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Handling Digital Assets--Managing Content, Minus Limits

March 1998
Digital asset management, an enabling technology, is pushing today's commercial printers into the role of tomorrow's information managers.

Digital asset management. Unarguably, when these three words are strung together, whether on a trade show floor or at a business luncheon, commercial printers take notice.

Grover Daniels II, president of Boston-based Daniels Printing, has a theory on this phenomenon. "The printer is the conduit for the delivery of content, whether the delivery vehicle is print or digital in nature," he professes.

Daniels, a fourth-generation commercial printer, prefers to describe his family business as a full-service information provider that will comprise three interrelated business units: commercial printing, financial printing and, in the future, as Daniels projects, digital asset management services.

"Commercial printers must now be experts at data archival, retrieval and digital repurposing in order to meet and exceed the emerging demands for content," Daniels contends. "The idea by which today's commercial printers must operate deviates from the traditional print direction—embracing the expanded array of digital communication opportunities available today, opportunities that allow for communication without limits."

Recently, Daniels Printing announced a strategic partnership agreement with WebWare, a technology provider of Internet-based content management and workflow solutions, and USWEB Cornerstone, a professional Web consulting and development services firm, to co-market Content Manager, Daniels Printing's interactive information management system.

Content Manager is a Web-based digital media and information management system for large corporations and financial institutions. The digital asset manager enables Daniels' customers, and other users, to retrieve digital content and measure the status of production on a job-by-job basis.

"There is an overwhelming need in our industry for repurposing digital assets—for both print and Internet publishing—and for creating, storing and retrieving digital content quickly and effectively. Content Manager was born out of that," states Daniels, who believes printers are moving to a different marketplace entirely as new digital asset managers, like Content Manager, take rise in the industry.

But digital asset management is by no means limited to the manipulation of data. In addition to handling digital information, printers must be able to store it.

Beyond the bulk of the RAID clusters (see sidebar, Storage, Storage, Storage), beyond the Jaz and SyJet drives, the collection of DAT tapes, CD-ROM disks and other vehicles for the storage of digital assets, lies the next, perhaps most marketable, component in a commercial printer's digital archiving arsenal: workflow management solutions.

Obviously, the field is expanding considerably.

Workflow solutions—ranging from MediaBank from Archetype, now a division of Bitstream, to MediaSphere by Cascade Systems and Extensis Portfolio, to name a few independent digital asset managers—are helping catalogers and general commercial printers alike keep a lid on everything but the kitchen sink.

MediaBank is a database application that allows the user to archive, browse, purge and track any job element, including images, text, fonts, sound files, movies and documents.

The MediaBank application runs on Mac, Windows or a Web client, with back-end database processes running on UNIX or Windows NT servers.

MediaBank allows the user to organize files in job jackets, track the status and cost of jobs, and archive and retrieve entire jobs or job elements.

Strictly in the area of archiving, MediaBank integrates with Legato NetWorker and other backup software, presenting the user with a visual indication of archive status. This allows for a single-click restore from tapes or other storage media and supports pools of different storage media types.

Paul Trevithick, founder of Archetype, now a division of Bitstream, and the visionary behind the archiving power of MediaBank, has a pivotal perspective on the status of digital asset archiving and data manipulation.

"There has been an inordinate focus on installing digital asset management products inside commercial printers and prepress shops to enable them to begin to offer 'asset management services' to their customers. While it is true that this can be successful, there are two other benefits that may prove even more important," he suggests.

The first, the Archetype founder continues, is that digital asset management systems vastly increase the work group productivity of prepress operations—paying for themselves, in many cases, by providing faster turnaround, time savings, elimination of overtime and reducing errors.

The second benefit is that a commercial printer cannot transform into a full-service information provider—the likes of Daniels Printing—without an asset management system.

"Daniels Printing so believes this that it developed its own home-grown solution," Trevithick enthuses. "The future of digital archiving and digital asset management is about being able to produce customized and personalized pages in any media."

And at the heart of accomplishing this lies a digital asset management system—the central nervous system, so to speak.

Turning to Cascade Systems, MediaSphere is a multimedia library/archive and content management system designed for multiple users handling all types of digital objects, from text and PDF files to sound and video. Natural language queries make searching a quick and intuitive process, with integrated Adobe Acrobat allowing users to search the actual content of a PDF page, then requery the database with highlighted text.

"Archiving tools are becoming more and more in demand—digital archiving systems will be the focal point for maintaining a competitive edge," says Francesco Rietti, product manager for MediaSphere at Cascade. "The players that will win out are those that will invest today and start collecting a vast amount of digital assets for tomorrow."

He shares his views on the direction of digital archiving tools, and the fundamental tools Cascade considers to be requirements for strong digital asset management.

Digital Essentials
So, Francesco, what tools are must haves when it comes to archiving? In no particular order, Rietti is quick to report, the following characteristics are critical in solid asset management: the ability to archive any digital asset; free text (natural language); and searching and relevancy ranking, proximity and stemming.

"These three features combined will guarantee a very accurate search result from even novice users," he contends. Also high on his list are a digital asset management system's ability to automatically extract metadata from incoming files and populate the index with all the terms, including incoming wire photos, PDF files and text.

"This is very important, because it means that no workflow or human intervention is required in order to properly archive and index the content of a file." Rietti explains. "We automatically map the metadata fields of the document with the metadata fields of the index."

MediaSphere automatically shows the PDF and displays the exact page of where it highlights the matched words for easy recognition.

On the server, MediaSphere has a very sophisticated mechanism whereby many sequential processes, as well as conditional processes, can happen in order to properly index and archive all types of legacy data.

"The ability to co-exist and integrate with existing systems is very important," Rietti states. "Media-Sphere can be configured to interface to all types of other systems."

Turning to Extensis, Portfolio is a multimedia database that allows multiple Macintosh and Windows 95/NT users to view, organize, manage and use digital content. Sioux Fleming, senior product marketing manager for Extensis Portfolio, notes that asset management starts long before the commercial printer or prepress shop receives the print job.

"The need for asset management runs through the design process to the production process," Fleming says.

"Designers have vast amounts of content they need to hunt through to create their projects. Most have tens, if not hundreds of disks and content from royalty-free and stock photography, illustration, sound and video content providers.

"The impetus to set up an asset management system for these creative work groups usually comes more from the need to organize content from outside sources, rather than organizing their own work," she continues.

For today, design teams frequently rely on their printers and prepress shops for archiving the work they send to print.

As long as this is so, digital asset management options, coupled with enhancements to traditional archiving tools, will play a premium role in competitive commercial printing environments.

—Marie Ranoia Alonso


Question: When evaluating all-digital archiving technologies, what are some software features essential to a successful implementation?

Patrick White: Let's discuss this optimal feature set and then review options for actually implementing a production database in your day-to-day workflow.

* Maintaining OPI links.
While the automated archiving of jobs and files is quite nice, it must work with existing technologies in your workflow. You want to ensure, for example, that any archiving system you put in place works with your OPI system, in effect maintaining the links between your low-res view files and their high-res cousins.

* Cataloging incoming jobs.
In an all-digital archiving solution, the printer will need to catalog the individual files associated with jobs, and may need to specially catalog images should the customer need to repurpose the image for another printed piece at a later date. This cataloging process should be able to quickly assign keyword search parameters to the files and jobs.

* Interacting with jobs during production.
You should be able to interact with the job database to retrieve elements, update files and track time associated with production processes. A solution that tracks checked-out jobs or job elements is beneficial; it can avoid the problem of multiple versions of a file on a network, which can result in missed updates and changes.

* End-of-job archiving.
Once a job is complete, you will want to be able to easily move files from active storage (your server's RAID) to archived storage, whether DAT, DLT or CD-ROM. Currently, most archiving is done by server administrators, who must manually review a completed job list and then archive the associated files using archive software resident on the server. With a next generation database, you'll be able to drive this process from production, billing or planning departments, decentralizing the process and eliminating the bottleneck of a server-oriented workflow.

* Accessing files and jobs at a later date.
The real value of the database is when you need to find prior jobs or files. Since all jobs and job files have been tagged, you can simply enter search routines, such as customer or job number or job type. The results of these searches should then display visual thumbnails of the job layouts.

* Managing connections, permissions and security.
You may have many different people accessing your database, and you will need some flexibility in how you manage these interactions.

First, you should be able to limit an employee or client to a single job or a single set of jobs. Second, you should be able to easily create temporary permissions for a job without threatening the security of the rest of the database. Finally, you should be able to set permissions based on the functional way in which you wish a given individual to participate.

Patrick White is principal of White & Associates, a firm that integrates database asset management installations. White is also the founder of Boston-based Digital Art Exchange (DAX), a provider of open digital connectivity solutions.


Let's quickly look at storage tools. As a fast refresher, the industry relies on Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID) technology, which can be configured in a number of ways, as well as removable hard drives, the likes of Iomega Jaz drives, magneto-optical (MO) disks available in 3.5˝ and 5.25˝ versions, CD-ROM disks, CD/CD-R, Jukeboxes and the ever faithful back-up tapes for high capacity and durability.

Of all the technologies available for storing data, RAID seems to be the selection under the most scrutiny. It also seems to be undergoing the biggest boost in sophistication at the moment.

Case in point:

Storage Computer, a worldwide provider of software-driven storage solutions, recently announced its OmniRAID Cluster Array for Windows NT. It is designed for commercial printers and prepress firms looking to migrate core business applications from mainframe UNIX servers on to NT without incurring any additional storage management overhead or performance degradation.

The OmniRAID Cluster Array automates data protection on a transaction vs. application level, eliminating the need to manage RAID levels continually for different applications stored on multiple NT or UNIX servers. Capacity may be scaled from 54GB to 1 terabyte to enable clustered NT server-based infrastructures to benefit from mainframe-class storage services.

Anton Murphy, manager of worldwide strategic alliances at Storage Computer, gives three reasons why users are turning to strategically purchased, high business impact storage platforms:

  • the demand for simplified, centralized management;

  • enterprise-wide scalability;

  • the realization of software-based storage platform-level functionality enhancements, including real-time data mirroring and ultra-high-speed, direct-attach backup, that don't consume server or network resources.

"Clearly we're seeing a differentiation between conventional hardware-based disk arrays and cluster arrays, with motivating factors being advanced application performance and business continuance," Murphy contends.

"The right storage vehicle can allow a commercial printer to increase revenue, reduce cost and maintain a competitive edge," he continues. "At a time when most printers are wrapping themselves around their digital data, the right storage solution can mean the difference between publish or perish."

Storage Computer's OmniRAID cluster array automates data protection.

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