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WebDAV Benefits for the Enterprise and its Denizens

  Article published in DM Direct Newsletter
June 27, 2003 Issue
  By Lisa Dusseault

If you've ever sent a document to several coworkers over the Internet and asked for editing comments, you know the fundamental flaw of Internet-based collaboration: version creep. Without some type of flow and versioning control, it is left up to the hapless project leader to sort through slight and major variations of the same file or document. Imagine the same document with comments from 100 team members - a real nightmare and incredibly inefficient. The typical enterprise with 1,000 or more employees wastes more than $11 million annually on document and file related tasks, according to a Gartner study.

Keeping track of the changes large and small is only the tip of the iceberg. In a large-scale system with hundreds or thousands of users exchanging documents and files, the mail servers and data storage are consuming massive chunks of memory processing, transferring and storing the same data over and over, since 60 percent of business information in the typical enterprise continues to be shared via e-mail. A global insurance company recently counted more than 1,400 versions of the same invoice created as it traveled from office to office through its system!

Web-based distributed authoring and versioning (WebDAV) is a standards-based protocol developed to address the need to collaborate and author documents over the Web. Just as the early development of the HTTP standard made it possible for wider interoperability and broader access for viewing Web pages, the growing use and acceptance of WebDAV delivers some key benefits to enterprise users.

WebDAV-based solutions deliver secure access and sharing to users inside known groups, reduce duplicate files and storage costs, provide superior file system control for the IT department and allow shared files to be encrypted and authenticated.

Because it imposes a common data model that includes collections, resources, locks and properties, and defines a common syntax using HTTP messages, collaborators can use WebDAV to jointly author an electronic document without overwriting each other's changes or wondering which e-mail or directory contains the authoritative version. At the same time, partner software on all leading platforms can interact openly with WebDAV resources. This allows the WebDAV protocol to sit as a transparent overlay on top of existing legacy systems for an enterprise user wishing to optimize and rationalize workflow and collaboration.

Any company or IT department working to optimize data storage, content management or collaboration should consider a WebDAV-based approach. WebDAV adds an intelligent file management layer to the enterprise's file storage systems. The system can be implemented so that it works from within authoring tools - such as word processors and spreadsheets - and provides secure access from remote PCs, laptops and PDAs in wired and wireless environments.

Before WebDAV was developed in the mid-1990s, users would have to buy an enterprise content management system (ECM). ECM systems typically cost several million dollars for the software license and implementation. Because the per seat cost was often $400 or more, most companies only deployed to about 10 percent of total users. ECM systems also didn't integrate well with all applications and required extensive user training. Each system was not only proprietary, each vendor locked enterprise users into recurring annual fees.

As the ultimate endorsement, traditional ECM vendors today are increasingly supporting WebDAV as a way to offer ease of use, reduced cost of implementation and lower operating expenses to their customers. Already, systems integrators such as Fortis Technologies are working with ECM suppliers such as Documentum, Stellent and FileNET developing solutions that help these high-end systems easily work with and migrate information to WebDAV servers.

Many leading authoring applications also include WebDAV functionality. Both Microsoft Office and all Adobe authoring applications support WebDAV for opening documents in a repository and saving them directly back to a repository. A similar level of support can be found for file management applications: Web Folders on Windows, WebDAV FS (file system) on Mac OS X and open source clients on Linux all support WebDAV so that all three operating systems will allow users to navigate to repositories, browse, move and rename documents. For this reason, WebDAV is becoming the de facto standard not only for partner access to repositories, but also for repositories to migrate or import data between each other. As a result, WebDAV can be a interrepository standard for file exchange as well as a secure client based file access and sharing protocol.

Because WebDAV extends HTTP, the best WebDAV implementations can support a wide variety of server architectures and storage systems. These include Solaris, AIX, Linux, BSD, HP- UX, Mac OSX and Windows 2000/NT. Most WebDAV implementations are well suited for the typical mixed server and storage environments found in today's typical enterprise IT infrastructure.

Enterprise users considering WebDAV can also enjoy full integration with existing security standards which is especially important for data intensive organizations becoming compliant with new regulations such as HIPAA and FOIA. Implementations can carry a meta data layer to identify the contents of a file while providing multilevel access controls and timed tickets governing external user access to files.

WebDAV also allows for bandwidth and capacity quotas to be implemented with ease. IT teams in the higher education market, including Pace University and University of Texas at Austin, are calling on WebDAV and specifically these features, to better control the access and storage offered to students on the campus network.

WebDAV's Impact on the Workplace

Let's consider how WebDAV can work today in an enterprise for the average user: For example, Sally is an internal communications manager. Today she received an e- mail from one of her company's new partners, which has just changed its incorporation name. Now Sally needs to update the partner's name in a couple places: on her company's live, public Web site and in a draft case study white paper on her company's internal Web site.

To start, Sally updates the public Web site. To do this, she launches Adobe GoLive, which uses WebDAV to synchronize a Web site - or a portion of a Web site - to the user's computer and back again. Sally synchronizes with the latest content on the Web site, then opens the "partners" page and quickly changes the partner's name. She also uploads a new logo and links that into the partner's page. Sally is permitted to make changes on the public Web site because GoLive uses standard HTTP Digest authentication to securely identify her to the Web/WebDAV server. She authenticates as herself, but gains permission to edit the partner's page through her membership in the "Marcomm-editors" group. Once the pages are edited, GoLive synchronizes the changes back to the server, and the public Web site is now fixed.

Sally next needs to change the draft case study. To do this, Sally uses Windows Explorer to open a Windows-mapped drive letter. The drive is mapped to the company's internal WebDAV file sharing server, which allows only encrypted connections over SSL. The company's IT department set this up in this way to ensure that company confidential information remains confidential, even when employees work remotely. However, Sally doesn't need to worry about this, because the drive is mapped just like any networked Windows drive.

Once Sally locates the case study, Explorer launches Microsoft Word to edit it. Word automatically uses WebDAV locks to reserve the document so no other marcomm editors can make conflicting changes while Sally is working on the document. Again, Sally doesn't need to worry about this because WebDAV makes the process seamless and automatic. Sally changes the partner's name and logo in the Word document and saves it back to the shared file server. When Sally closes Word, the lock is automatically released so that once again any user with write permission can modify the case study.

In order to wrap up the approval process, Sally needs to distribute the modified case study for review. She creates an e-mail to a group of people, including somebody from the partner's marcomm team who needs to approve the case study. She creates a "ticket" to the case study so that anybody who receives the e-mail with a link to the document can securely access the document, even if the recipient doesn't have an account to log onto the internal file server. She copies the link into the e-mail and then sends it. When the partner receives the e-mail, the recipient can click on the link, which includes the ticket, and open the case study remotely. Any Web browser can do this by automatically launching Word to view the contents. The partner can now review and approve the case study with Sally's changes.

This scenario is just a simple example of how quickly WebDAV begins to pay for itself in dramatically improved organizational productivity. The less obvious, but equally important impact on ROI is realized in enhanced security and cost reduction on back-end servers and data storage assets. For these reasons, WebDAV is quickly establishing itself as the logical choice for many enterprise collaboration and content management requirements.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Content Management.

Lisa Dusseault currently heads server product development for Xythos Software and is co-chair of the IETF WebDAV working group. She has participated in IETF application protocol standards since 1996 when she worked at Microsoft on Internet server technology. She is currently writing a book about WebDAV due to be published by Prentice Hall later this year.

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