Eleven years ago, Silicon Publishing stumbled into an opportunity to connect Adobe InDesign to remote assets in a very powerful and efficient way. Through the work of our developers, several of whom were part of the original team that built Adobe InDesign, we were able to make a very direct connection from InDesign to remote assets via URLs. Since that time, InDesign DAM Connectivity has become a significant part of our work.
While other approaches rely on technologies such as WebDAV, which is known for latency and headaches, our direct approach has proven to be far more efficient. It is now the way that most leading DAMs handle such connectivity. We partner with the leading DAMs, and have encountered just about every major player in the space.
This post talks about 10 of the DAMs we’ve encountered, which happen to represent a great cross-section of the DAMs out there today. First, I will share an overview of what DAM is, heavily borrowing from the wonderful work of DAM guru Theresa Regli, whose book Digital and Marketing Asset Managment: the Real Story about DAM Technology and Practice is an essential guide for anyone in this space.
What is a DAM? Ten things that a real DAM does
According to Theresa, a real DAM does the following ten things:
- Ingest assets
- Secure assets
- Store assets
- Transform assets
- Enrich assets
- Relate assets
- Process assets
- Find assets
- Preview assets
- Publish assets
These seem to be generally in sequence: you start by ingesting an asset, and end in publishing it.
Of course some things can be done in parallel, and sometimes multiple users in large authoring/publishing groups will concurrently engage in these processes. DAM software can get quite sophisticated, enabling it to manage large-scale, mission critical, and highly collaborative workflows.
Some of the DAM dichotomies
Asset management is common across multiple:
- organization types (from the one-person design shop to the enterprise)
- points of content usage (acquisition, authoring, publishing, archival)
- industries (compare a small ad agency to Boeing, for example)
Consequently, DAMs emerge in all sorts of shapes and sizes, to support a range of use cases within some range of focus. “DAM” means completely different things to different organizations.
On-premise vs. cloud
There are still organizations where every asset needs to reside on the local network, believe it or not. It has been less than 10 years since “on premise” was the only significant game in town. Today, we see cloud storage platforms like Box attain Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA compliance. They have client lists of companies that wouldn’t have dreamed of cloud 5 years ago. But even now a huge percentage of DAMs are deployed on local networks: these are for employees who come into brick and mortar offices, and are tethered to that network, every day. How long this will last is anyone’s guess.
“On-premise” generally equates to “large organization”, and there is continuous disruption in this part of the DAM world. This comes from cloud DAMs gaining acceptance, as well as a re-arrangement of the chairs on the on-prem deck. Among on-prem DAMs, Open Source or pseudo-open source DAMs replace proprietary systems, and “hybrid” is an increasingly common message from those “DAMs formerly known as on-premise.”
Create, manage, deliver! The digital asset lifecycle
DAM systems tend to prioritize specific phases of the asset lifecycle. Some DAMs are most focused on collaboration, as assets are being ingested and created, while some merely exist to aggregate “ready to publish” content and bring it out to multiple channels. Archival can be handled by a DAM, or (more typically) by an integrated archival system.
Because our company focuses on InDesign automation, we’re most interested in the creation phase, yet we’ve talked for hours with companies that focus downstream: you don’t need a Silicon Connector if your staff never touch InDesign. Some DAMs solely deliver content, or deliver content and track who sees it.
Media/rendition focus: web vs. print, video vs. VR…
Perhaps at the outset I should have talked about what an “asset” really is. Early DAMs primarily managed graphic assets, and usually these were either print assets or web assets. As DAM evolved, management of parallel print and web versions of an asset proliferated, as well as video and other forms of media. There is now the concept of “MAM” or Multimedia Asset Management, as its own thing. To be considered modern, DAMs these days must at least pretend to manage multimedia, and some DAMs do quite a good job at things like transcoding between video formats.
So those are some DAM characteristics and perspectives. Let’s look at 10 specific digital asset management systems.
Serious digital asset management was pioneered in the enterprise. Large organizations were the first to see vast numbers of digital assets that required organization and management, back in the day. Today even individuals have comparable numbers of assets, as phones have become powerful digital cameras and storage becomes exponentially less expensive over time. But there will always be something special about the enterprise; however seriously you take your family’s photo library, companies in the Fortune 100 take their logos and critical images more seriously, or at least they will involve far more people in managing and publishing them.
Enterprise DAMs have experienced remarkable disruption during the past 5 years. On the one hand, cloud DAMs have gained first-class status vs. on-premise DAMs: the previously unthinkable housing of vital assets in another company’s data center is not taboo at all any more. Companies like Box blazed the trails of HIPAA compliance, Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, and respectable security of cloud-based assets, while ever-increasing security challenges have started to tip the scales away from the extreme cost of maintaining internal IT resources capable of securing information towards handing this responsibility off to third parties.
Almost no DAM is solely “on-premise” at this point. With the ascent of Software as a Service, there are cloud, private cloud, or “hybrid” offerings from nearly all of the traditionally on-premise DAMs.
Beyond the growing respectability of cloud-based DAMs, the Open Source movement has enjoyed steady momentum in the DAM community. Several enterprise DAMs have their roots in Open Source.
Adobe Experience Manager
Adobe has a longstanding tradition of growing by acquisition, yet they do so with a sensibility that is extremely unusual, far beyond what is normal in the DAM/content management space, or in the print space, or in almost any other software domain you will find. Rather than acquiring companies for market share and developer resources, then either gutting them while keeping key clients or key talent, or keeping them “as is” for pure market share, Adobe acquisitions eventually become creatively integrated into the organization. Not that they are perfect, but in the enterprise DAM space Adobe is the only somewhat perfect player when it comes to acquisition-based software.
The very first Connector we created was for Day CQ, and it was while this effort was underway that Adobe acquired Day Software. It didn’t take long until CQ was renamed “Adobe Experience Manager” (“AEM”) and the asset management component of AEM became known as AEM Assets.
Our Silicon Connector for AEM 1.0 was InDesign-only, and it leveraged the AEM User Interface. You could drag and drop directly from AEM into InDesign, and with our plug-in installed it would instantiate a URL-based link.
We found AEM Assets to be a rock-solid DAM with great extensibility. It was convenient that the UI was already prepared for us. When you drag a rendition from the AEM User Interface, it puts the URL of the underlying asset on the clipboard. This was not the default for most DAMs that we encountered at that time. But Day had previously attempted a Connector-like technology and the UI worked (but their connector did not, which we find a recurring theme among alternative solutions).
AEM is not for everyone: the DAM costs at least six figures: it can be great if you have unique requirements for customization, or, if you desire integration with the rest of Adobe’s “Marketing Cloud,” but not the economy-of-scale you find with cloud-only “one size fits all” solutions. If you can afford it, AEM can be quite nice, and we’ve seen some very successful large-scale deployments. AEM used to be on-premise or “Managed Services”. Recently released in very modern cloud form, it now enjoys massive attention and investment from Adobe.
One cool thing about AEM Assets is that it’s receiving ongoing attention and enhancement from Adobe: we see improvements with each version and an ambitious roadmap. This, along with steadily increasing demand for Silicon Connector for AEM, inspire us to follow suit.
If you can afford the software and the inevitable integration to tailor it to your needs, Adobe Experience Manager is a very powerful DAM. They also have a very robust web content management component, AEM Sites.
Nuxeo: the up-and-coming enterprise DAM
Nuxeo is a very recent and highly disruptive force in the DAM industry. While some players in the enterprise space have been at it for over a decade, backwards compatibility requirements coupled with the status quo’s “grow by acquisition” mentality give quite an opening to innovators like Nuxeo.
A general trend in computing during the past decade or two has been the move to “API first” development. Rather than building monolithic applications that try to do everything, with interface points and extensibility added in as an afterthought, modularity and interoperability have become the norm. Nuxeo has an advantage over some of the older enterprise DAMs because it is relatively new.
As they are focused on ease of integration and interoperation, Nuxeo naturally wanted to connect to the Adobe Creative Cloud, via a new Silicon Connector now under development. Our Connectors are only as strong as the APIs of the DAM, so it is refreshing to work with a company with an API-first perspective.
Sitecore Content Hub: DAM meets Enterprise Content Management
We have known Sitecore for years, mainly as a leading Enterprise Content Management system competing with the content management features of Adobe Experience Manager. If they had DAM functionality, we didn’t hear much about it.
In 2016, about 5 years into our Connector product, we met a fascinating DAM company, Style Labs, which had a product called “Marketing Content Hub” that was really stunning. We quickly became friends, and partnered together on a Connector.
Marketing Content Hub had a definite focus on Product Information Management. There is distinct overlap between PIMs and DAMs, and we see PIMs serving as DAMs or DAMs serving as PIMs frequently. Few systems really do both. Marketing ContentHub was not exactly a pure PIM either. It was more of a product content management system, which may or may not replace a PIM.
While this interesting product had some traction right away, the Style Labs guys started to seem a bit distracted. In our experience, when a DAM is distracted, they’re usually about to be acquired. After the traditional two months of silence (which we’ve seen from Fotolia, MediaBeacon, and Bynder, to name but a few), Style Labs had found scale, and Sitecore finally did have a DAM to write home about.
Sitecore Content Hub has evolved quite a bit since the acquisition. Unlike, say, Bynder and Webdam, where the “acquired” product is essentially a parallel product, with some common engineering, Content Hub is different. It is a module that seems to evolve in concert with the surrounding CMS. The PIM-centric roots are still apparent, but it has evolved steadily in terms of API maturity and degree of seamlessness with CMS functions.
Oracle Content and Experience Cloud: the Quiet Giant
DAMs proliferate in so many places, so frequently, that you should never imagine that you know “all the DAMs,” regardless of how many Henry Stewart conferences you’ve attended. I’ve been ambushed by obscure companies (for example, Tandem Vault) that started with a few implementations. Many DAMs start with a one-off solution that seems worthy of repeating, and they became significant players. But I was totally shocked to find that a huge technology company in my own back yard, Oracle, had crafted a state-of-the-art DAM from scratch.
Oracle Content and Experience Cloud blew my mind when I first saw it. I was accustomed to Oracle acquisitions. So if someone told me “Oracle has a new DAM”, I would have asked “who did they buy now?” But no… this is more recent than any DAM mentioned here, and it’s written with best practices and architecture that is truly stunning.
Oracle’s offering, like Nuxeo, is API-first. Yes, it comes with a gorgeous interface, built on top of a “Headless CMS”. This has proliferated the past five years or so (as of 2021) among those in the enterprise DAM market. We at Silicon Publishing have loved APIs since DAM was a gleam in Jason Bright’s eyes. We are all for this approach. OCE is one of our most recent encounters, and our partnership with Oracle is young, but we are quite impressed with this offering from all we’ve seen so far.
The pricing is interesting, too. It is very much usage-based. We hadn’t done a ton of work directly with Oracle the past couple of decades, as we often serve the print industry and mid-market companies. Oracle (or AEM, for that matter) is out of their price range. It is something we have encountered mainly with enterprise clients. I truly wonder if this may be a software offering from Oracle that might penetrate lower-end markets, because the pricing is entirely usage-based. A very interesting product to watch.
Cloudinary: From Imaging, with Scale
We met Cloudinary long before they were considered a “DAM”. Like hundreds of thousands of other developers, we encountered Cloudinary when they were known as an imaging platform. They provided a way to get the right image in your web page or mobile app, in the right size and format. They also offered performance based on powerful, flexible CDN and a very simple URL-based way to access the images.
It was one of those technologies that was almost a DAM, as it did provide a place to house images and ways to access them, but it lacked many of the basic features one would expect to find in a DAM. Something like the storage platforms (Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, S3…) that seemed like they provided 80 percent of what DAMs did. But they didn’t share the traditional DAM concepts you might find at a Henry Stewart conference. In many cases, they were frustratingly close to being a DAM, but without delivering what creatives really need.
Unlike the storage platforms, none of which have moved into offering real DAM capabilities yet (we still have hope), Cloudinary changed dramatically in 2018, and has brought out an offering that seems to cover the DAM bases really well, and offers a couple critical features unrivaled by anything out there in the DAM space: imaging services that are absolutely magical (check out their vectorization of raster images!) and scale: Cloudinary publishes images globally with CDN on the level of a Facebook or an Instagram.
As we work to connect Cloudinary to the Adobe Creative Cloud, we’re eager to see where this lands. They seem like brilliant people with a vision, and I would expect the best. Yet the devil is in the details.
Webdam – Silicon Valley meets DAM
We met Webdam founder Jody Vandergriff back when Webdam was a small but growing company, and we were impressed by its driven nature; the way it felt more like a Silicon Valley startup than most DAMs that we’d encountered up to that time. Recently acquired by Shutterstock, they were growing, yet they were growing really sensibly, and that trend continues. We spoke for a few years before finally getting around to building them a Connector. It has been a very successful collaboration.
Webdam is cloud-based, naturally, and perhaps a bit web-centric in its approach to assets. Nonetheless, it is well-proven in print workflows. We have also been impressed with their ideas for improving our Connector product. It was for Webdam that we first created an in-app interface, enabling users to interact with the DAM from right within InDesign, Photoshop or Illustrator. Since then, this has become the norm for new Connectors. We’re thankful to Webdam for their continued innovation.
We have been very impressed with the Webdam APIs, which are publicly documented. In parallel with the rise of APIs here in Silicon Valley, Webdam also valued extensibility and ease of interface as they continued to evolve the product, as in their workflow functionality.
Webdam was acquired not once, but twice. Shutterstock acquired the product, and did very little with it, ultimately selling it to Bynder. Somehow they managed to retain relative autonomy through both acquisitions. While Bynder and Webdam share core technology and engineering resources, the products show little sign of being merged. They seem to serve different markets.
Webdam Connector for Adobe Creative Cloud is one of our most robust Connectors. It has the distinction of having workflow fully available from inside of InDesign. This is a very cool feature, soon to be part of the Bynder Connector as well.
Bynder – Rapid Rethinking of Cloud DAM
If Nuxeo is your astrophysicist uncle, Bynder is your nephew who runs a startup.
The first thing we learned about Bynder when implementing their Bynder Creative Cloud Connector (2017) is that they don’t have a folder metaphor. This is common with nearly every other DAM. Our base Connector expects a folder metaphor. That’s all we saw with our first 14 Connectors. Then along came Bynder…
Bynder has a “pure” approach to metadata where there is no folder hierarchy, exactly. Instead the asset has metadata, and that’s the only way assets can be searched or navigated. To filter results, you need to specify metadata of some sort – a category, a tag, a filename. You can’t just muddle through folders.
Because of this, the Bynder DAM was counter-intuitive to me the first time that I used it. Our team had trouble setting up our DAM instance. However, we noticed many beautiful examples in which Bynder had set up DAMs (or trained someone to do so), and then somebody had properly tagged the metadata. It is something like structured authoring used to be: “no pain, no gain.” A well set-up Bynder DAM is a wonderful, unique experience. It’s different from what we’ve generally seen, and Bynder is still growing.
The Bynder Adobe Creative Cloud Connector is a unique form of Connector, which has continually evolved. It still has a roadmap, indicating that their dynamic entrepreneurial spirit endures.
Image storage goes enterprise: PhotoShelter for Brands
PhotoShelter was an early DAM targeting photographers with a freemium model. They distinguished themselves with a very low price. This was possible because, unlike nearly every other DAM listed on this page, they have their own bare metal data center. This means they aren’t subject to the costs of Amazon or Azure clouds. Their success with freemium DAM led them to create an interesting enterprise option. Initially known as Libris, it was recently rebranded as PhotoShelter for Brands.
We have enjoyed working with PhotoShelter over the years on asset connectivity, and we see them steadily grow and evolve. While they certainly began with an imaging focus, at this point they have established a breadth comparable to the more mature DAM offerings out there. They have a unique offering that balances the efficiency of their initial offering with an assimilation of the range of features one might consider “enterprise.”
While they aren’t known as “DAM software,” storage platforms such as Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, and Sharepoint are used as DAM solutions. We found ourselves working on connectivity between Adobe desktop software and these platforms. A surprising number of creatives use them as their form of DAM system. We see a steady evolution towards a blurring of the line between DAM and storage system. This is in addition to the integrated use of both types of technology (DAM and Storage) in larger organizations.
Dropbox: storage for individual designers
Dropbox is far and away the most popular storage platform for creatives. About 80% of the time that I receive a file from a freelance designer, it is coming from Dropbox. But is this the case with authoring groups in the enterprise? Definitely not. We have created a Connector for Dropbox, but it has not had wide usage yet. And it probably won’t, until there are more collaborative workflows in existence around Dropbox in organizations larger than one person.
There are two reasons that our Connector for Dropbox has had slow adoption compared to all other Connectors:
- The benefits of a feature such as URL-based linking are most apparent in a shared workflow. The magic of automatically updating a link to the “latest version” is certainly most profound in a creative workgroup. This is where there are ongoing projects referencing a continuously updated set of corporate assets. Individual designers do not have to contend with as many concurrently moving parts as designers in workgroups.
- The sync functionality of Dropbox is fantastic, and tends to work extremely well. This is not the case with most other storage systems or DAMs, many of which don’t offer sync. Arguably, Connector’s main benefit is asset connectivity from directly within InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator. We accomplish this with file sync.
This sends us in two directions. One involves searching for workgroups using Dropbox (we see Dropbox steadily going after business and enterprise accounts). The other is about adding features that go beyond just asset connectivity. We have received some really cool feature requests from those who have used our Connector for Dropbox. Remember, anything that can be done through a DAM’s API can be done directly from inside InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, or other Adobe Creative Cloud applications. We cherish the ideas of our users.
Box: the accidental DAM
Box. You have probably heard of it by now: like Dropbox, but with enterprise functionality such as security. I had barely heard of Box before the company contacted us, about 10 years ago (as of this 2021 update to the post): I hadn’t considered it anything like a DAM. Rather, it was like a replacement for FTP. Dropbox, with a shorter name.
Box contacted us in their early days. I was shocked to learn that this platform had grown so quickly. Many Fortune 500 companies were considering it not only as a file storage/exchange platform, but also as a DAM.
Box’s focus was mainly file storage. They were not centered on content management like AEM/Sitecore. Nor did they concentrate on managing renditions/metadata like the “DAM Software” found at Henry Stewart conferences. Creative departments rarely purchased it themselves for use as a DAM. Rather, company-wide initiatives foisted it onto those same creative departments, which were often an afterthought, or even a non-thought.
I spoke with the COO of Box: “excuse me, you seem to have 90% of a DAM here…why not add in the other 10%?”
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 APIs, and companies such as Crooze that do their best to augment the feature set with DAM-like capability.
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 required by InDesign, that performance can be tolerable. Cloud-based systems like Box are not. Still, there were a significant number of clients who were happy with Box. But they were scratching their heads about why InDesign workflows were so cumbersome.
Our first Silicon Connectors for Webdam and AEM involved dragging and dropping assets directly from the existing DAM interface, thus instantiating a URL link. But we built an InDesign plugin for Box (based on Adobe’s CEP technology) that handled navigating through Box assets. This was a big success, and is the current methodology for all Connectors.
Usage of Box as a DAM has steadily grown, and the Box Connector enjoys a steadily growing customer base.
Conclusion – On it goes…
We went quite far with DAM Connectors in the beginning, integrating our solutions with 50+. We then built InDesign URL-linking with more than 30. Yet we have learned to pick our battles. Rather than continuing to go wide, we are becoming more focused on going deep. Some of our long-standing Connectors are in their fourth or fifth incarnation. We have received fantastic feedback from the tens of thousands of users we have worldwide. Consequently, we have some very ambitious plans for asset connectivity.
Adobe has brought some fantastic new extensibility features, partly in response to our feedback (Chuck Geschke forwarded this post to others at Adobe), and we are just starting to take advantage of the “UXP” platform and other such advances.
The UI inside of the Creative Cloud can interface with any DAM feature supported by the DAM’s APIs. There are really no limits on what we can attain. It is an honor to lead asset connectivity, seeing the evolution of DAM technology firsthand as it happens; I don’t think any of these DAMs will sit still, if the past 12 years is any indication.
Yet Connector is really a tangent off of our core work, enabling online editing through our Silicon Designer product. Work with DAMs came about quite organically. Our largest Designer clients all used DAMs, and they requested the URL linking that we were uniquely positioned to provide. Our work in the DAM space will be complete when we integrate Silicon Designer into the DAMs for which we provide Adobe desktop connectivity. This has been our ulterior motive since the beginning. Stay tuned.