.
  • Stores attachments directly: Attachments can be stored directly into the repository without storing the e-mail.
  • Stores attachments directly: Attachments can be stored directly into the repository without storing the e-mail.

The disadvantages of this solution are:

  • Client installationYou can do a full text search for documents in the repository via the e-mail client. A document can then be attached to an e-mail that is about to be sent.
  • Does not work for all e-mail clientsIt works only with certain e-mail clients, such as for example Outlook 2007, in the case of the Anovio product.
  • Users have to learn new functionalityIf users want to handle documents from the e-mail client then they have to learn new functionality. Also, there are usually new menus and features users have to learn even for the standard e-mail management functionality.
  • No archiving solution:This is an e-mail collaboration and sharing solution, it does not force e-mail to be stored in the repository for compliance and regulation reasons.
  • Not supported out of the box:It is not a part of the Alfresco package, so will need to be purchased separately.

This kind of solution can be very good for users that frequently need to attach documents from the Alfresco repository to e-mails that they are sending. However, if there is a larger user base, the maintenance burden could be quite substantial as you would need to install the plugin on every user’s PC.

E-mail server talking to Alfresco through custom module and Web Scripts

This is the classical e-mail archiving solution where the e-mail system integration has been done on the e-mail server-side. This solution is totally transparent for the end users and usually complies with security regulations. What this means is that all e-mails are archived automatically without the user having to do anything, which guarantees that every incoming and outgoing e-mail has been filed and can be audited later.

There are—unfortunately, at the time of writing—no such solutions available for Alfresco.

But for reference purposes this is how such a solution would typically look:

This solution would require us to build an extension module for the e-mail server that captures all inbound and outbound e-mails and stores them in Alfresco without the users having to do anything. So all e-mails are captured and stored for archiving and auditing purposes.

Users can then for example, access the e-mails through the standard IMAP channel, if they are stored as standard MIME messages according to RFC-822 (http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc822)

The advantages of this solution are:

  • Supports archiving and auditingThis is the only solution that would be compliant with security regulations as users are not involved, and cannot decide if an e-mail should be stored or not.
  • Users don’t have to change working styleUsers can use their standard e-mail client to view archived e-mails.

The disadvantages of this solution are:

  • Requires server installation:We need to have access to the e-mail server and be able to install the integration module. This might be challenging in many situations when you might not be allowed to install anything on the e-mail server, or the e-mail server might be hosted externally so we would not have access to it.
  • Attachments are not extracted:The attachments would probably not be extracted and sorted into their own subfolder. This is assumed as the purpose of an e-mail archiving solution to store the complete original e-mail for auditing reasons, and not for e-mail management use.
  • Not a collaboration and sharing solutionE-mails are stored in an archiving structure and not in a project or case structure. Users would have more difficulty in collaborating around e-mail content.
  • Duplicate e-mails exist:There would be a lot of duplicate e-mails because of security regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley that requires all e-mails to be stored for auditing purpose, even if it is a duplicate.
  • Not supported out of the boxIt is not a part of the Alfresco package so will need to be purchased separately, if it is available

This solution is mentioned here so we can easily tell the difference between an e-mail management solution and an e-mail archiving solution when we discuss this with potential clients. There has been a lot of misunderstanding around what e-mail integration solutions are currently available for Alfresco, where they are sometimes referred to as e-mail archiving solutions, which they are not.

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