Ten DAMs from the InDesign Out

Seven 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. InDesign DAM Connectivity has become a significant part of our work.

Silicon Connector

While other approaches rely on technologies such as WebDAV, which is known for latency and headaches, our direct approach has proven itself to be far more efficient, and is now the way that most leading DAMs handle such connectivity. We have over 25 DAM partnerships so far, with more on the way.

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 and her collagues at the Real Story Group, a real DAM does the following ten things:

  1. Ingest assets
  2. Secure assets
  3. Store assets
  4. Transform assets
  5. Enrich assets
  6. Relate assets
  7. Process assets
  8. Find assets
  9. Preview assets
  10. 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 with large authoring/publishing groups, multiple users will concurrently engage in these processes. DAM software can get quite sophisticated 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 (from acquisition to authoring to publishing)
  • 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, and client lists of companies who wouldn't have dreamed of cloud 5 years ago, but even now a huge percentage of DAMs are deployed local networks, for employees who come into brick and mortar offices, 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 both from cloud DAMs gaining acceptance and 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 the only meaningful offering from any DAM: nobody is strictly on-premise any more.

Authoring vs. publishing

DAM systems are also used at different phases in 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.

Media/rendition focus: web vs. print, video vs. VR...

Perhaps at the outset I should have talked about what an "asset" is. Early DAMs were managing graphic assets, primarily, and usually these were either print assets or web assets. As DAM evolved, management of parallel print and web versions of an asset, and video and other forms of media proliferated. There is now the concept of "MAM" or Multimedia Asset Management, as its own thing. But DAMs these days must at least pretend to manage multimedia to be considered modern, 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.

Enterprise DAMs

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 gets 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 will take their logos and critical images more seriously, or at least they will involve alot more people in managing and publishing them.

Enterprise DAMs have experienced remarkable disruption 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 up to the task of securing information towards handing this responsibility off to third parties.

Almost no DAM is still "on-premise" at this point. 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 had steady momentum in the DAM community. In fact, the three enterprise DAMs we'll look at first all 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 software domain you will find. Rather than acquiring companies for market share and developer resources, and 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.

Silicon Connector for AEM

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 is not the default for most DAMs we encountered. But Day had previously attempted a Connector-like technology and the UI worked (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, and it is typically either on-premise or hosted in Adobe's Managed Services: this is great if you have unique requirements for customization, but not the economy-of-scale you find with cloud-only "one size fits all" solutions. If you can afford it, it can be quite nice, and we've seen some very successful large-scale on-premise deployments.

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 it, Adobe Experience Manager is the DAM of choice. 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 a "grow by acquisition" mentaility of the status quo give quite an opening to innovators like Nuxeo.

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A general trend in computing 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.

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As they are focused on ease of integration and interoperation, it was natural for Nuxeo to want 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.

Alfresco: Open Source content management

Alfresco was founded by refugees of Documentum, and Alfresco's DAM is but one component of their entire enterprise solution. Similar to AEM, Alfresco offers a web-centric content management system in Open Source form, with DAM as something of an afterthought. Just like AEM, where AEM Assets has become a product in its own right, the Alfresco DAM component has become more of its own product than anyone predicted.

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Alfresco is fundamentally a content management system (CMS), with DAM as one of several dimensions. It has a capability for "document management", which is more involved than pure asset management. It also has significant business process management strengths, letting users define and manage workflows to support enterprise collaboration. And it has tools that support data governance and records management, popular with larger organizations.

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Of the 25 DAMs we're partnered with, Alfresco has the very largest InDesign deployments: there are several companies using Alfresco as their DAM who have 5,000 or more seats of InDesign. We delivered a very robust Connector for Alfresco that integrates the feedback of some of the largest InDesign authoring groups.

Cloud DAMs

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. They were growing, and yet they were growing really sensibly: they were recently acquired by Shutterstock, and that trend continues. We spoke for a few years before finally getting around to building a Connector, and it has been a very successful collaboration.

Webdam is cloud-based, naturally, and perhaps a bit web-centric in its approach to assets, but it is well-proven in print workflows nonetheless. We have also been impressed with their ideas for improving our Connector product. It was Webdam that first had us create an in-app interface, which lets users interact with the DAM from right within InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator. Since then this has become the norm for new Connectors. We're thankful to Webdam for their continued innovation.

Webdam CC Connector

We have been very impressed with the Webdam APIs, which are publicly documented. In general, Webdam seems to value extensibility and ease of interface (here in Silicon Valley APIs are enjoying another renaissance), and they continue to evolve the product, recently announcing workflow functionality (as did Widen as well). Despite the Shutterstock acquisition, and Jody's subsequent departure, they managed to retain relative autonomy from Shutterstock and have kept the same "start-up energy" that we encountered when they were much smaller. About the least disruptive acquisition I have witnessed.

We are currently working on further enhancements to the Webdam Connector for Adobe Creative Cloud.

Widen - The no-hype original cloud DAM

Widen is a cloud-based DAM company, perhaps the very first one. They have been in the prepress space forever, and they were hosting asset management solutions back in the 1990s; long before "SaaS" and "Cloud" entered the human vocabulary. Widen sought a Connector for their well-established cloud (lowercase) DAM in order to give their InDesign users direct access to assets over HTTP. We built a Silicon Connector for Widen that initially targeted just InDesign, using only the Widen user interface. Recently we updated this to have an in-application interface and basic support for Photoshop and Illustrator.

Widen CC Connector

In working with Widen over the years, we have worked with their DAM and have been impressed by the very straightforward, direct approach. Like us, Widen came from a deep prepress background, so they understand the nature of the content housed in their DAM, as well as the range of use cases across a spectrum of industries. They are a very client-focused company and they are thorough when bringing product to market. The new Connector took a fair amount of time to complete, but it is solid. I really like the UI.

Widen is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and they have a midwest culture of honesty, hard work, and... wait, they don't fit the DAM space! I might have been dreaming, but I could swear I saw the Widen team wearing "No BS" buttons at a DAM conference, and for anyone that is less than in love with the "Enterprise" side of Henry Stewart events (sometimes it seems that "Taxonomy", "Data Governance" and "Faceted Search" are uttered and the DAM is now a 7-figure proposition), Widen is a healthy antidote. Straightforward, they do what they say, they have a refreshing level of integrity.

Widen has been good at explaining the benefits of Connector technology and one of their recent summaries is:

"Easily access images with our Adobe Creative Cloud Connector and get assets from DAM while working in your layouts."

Widen CC Connector

While Widen does offer an API/SDK, it appears that most users tend to use the out-of-the-box features, which appear 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. In contrast, Widen offers speed of implementation to those organizations who find the out-of-the-box features sufficient for their needs, and consequently enjoys an increasing array of partnerships and integrations.

The new Widen Adobe Creative Cloud Connector was just released in 2017 and we are really happy with it.

Bynder - Rapid rethinking of cloud DAM

If Nuxeo is your astrophysicist uncle, Bynder is your nephew that runs a startup.

The first thing we learned about Bynder when implementing their Bynder Creative Cloud Connector (which just came out in 2017) is that they don't have a folder metaphor that is common with nearly every other DAM. Our base Connector, in fact, expects a folder metaphor as that's all we saw with the first 14 Connectors we made. Then came Bynder...

Bynder

Bynder has a "pure" approach to metadata where there is not a folder hierarchy, exactly: instead there is metadata on the asset and that's the only way assets are 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.

Bynder

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, but we noticed many beautiful examples where Bynder had set up DAMs (or trained someone to set them up) and 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 from what we've generally seen, and Bynder is rapidly growing.

The Bynder Adobe Creative Cloud Connector is a unique from of Connector that has just been released, and no doubt we will be adding features as we get feedback and discover the trajectory of this energetic young company.

Looking across the DAMscape

Besides the on-premise vs. cloud distinction, DAMs vary quite a bit in terms of feature sets, with differing forms of support for things like workflow, media asset management, and archival. Some go deep into areas beyond basic asset management, such as content management (Alfresco and Adobe Experience Manager, for example, have deep web content management features), product information management, and multi-channel publishing. Following are a few DAMs that each have a specific focus, to give some sense of the diversity of the DAM space. 

Stylelabs - PIM-centric asset management

StyleLabs' Marketing ContentHub is just now bringing their Connector to market, which is InDesign-only, with their ContentHub UI providing asset search and navigation. I asked Stylelabs "what differentiates Marketing ContentHub from other DAMs?" And they quickly responded "the fact that we're not just a DAM".

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Marketing Content Hub has a definit focus on Product Information Management. There is definite overlap between PIMs and DAMs, and we see PIMs serving as DAMs or DAMs serving as PIMs frequently: few systems are really designed to do both. Marketing ContentHub is not exactly a pure PIM either, it's more of a product content management system which may or may not replace a PIM. I would imagine it can be the PIM or work with a PIM, depending on requirements.

Marketing Content Hub

Our initial impression of Marketing ContentHub is that it offers a powerful bridge between Product Information and Asset Management. I will update this post as we learn more.

Asset Bank: rights management and access control

Asset Bank is a popular DAM based in the UK that offers both cloud and on-premise options, and has a broad feature set meeting the needs of modern marketing departments. While they cover all the "core" bases, they seem to take permissions and access control more seriously than most other DAMs. With Asset Bank, you have fine-grained control over who can access an asset and what they can do with it. For example, assets can become unavailable the moment their license expires.

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Asset Bank offers much of the DAM functionality of the bigger players but at a significantly lower cost. It is highly configurable, and has a breadth of features to support most DAM workflows.

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We are just finishing up a new Connector for Asset Bank. In terms of UI, they chose to give it a look and feel that integrates as tightly with native InDesign as possible.

Brandworkz: brand management focus

Brandworkz, as their name implies, takes the "brand" seriously. Not only does their DAM manage the assets critical to a marketing department, but it includes information to help those departments attain one of the most crucial marketing goals for any organization, brand consistency.

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While some DAMs require very sophisticated users to administer the DAM, Brandworkz emphasizes ease-of-use. Like many DAMs, they have the concept of a master image with multiple renditions, but their renditions are automatically generated, while in other DAMs these need to be carefully configured ahead of time. In a similar fashion, Brandworkz offers "ready to go" workflow tools enabling collaboration with review and approval. This stands in contrast to other DAMs requiring substantial configuration or development to define a workflow process.

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Brandworkz has a wide range of integrations, including WordPress, MS Office, Salesforce, and Okta. We are enabling them to interoperate seamlessly with the Adobe Creative Cloud in a similar fashion.

Mediahaven: taking multimedia seriously

DAMs can manage almost any sort of content, with raster images being the lowest common denominator. Robust management of multiple rendition types for images is a step beyond the basics, and intelligent management of textual content and video can take DAMs into new classifications such as "CMS" (Content Management System) or "MAM" (Media Asset Management). While all of the DAMs mentioned here handle video, they do so to different degrees. Storing a video file is one thing, but transcoding it, annotating it, and managing proxy video workflows can go beyond what one would normally expect from pure digital asset management.

Mediahaven video annotation

Their timeline and "fragment" based video editing, combined with robust video annotation, and strong support for audio and video, all make Mediahaven a true player in the MAM space. Today, Mediahaven supports clients who ingest 10s of terabytes of data per day, so they seem capable of handling the scaling challenges that video brings.

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Mediahaven is also big on interoperability and extensibility: when we first met them, they already had very nice integrations with Photoshop and Premiere. Currently, we are collaborating to create a Connector that will combine their artful UI work with our low-level URL linking, thus making InDesign a first class experience for their users.

Conclusion - On it goes...

I think we've gone fairly wide with DAM Connectors, building 20 and likely to end up somewhere between 30 and 40 total, within a few years. Yet adding DAMs is less interesting as we run out of major names: rather than going wide we are getting more focused on going deep: some of our long-standing Connectors are in their 3rd or 4th incarnation. We have received fantastic feedback from the thousands of users we have worldwide, and it is starting to feel like we've just scratched the surface with features.

The UI inside of the Creative Cloud can interface with any DAM feature supported by the DAM's APIs, so there are really no limits to what we can attain. In our other products, we support connectivity to data sources and web content from within InDesign, and this frontier has promise. It is likely we'll see different types of integrations with our DAM partners around online design, database publishing, and InDesign automation, all of which benefit from URL-based asset connectivity.

It is an honor to see the evolution of this technology firsthand as it happens; I don't think any of these DAMs will sit still, our perspective as of DAM Chicago 2018 is likely to change again.