Blog / I Need a REALLY BIG computer

Anyone who has experience with FOIP (Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy) will already know there is a lot more to document management than scanning files.  We’re certainly not FOIP or document management experts, but we have been exposed to several systems – some good and some bad. I thought I would pass on a few reflections from our experiences.

At the core of any document management system is the ability to digitize records to reduce storage requirements and make records available to users through some sort of organizational structure. This includes digitizing paper records (using the scanner), but also storing current digital documents (like Word documents or Emails).  Typically, these systems store the documents in a universally readable format – like PDF.

The very smallest systems can use a scanner, a (BIG) computer, and simple hierarchical file structure to organize the records.  But these systems tend to fall apart after several hundred records as the file structure becomes difficult to manage, especially when you have to manage user permissions at the same time.

True document management systems add another element to the system by attaching a header to the document.  This header allows the user to enter information about the document – such as author, subject, content summary, document dates, retention policy, category, and reader permissions. This information is stored in a database and the application manages the data records and the document images.

More sophisticated systems add batch scanner control (the ability to scan batches of documents at one time), automatic conversion to the standard (PDF format), automated document culling (removing documents that have reached the end of their retention time), automatic text reading(called OCR – Optical Character Recognition) that makes scanned documents searchable, and search engines that allow users to search for content across all documents (like Google for your organization’s documents).

Most of these systems are server-based and have facilities for backing up both the documents and the header database.

Two of the more common systems we have seen are LaserFiche and DocuShare. They are often bundled with high speed scanners from either Ricoh or Xerox (respectively). We can’t speak to the usability of these systems – I’m sure they both have positive and negative attributes. But I do want to point out some issues common to many document management systems:

  • Separate – Don’t mix the document management system with other applications or data files.  It should be it’s own server (or virtual server).
  • Storage – there is never enough of it.  Thus, when planning the storage (server) for these systems, think big – or at least plan for storage expansion as you enter more documents.
  • Backups – they’re often never tested until it’s too late. Restoring several hundred gigabytes of data from a document management system can take a long time – sometimes days.  Depending on the backup type, you may be able to retrieve one lost file, or you may have to restore the entire set.
  • Security – aside from lax security of the internal user permissions, we often see unrestricted physical access to the server – and quite often the backup devices and media.  This is the equivalent of leaving all of the filing cabinet drawers open on your paper files.

So, there is more to effective document management than a REALLY BIG computer and a scanner. If you would like more information about document management, please contact us and we can refer to the experts.