Four DAMs from the InDesign Out
Silicon Publishing has built InDesign Server Solutions the past 15 years for the largest organizations in the world: from Web to Print applications for the likes of Amazon, Hallmark and Shutterfly to Database Publishing applications for companies including Disney, Nike, and Royal Caribbean. In this context we have seen well over 30 “Digital Asset Management” (DAM) systems from third parties providers such as MediaBeacon, Widen and Adobe, as well as a number of home-built concoctions, some of which have actually been quite powerful.
We are not DAM-centric: we focus on InDesign Server automation and in most cases we integrate this with whatever asset management the client has running. Only quite rarely do we encounter clients at the point they are contemplating a new DAM. So we have made pretty much every popular DAM out there work, at least to the point of serving assets to our publishing applications.
In 2010, we added a product to our suite called Silicon Connector. This product provides a very direct and efficient connection between Adobe InDesign and web-based assets. While this product works with very generic web servers, most of Connector’s users are interested in very specific, Enterprise-class, DAMs. We have thus chosen one DAM at a time to make specific Connectors for (and to). So far we have built connectors for 8 DAMs, including:
What DAM should you choose? We certainly don’t know. It totally depends who you are, what you are trying to accomplish, how much money you have, and probably your date of birth and other parameters we don’t want to hear about…. In my 20 years seeing different DAMs and their users, I have concluded that it is 100% subjective: every DAM asserts some perspective on what assets are and what asset characteristics matter, and every user has their own strong opinion.
There are a couple very high-level features that differentiate the above four DAMs:
|Adobe Experience Manager||DAM||On-premise|
In the first place, while Box has many DAM-like features and is used more and more as a DAM, it was really designed as a broader platform for cloud-based storage and collaboration. The other three have more of a graphic focus. One of the largest things that virtually all DAMs have that doesn’t come out-of-the-box with Box is the concept of renditions: the other three have a concept of “rendition,” or variants of the same image. Typically there is a high-resolution version for print and lower resolution for web, or various sizes tailored for publishing to specific devices.
Secondly, Box and Widen have in common a cloud-only hosting model. They don’t sell their software for you to install on their servers instead, they let you plug in to their platform. While both AEM and MediaBeacon have at least spoken of cloud hosting and may offer limited forms of this, most large implementations are hosted on-premise. These two solutions have a far greater cost of entry than Box or Widen, and this cost includes your internal cost of hosting and managing the infrastructure. That said, you can still spend any amount you want on Box or Widen implementations that are customized to reach the robust, “custom,” characteristics of typical AEM/MediaBeacon deployments. Both Box and Widen offer both an out-of-the-box, low-cost-of-entry version, as well as customization options (such as a white-labeled, tailored Box implementation from Volo).
While we are not DAM specialists, we have seen these four DAMs from the perspective of InDesign integration, and we are seeing all four increasingly in the context of Adobe Creative Suite/Creative Cloud workflows. Following are brief impressions of each of these DAMs from our InDesign-centric perspective.
Adobe Experience Manager - the Confusing Magic of the Adobe Name
Adobe Experience Manager (AEM) is the Content Management System (CMS) and DAM offering from Adobe itself, and is something like the crown jewel of the “Adobe Marketing Cloud.” Most of AEM is descended from the original “CQ” product from Day Software, although Adobe has started to add features, including some nice recent enhancement to the DAM functionality.
The confusion over AEM and InDesign comes from the fact that AEM has the Adobe name on it. Certainly Day was a company focused far more on the web than any Adobe technologies of its time, and as a content management system Day is profoundly web-centric. There is no direct integration with InDesign, and only recently has there been some work to connect Adobe technologies, with initial focus more on the “marketing” and server-based technologies. Omniture, the Digital Publishing Suite, Scene7, and InDesign Server all have some degree of integration with AEM now.
We have seen time and time again that those using AEM or contemplating using it just assume that because it is an Adobe product, certainly it will manage print content just as well as it manages web content. In our experience, it is possible to use AEM as a great DAM for print assets, but AEM content management is so tightly coupled with web formatting (rather than emphasizing the separation of content from presentation we see in approaches like structured authoring), that it’s an uphill battle to use the content management features in a direct way for print output. You may manage to do so with some creative customization, but certainly the assumption when Day CQ was built was that it would be used for web-based content.
The CMS functionality of AEM aside, the AEM DAM is certainly quite capable of housing and managing the assets used for print, and we’ve seen it used by a number of organizations for that purpose. When Adobe first took over CQ, they didn’t make many changes to the DAM functionality. Rather, they focused more on integration of the overall content management with other Adobe technologies. Recently, however, Adobe is doing some really exciting work enhancing the metadata capabilities of the DAM. We have seen a number of companies use the DAM on its own or in workflows separate from what they use the CMS functionality for.
Silicon Connector worked with CQ from the very beginning back when it was “Day CQ,” before Adobe acquired Day Software. We created the very first Connector for CQ, but as there is an alternate, “free” form of technology available from Adobe that has a somewhat similar functionality (Adobe Drive, often coupled with Adobe Bridge) the tendency is for organizations to try that first. Silicon Connector is a far more direct, performant, form of connection. Thus it is now finding its way into a larger number of InDesign/AEM workflows as organizations outgrow the limitations of Adobe Drive.
Our Silicon Connector for AEM understands the “rendition” concept and will put the rendition name into the links panel in InDesign. It is exposed to automation via scripting, and we continue to extend its functionality. Generally it is one of the more simple, direct, connector implementations, and the primary benefit is that of performant, direct, HTTP links to DAM assets, allowing for the most efficient InDesign workflows popular with AEM.
MediaBeacon - Fine-grained Access, Metadata on Steroids
MediaBeacon is one of the longest-running DAMs out there and continues to advance and innovate in a progressive and agile fashion despite its age. Led by DAM genius Jason Bright, MediaBeacon was the second DAM we built a Connector for, and the product known as MediaBeacon Publishing is becoming common among MediaBeacon implementations.
When we met Jason we were stunned by how he immediately understood, and appreciated, the Connector technology In fact, he shared with us a proposal he had given Adobe in 2006 that basically suggested a “Connector and then some.” Much of that vision is reflected in the unique MediaBeacon Publishing application.
Jason and MediaBeacon have guided us to create a unique form of Connector that not only provides the rendition functionality we had implemented with AEM, but also some fine-grained access controls that go beyond what we’ve been asked to do for other DAMs. MediaBeacon serves some of the most sophisticated ad agencies in the world, and they are very much concerned with access to assets, controlling this with a fanaticism we haven’t seen elsewhere.
For example, you are a contract designer working with an agency using MediaBeacon Publishing. In this case, you can only access low-resolution versions or watermarked versions of the assets you lay out in the document. When employees of the agency managing production render final output, only then will the high-resolution assets be used. Connector becomes more than a way to connect to assets: it becomes an important dimension of controlling access to the versions of an asset appropriate for a given user.
Beyond what we have seen from the Connector/InDesign perspective, anyone who works with MediaBeacon will be impressed with their passion for metadata. Jason was one of the formative thought leaders in DAM technology at the time that technologies such as RDF and XMP took shape. His product is brilliantly focused on taxonomy and metadata, which is the foundation of robust faceted search and the holy grail of asset management systems.
Box - the Accidental DAM
Box. You may have heard of it: like Dropbox, but with enterprise functionality such as security. I had heard of Box and tried it before I heard from the company itself, and I hadn’t considered it anything like a DAM. Rather, it was like a replacement for FTP. Dropbox, with a shorter name.
When Box contacted us in 2013, I was shocked to learn that this platform had grown so quickly and that it was being considered by many Fortune 500 companies not only as a file storage/exchange platform, but also as a DAM.
Box's focus was mainly file storage, not content management like AEM or managing renditions/metadata like MediaBeacon. But still, the companies trying to use Box, or using Box, for content management were serious; their interest couldn't be ignored.
I spoke with the COO of Box: "excuse me, you seem to have 95% of a DAM here…why not add in the other 5%?"
Dan Levin was not overly concerned: "when you find yourself with 20 million users in a short period of time, you realize you are suddenly the leader of several niche markets you never even knew existed."
While Box, in its pure vanilla form, is not a DAM it is extremely extensible. There are several DAM providers such as Netxposure and WebDAM who have created versions of their product on top of Box and there are shops such as Volo that can build complete custom white label applications on top of Box.
When we spoke to customers using Box as a DAM, it became very apparent that Silicon Connector was even more important for a cloud-based DAM or storage system. On-premise DAMs are often close enough to the local file system/network share demanded by Adobe InDesign that performance can be tolerable. Cloud-based systems like Box are not. Box had a significant number of clients who were otherwise happy with Box but were scratching their heads about why InDesign workflows were so cumbersome.
Unlike our Silicon Connectors for MediaBeacon, AEM, and Widen, where you drag and drop assets directly from the existing DAM interface, with Box we built a plugin into InDesign that handles navigating through the assets of your Box accounts. We intend to extend this to be more robust over time. As we contemplate features, we're finding something of a slippery slope, if we go really far with the Connector for Box we may end up creating our own DAM.
Widen - Simplicity in the Cloud
Just as the cloud nature of Box led to InDesign users demanding a Connector-like solution, Widen, a cloud-based DAM company, sought a Connector for their DAM in order to give their InDesign users direct access to assets over HTTP. We built a Silicon Connector for Widen that is being officially released this month with their latest product version.
In the course of working on the Widen InDesign Plugin, we have seen glimpses of their DAM and are impressed by the very straightforward, direct approach. Like us, Widen came from a deep pre-press background, so they understand the nature of the content housed in their DAM, and the range of use cases across a spectrum of industries.
While Widen does offer an API/SDK, it appears that most users tend to use the out-of-the-box features, which appear on the surface to be very sensibly chosen. A typical AEM or MediaBeacon deployment takes time to plan and implement, and typically includes a high degree of customization. Widen offers speed of implementation to those organizations who find the out-of-the-box features sufficient for their needs.
We were very happy with the way Widen was able to explain Silicon Connector. It is not a deep concept but somehow we have been challenged to convey to the world (it appears we are better at the complex than the simple). I think the Widen marketing materials for the "Widen InDesign Plugin" (= Silicon Connector for Widen) are the best explanation of Connector so far. Here are some slides:
We are excited by the Widen InDesign Plugin release and eager to see user feedback. With the previous three releases of Silicon Connector, it was quite valuable to get user feedback and extend/tune the product in relation to real-world usage. We expect the same with Widen, though the initial release is very solid and the feature set looks good for the workflows we have seen.
A High-level Comparison of the Four
As I said at the beginning, we are not the ones to choose a DAM for you, so understand that these comparisons come from our rather twisted perspective: we don't deploy DAM solutions very often, we work on our three products (Paginator, Designer, Connector) and integrate those (and other InDesign Server solutions) in relation to DAMs that are typically deployed by someone else. Because we built Connector for these 4 solutions (so far), we see them every day in the context of Connector. We have attended DAM conferences, but mainly for the sake of explaining Connector to the world or reminding the world that a product called InDesign Server exists.
Here is just a high-level comparison of the four from what we've seen:
- Adobe Experience Manager
- AEM benefits from all of the great and less great characteristics of coming from Adobe. Certainly the integration with other Marketing Cloud functionality like Omniture can be compelling for organizations using Omniture, yet the integration with the Creative Cloud is actually surprisingly sparse and this can be an endless source of confusion (doesn't it have "Adobe" on the label?).
- The DAM part of AEM is only recently getting engineering attention, it has generally been subordinate to the Content Management features, which are profoundly web-centric.
- Compared to Box and Widen, AEM is more expensive and generally an on-premise vs. cloud proposition. Compared to MediaBeacon, AEM is far less DAM-focused, and does not scale the heights of metadata, fine-grained access control, and multi-media awareness that MB has perfected over the years.
- Implementation of AEM or MB is typically a non-trivial exercise, as both can be made to sing but seem to require nurture and integration effort.
- MediaBeacon is the life work of DAM genius Jason Bright, a historical figure who pioneered many of the concepts we see in DAMs today. Jason and his team have deep experience with publishing workflows in advertising, media, and other industries; and their product has some very unique features tuned to subtle requirements they've seen over the years.
- Compared to AEM, it is more DAM-centric: it can play nicely with web analytics, workflow, or content management systems but those are not its focus. Compared to Box and Widen, it is on-premise vs. cloud: Box is probably the opposite extreme from MB as it really has only those DAM features common with a file storage platform while Widen has a number of common features but not the degree of complexity nor the range of sophisticated options that would apply to very custom integrations.
- Box does not pretend to be a real DAM, but it is decidedly a lot more than just a file storage system. It is evolving rapidly as a "platform" and a surprisingly large number of organizations are starting to use it as a DAM.
- The main DAM feature that comes with AEM, MB, Widen, as well as almost every other DAM we've ever seen, is the notion of multiple graphic variants of the same image, i.e. the high-res/low-res swapping that is so common in production and multi-channel print workflows. Box is probably going to extend to include such features some day, meanwhile it is very extensible and companies like Volo offer more complete DAM solutions on top of Box, or you can use folder-structure conventions or your own customization to attain DAM features.
- DAM is of course cloud-based like Widen/unlike the others, and the cost is high compared to pure file storage but low compared to almost all DAMS.
- Widen is a logical, simple, straightforward DAM that provides core DAM functionality common with AEM and MediaBeacon, hosted in the cloud like Box.
- While AEM came out of pure web-based content management, Widen came out of the print world (in fact the company pre-dates the Internet), and certainly supports InDesign workflows well (especially now that they offer our Connector).
- Widen offers a diverse set of add-ons and does have an API, but our impression is that far less integration goes on with Widen implementations than with typical AEM or MediaBeacon.
- Widen does have metadata, and search against it: basic sort of stuff, but doesn't go into the zealous extremes that Jason took MediaBeacon to with its fanatical level of XMP support.
- Widen already has an integration with Dropbox and they have predicted eventual (possibly even imminent) integration with Box.
Currently we have four different builds of Connector. All four support generic web servers as asset stores, in addition to the DAM of focus. However, we have yet to offer a version that can work with multiple DAMs. This is perfectly possible, but not a common business need. Probably the first form of this will be "DAM + Box" versions, i.e. MediaBeacon and Box or Widen and Box, as we are starting to see users of multiple systems. Silicon Connector has great potential and adaptability, and we are eager to see where the future takes us.