Archis: Electronic Document Management for the Macintosh

This article orginally appeared in the Sep-Oct 1992 issue of Language Industry Monitor

Thanks to a happy confluence of factors, the future is looking brighter and brighter for SoftCore, with its “100 percent Belgian product” Archis.

“The office of the 1990s is schizophrenic,” says Marc Goldchstein, Sales Manager of SoftCore. “That schizophrenia is the split between old and new technologies. Computers are everywhere, yet they are used for storing bits and pieces of information. Moreover, not all information within an organization is suitable for storing a conventional database. The end result is that ninety percent of this information is stored on paper – with all the corresponding disadvantages.” A paper document, Goldchstein reminds us, can only be accessed by one person at a time and there is always the inherent risk of its being misfiled. Electronic Document Management (EDM is the art of managing paper-based information. And it is the speciality of SoftCore. For Goldchstein, EDM is a technology whose time has come, and he gives us three reasons why. “First, because we now have affordable, high-performance computers. Second, because we now have powerful networks. And third, because we now have extremely high capacity optical media.”
    SoftCore was established in 1987 by several graduates of the Free University of Brussels who dedicated themselves initially to Unix networking and communication systems. Later, perceiving the enormous potential of electronic document systems, they set out to develop storage and retrieval technology for the Apple Macintosh. Initially, the company had only limited success on this rather esoteric turf; the company has not been well known even within the Mac community. That seems to be changing now. In June of last year, Apple Computer EUrope announced that SoftCore would be the first beneficiary of Apple’s EUropean Venture Capital Fund, a new program established to provide promising Apple-oriented companies with financial assistance. That announcement was followed earlier this year with the news that SoftCore would be working together with Digital Equipment Corp to implement Archis vax/vms servers and DECWindows/Motif Archis clients under Network Application Support (nas), DEC’s open application architecture, thereby propelling Archis directly into the mainstream of corporate computing.
    The expanding EDM market together with Apple’s support has been reason enough for SoftCore to step up its development efforts. To heighten its appeal to a broader market, SoftCore recently introduced Archis File, an entry- level package which nonetheless offers the possibility of upward migration to a fullblown Archis installation. The company has also committed itself – ironically enough – to introducing a Microsoft Windows version of the Archis client software in 1993 (“there are no more sacred cows at Apple,” Apple president John Sculley has said), because many of the hotly contested Large Accounts in government and industry are resolutely PC/compatible shops. SoftCore has now opened subsidiaries in France and the uk as well.

What’s in a document?
Currently in its third major version, SoftCore’s Archis system has evolved into a mature, flexible toolbox for building EDM applications. At the center of Archis is ArMan, an application which manages the input, storage, and retrieval of documents, with various device drivers handling the individual scanning, compressing, viewing, and printing processes. As far as Archis is concerned, a document can contain virtually anything: a Macintosh wordprocessing file, an ASCII file, a black & white or color photo, a video image, an X-ray image, or even such things as a spreadsheet or animation files. All of these are handled by the respective “document driver.” This wide-ranging notion of what a document is clearly finds resonance in dec’s Compound Document Architecture (cda), a concept which that company hopes to leverage into a new generation of office automation software.

Terrabytes online
Archis has been designed so that the physical indexes can be stored separately from the document database, thereby making it possible to integrate multiple databases within an Archis system. SoftCore’s Archisdb can serve as the document database, or it can be a third-party relational database, such as Oracle, running on Mac, Vax, Unix, or PC platform. The relationship between the unique id number which Archis assigns to each document and its actual physical location is governed by the Archive Server (AServer) module, while actual control of the storage media is the province of the Document Server, which has device drivers for such things as ultra high capacity 5 1/4 and 12 inch worm optical drives. In a jukebox configuration, this media permits dizzingly large amounts of data to be stored online, up to 1.4 terrabytes.
    As documents are stored in an Archis system, they can be classified, for example, by date, keyword, type, source, department, and country; comments about each document can also be entered. SoftCore also offers full-text indexing modules for Archis (for English, Dutch, and French); these contain wordlists and small grammars for morphology reduction. For extra flexibility in retrieving documents, thesauri can also be created for keywords and related concepts. The user interface for Archis can be implemented in HyperCard or in a traditional programming LANguage.
    While the Mac is not renown for its performance as a network computer, SoftCore works around its limitations in this regard by carefully designing a system to optimize resources. To lessen network traffic, Archis will use keywords and other forms of indexing at the front end as long as possible before actually retrieving the full text or image of a document. Most Archis applications are designed for small numbers of concurrent users, usually between two and ten, connected with local or wide area networks. Version 3 of Archis brings with it some sophisticated facilities for optimizing document handling, such as pre-fetching, document migration, and automatic updating of documents between primary and secondary storage media.

Archis is not modular by accident. This is partly to allow processing to be distributed across a network. More significantly, however, it reflects SoftCore’s building-block approach to EDM systems. As Marc Goldchstein says, “of the more than one hundred Archis applications, no two are alike.” Virtually all of the Archis applications are tailored to varying degrees to suit the archiving requirements of the organization at hand. While the company will happily sell its software “off the shelf,” SoftCore suggests a feasibility study to determine whether electronic archiving can be successfully applied to a given situation. Consultancy is therefore a key activity alongside software development. Goldchstein: “First, we study the document flow within a workgroup. We try to determine whether an archive is alive or dead. With a live archive, documents need to be retrieved regularly. A dead archive is one in which documents are stored but seldom ever retrieved. In the latter case, electronic archiving is of minimal use.”

EDM or move
With more than one hundred Archis installations, SoftCore has built up a diverse user base, and to hear Goldchstein and colleagues discuss these applications, there are some compelling arguments for EDM. “In large organizations, documents may need to pass through many hands,” says Goldchstein. “As anyone in the insurance business can tell you, things get photocopied over and over again. In an EDM system, only one copy of a document exists, yet it can be instantly accessed by numerous people.” For SoftCore customers such as Auto Routes du Sud de la France, this could mean customer service response times of literally seconds instead of days. For Belgo Factors, a large Belgian credit insurer, this resulted in a reduction in the turnaround of credit applications from seven days to two or three. For some companies, the stimulus to turn to EDM is the possibility of faster turnaround and therefore better service; for others, such as Belgo Factors, simply the physical size of paper archives can be the initial stimulus; it was either EDM or move.
    As EDM moves from being an esoteric new technology to a mainstay of office automation, SoftCore, with its substantial user base, an aggressive development schedule, and the Apple stamp-of-approval, is in an excellent position to become a major player in this important new arena. Its long experience developing for the Macintosh gives it a natural advantage over competitors new to graphical user interfaces and complex document architectures. Nonetheless, the SoftCore team is faced with the daunting task of proselytizing the advantages of EDM to the greater public. As Communications Manager Katelijne van Renterghem put it at a recent Archis introductory seminar at SoftCore’s Brussels offices, “if this were an established technology, this kind of awareness-raising wouldn’t be necessary. EDM is still very new.”

SoftCore, Avenue Beaulieulaan 25, B-1160 Brussels, Belgium; Tel: +32 2 673 99 03, Fax: +32 2 660 10 76


[ return | top | home ]