News | December 13, 2007

Document Management: H&R Block Finds The Perfect Open Source Software

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H&R Block wanted a flexible, easy- to-use document management system to capture clients' tax documents and move them digitally to its tax preparers' offices. It considered commercial products, such as FileNet and Documentum. But H&R Block CIO Marc West eventually directed the team to focus on open source options, since the cost of putting commercial options in 13,000 fields offices wouldn't fly.

That left about 300 open source content management packages to choose from, with names like Alfresco, Drupal, JackRabbit, and Joomla. For a company to even be in the running, its site had to meet the standards of Chris Ginn, lead engineer on the project. Ginn frequently visited sites for open source content management systems, particularly those of the projects Alfresco and Apache Software Foundation's JackRabbit projects, which aspire to enterprise standards. "The first thing I do is go out to the community pages," Ginn says. "How many active members are there, how many [discussion] threads? It tells me whether the community is thriving."

He also checks for how many developers are involved and how frequently the project puts out releases. He watches how effectively bugs are dealt with and inserts his own questions to gauge the caliber of response. Ginn also has to weed out the amateurs--software projects designed by a few people for their specific needs--from those built for mass-market ease of use. Yet even with a serious contender such as JackRabbit, one barrier to quick adoption was "immature" documentation, says Ginn.

Senior architect Dan Cahoon visited Alfresco headquarters to assess its ability to deliver commercial support. "There's a solid company there," he says. Beyond Alfresco, there was a specialized third-party company, Rivet Logic, that could help H&R Block with the initial deployment.

Getting to the Alfresco decision wasn't easy, and the commercial support isn't cheap. H&R Block will pay US$100,000 in support its first year of use. But that's one-tenth of a similar commercial product support contract, Cahoon says. The company's initially doing several deployments at headquarters, but it wanted a cost low enough to leave open the possibility of a major rollout to its extensive branch offices. "We wanted our choice to scale both technically and economically," says Cahoon. Finding an open source option wasn't the easy way, but H&R Block met that goal.

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