One of the unique features of OpenAnnotate (now Alfresco Enterprise Viewer) compared to other products on the market is the ability to quickly and securely view documents. This post will present a background on the speed and security AEV offers compared with typical browser based alternatives or competing products.
Browser Based Default Viewing
When Image System and ECM tools were first developed in the 1980’s and 1990’s before browsers, typical systems needed client/server programs that it would provide for viewing. Typically called the “native viewing approach”, the client/server applications could include Microsoft Word for Word documents but also typically an image viewer for TIFF or other types of image documents.
With the advent of the web browser, the need for client server tools faded. For any modern document viewing system, a browser is used for document navigation. For the majority of implementations, the view/editing application will leverage the default settings from the browser itself. PDFs might displayed with either the browser (Chrome), and Adobe or other program plug-in or with downloadable libraries like PDF.JS. Word documents could be viewed with MS Word (native approach) or potentially the browser as well.
There are some major drawbacks of the default browser or native approach including:
- Support – While the user interface to retrieve the document might be consistent across browsers, user browser configuration will vary greatly across implementations, particularly when addressing external users. Support has to include the ability to understand the particular user’s configurations and potential differences in the user experience with the interface.
- Speed – Typically default solutions require the entire document to be downloaded to the browser. While not an issue for small documents, large documents, particularly documents containing a large number of pages and/or large graphics, will be slow to download.
- Security – Browser based downloads are simply cached on the local machine. Knowledgeable users can easily copy the file to a new location without any difficulty or complexity.
- Annotation and Editing – Viewing documents can lead to other functions like annotation, redaction and potential editing. Given the approach of the download and default viewing, typical applications do not allow for additional capabilities on the document itself.
Modern approaches look to improve security, consistency, support and added functions like annotation while reducing the time to review.
Moving away from downloading the document
Modern approaches move away from the downloading the entire document to downloading pages or sections of the document as appropriate and leveraging a combination of server-side and client-side components to provide an efficient, consistent and supportable user interaction. By moving to a combination of pages combined with server and client components:
- Support – Can be accomplished more easily as the client side components control the user experience keeping a consistent interface that removes the different user browser configuration support issue, particularly when addressing mobile clients.
- Speed – Pages can be delivered quickly to the user to provide for viewing of the first page while subsequent pages are being retrieved, vastly improving the speed for viewing large documents.
- Security – Pages of the document can be encrypted making it difficult to save the entire document. Watermarking overlays can also be configured to discourage the usage of screen grabbers or pictures taken with a cell phone.
- Annotation and Editing – Client side components can communicate with the server to provide for secure annotation and editing features including redaction.
Alfresco Enterprise Viewer supports any modern browser including Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari without any add-on components. See a quick video below of how a consistent interface differs from plugins and default browsers.
AEV has been optimized for high-speed viewing, particularly of PDFs. See “Viewing PDF’s, what are the high-speed options” from late 2019 where we compared speeds from Chromium default viewer, Adobe Reader for Internet Explorer 11 and PDFJS. For the large document tests was initial load time for viewing the first page. Browsers’ viewers and PDFJS struggle with larger files due to the need to download the entire document into the browser and where we found Alfresco Enterprise Viewer to be 2 to 5 times faster depending on the size of the document. This initial download time bottleneck is also typically very sensitive to poor network conditions as waiting for a document to load has an out-sized impact on a user’s perception of a tool’s performance. See our work with helping clients understand performance perceptions.
In regards to non-PDF documents, unlike other viewer tools that convert the file “on the fly” from native format to a PDF or similar format, AEV relies on Alfresco or other transformation tools to convert the document in the background improving real-time viewing speeds. While there is a trade-off for speed with increased storage costs, for those that desire reduced storage costs instead of speed, AEV will also support transformation on the fly. Hybrid solutions would also be available to purge renditions when documents become archived.
AEV breaks a document into parts of pages for viewing and manipulating within the browser. In regards to security, AEV provides the following benefits over a browser based or full-document approach:
- The document is in pieces making it difficult to simply copy a file from the browser cache.
- The pieces can be encrypted making it impossible to read the pieces without un-encrypting the pieces.
- The pieces are image files with text that is only used for transmission. Unlike PDF files, the full text is difficult to retrieve for lengthy documents or for full-text search outside of the system.
- Controlled Print – a record of the print action is recorded, along with identifying information such as a unique identifier, the page numbers that were printed, the number of copies printed, why the document was printed, when it was printed and by whom. This identifying information is recorded by the application as well as overlaid or represented on the printed document itself.
- The documents can include watermark overlays that indicate who and when the document was downloaded to avoid the screen grabber or cell phone picture scenario.
As clients look to enable work from anywhere and modernize their existing platforms or move to modern platforms, quick and efficient viewing, annotation, redaction and updating of content and meta-data will be key to the success of digital transformation and modernization efforts. Modern document views provide for both high-speed viewing and security versus traditional browser configuration approaches along with additional features like annotation, redaction, video support and document editing also provide benefits. Users looking to improve the user experience and capabilities of the system should look for modern document viewing approaches with their modernization efforts.