Stratifying the Clouds-NetDocuments

July 14, 2013
Salt Lake City, UT

NetDocuments differs somewhat from the other three Cloud-based document storage services profiled earlier in this series, in that it is first and foremost a full blown "document management system" (DMS), designed to manage huge volumes of content for firms of all sizes, rather than a "file sharing service" focused on securely transferring files. Having said that, it certainly does a more-than-adequate job of managing file transfers, and offers an extremely granular security scheme for determining who can see/edit/share what documents.

With a few exceptions, NetDocuments offers all of the features and functionality of the other three services, and provides four additional benefits which could be of value to many firms:

*A highly customizable user interface

*Extremely flexible content profiling/search capabilities

*Multiple options for sharing documents with non-users

*Tight integration with standard desktop applications (Word, Outlook, Acrobat, etc.)

NetDocuments users can choose between a folder-based interface, as is available in the other three services, or a "matter-centric" interface (called a Workspace in NetDocuments) where the user can see all of the content for a specific client/matter, automatically filed and organized according to criteria (filters) defined by the user. Comprehensive "profiling" rules can be defined in advance for all content, with values for the various profile "attributes" predefined and selectable via drop-down lists. These lists can be set up by an administrator-level user, and can then be "protected" from editing by non-admin users. Document searches can be performed based on any combination of these profile attributes, or by a variety of other criteria (full text, date modified, email from/to, file type, etc.).

Document sharing options in NetDocuments are somewhat more expansive than those offered by the other services. In addition to delivering documents via a "secured link", the NetDocuments service can also be configured:

*to allow designated and pre-defined "external users" to access specific folders within the overall filing system (similar to some of the other systems profiled here)

*with a "ShareSpace" that allows easy access, commenting, discussion threads, etc. by non-users to any documents posted to that "space", without consuming any "external" NetDocuments licenses

*with one or more completely separate "external file cabinets," a useful way to share many documents with a single large client, with minimal administrative overhead required.

Integration between NetDocuments and the user desktop can be made extremely tight, with integration tools available to allow users to modify the "Save" and "Open" menu choices in all Microsoft Office applications (via an embedded macro) to automatically open NetDocuments and prompt for a file name as soon as Save or Open is selected by the user. A "Local Save" and "Local Open" menu choice is still available for any files that are not flagged for NetDocuments storage. For firms that want to create a completely "closed filing system", with no local file saving available for users at all, the Office macros can be edited to accomplish this, "forcing" users to save only to the Cloud.

Outlook integration is also included in the NetDocuments license, with choices for "drag and drop" filing functionality, full message profiling, or saving an email to NetDocuments manually, as an ".MSG" file. None of the other three systems reported on earlier in this series allow for simple, searchable storage of Outlook messages themselves. Like the other systems reviewed, Outlook file attachments can be transferred to/ from the NetDocuments repository from directly within Outlook. Unlike the others, these attachments can be profiled separately from the email message, with an option to retain the link to the original message (for audit trail purposes).

There is also an integration tool for both Adobe Acrobat Writer and Reader, allowing the user to save PDF's to NetDocuments directly from Acrobat, via an embedded button on the Acrobat toolbar.

NetDocuments supports an iPad application for viewing files, but does not offer any embedded editing functionality for documents downloaded to the iPad (save for the iPad's native "send to" capability). At present there are no native applications for viewing documents on an Android, Blackberry, or Windows Phone device. Because NetDocuments is structured as a "Centralized" collaboration tool rather than a "Distributed" tool, there is presently no native synchronization capability built into the service. I expect to see this capability added to NetDocuments by the end of 2013. There is even some discussion occurring of a "synch utility" with Dropbox and SkyDrive, creating what I would term "Conversant Clouds." Not sure how this will be used, but I expect some creative ideas to flow once the capability becomes available.

NetDocuments imposes a (somewhat arbitrary) file size limit of 200 Mb for any single file uploaded to its storage service. This does not really pose too much of a limitation for most users, unless you need to store large video files, or other graphics-oriented content, on the service.

NetDocuments is an ideal document management choice for firms that are seeking an ultra-secure, ultra-reliable service, need fast and flexible searching for a large repository of documents, desire a customizable user interface, and value seamless integration to the Cloud from within their native desktop applications. Once you get beyond the so-called "free versions" of the systems reviewed earlier (which most users will need to do to fully leverage their respective capabilities for business use), the monthly cost of a NetDocuments license represents an excellent "price-to-value" ratio in comparison to these other services, in my opinion.

Next week I will take a look at Worldox, a "hybrid", but-full-featured, document management system that offers both an internal and a Cloud-based approach to document management.