Review: Wikis In The Enterprise

Wikis can help you develop an easy-to-use collaborative workspace. We tested four commercial wikis: one software-based, one appliance and two hosted solutions. One offering stood out from the rest, thanks

March 30, 2006

19 Min Read
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If you've "googled" any topic recently--and who hasn't--you probably received a link to that topic in Wikipedia, the best living example of the power of online collaboration using wiki software. If you follow the link to Wikipedia, you'll find information about your topic and--this is the living part--you'll be solicited to help flesh out the content by editing and adding to the text about the topic. More than 85,000 people around the world have already contributed to a million-plus Wikipedia articles in less than five years.

The engine behind this demonstration of collaborative clout is Mediawiki, an open-source wiki distribution. Mediawiki is one of more than a dozen popular open-source wiki distributions at, which lists hundreds of such wikis and related wiki projects.

"A wiki is a type of Web site that allows users to easily add and edit content and is especially suited for collaborative writing," according to Wikipedia. "The name is based on the Hawaiian term wiki, meaning quick, fast, or to hasten." Wikipedia is thriving because knowledgeable people with desire to share what they know were finally presented with a technology that made it easy for them to organize and present their knowledge. Other experts contribute by fine-tuning a subject through a collaborative process. Furthermore, all the content is easy to access with any Web browser. If you could harness that process in your company, your employees could easily share their knowledge about your company's policies, processes, products, services and procedures with each other and with your customers.

We consider this ability critical to Network Computing's business, so last June we started using Mediawiki to keep our core editorial and testing documentation available and up to date. We've had good experience with this open-source distribution and would recommend a package like Mediawiki for companies that can run the software in-house and are inclined to implement community-developed and supported software. That said, there are valid reasons--most important, the availability of technical support--to select commercial rather than open-source software.For those of you not inclined to implement open-source code or who want to outsource your wiki implementation, we found just four companies that offer commercial wikis complete with tech support. We invited each of these vendors to participate in a hands-on review at our Real-World Labs®, at Syracuse University. All four--Atlassian Software Systems, CustomerVision, JotSpot and Socialtext.

Form Factors

Atlassian's Confluence is delivered as a downloadable package for any OS that supports a J2EE application server. JotSpot is available as a hosted solution, or as an appliance for companies that need to run the product inside the corporate firewall. CustomerVision is primarily deployed as a hosted solution, though a couple of the company's customers use an installed version. Socialtext can be hosted, or implemented as an appliance for a cool $250,000 per year.

Enterprise Wiki Features Click to enlarge in another window

In our invitation, we informed the vendors we would prefer to test appliances--if they were available. CustomerVision and JotSpot supplied the hosted versions of their solutions, while Atlassian provided the only software solution. Socialtext sent both the hosted and appliance solutions, but because the two are identical, we concentrated on Socialtext's appliance.Each product we tested can be set up in minutes. We expected that from the hosted and appliance implementations but were pleasantly surprised that Atlassian's solution also was easy to set up. The biggest differences in implementing the products are the time it takes to configure them for your enterprise and how much administrator and end-user training you'll need to provide. Based on our experience, JotSpot's hosted solution was the easiest to implement, whereas CustomerVision's initial setup and configuration were the most complicated--especially involving key issues such as category, hierarchical levels and template setup. Most CustomerVision customers set up these items in consultation with tech support. These products are all flexible, so nothing must be perfect before you go into production. But the more you get right from the start, the less metadata you'll need to edit and the less content you'll need to move later.

Each vendor offers Web and e-mail support, and provides forums for user-to-user support. Atlassian and CustomerVision offer phone support. JotSpot offers three support levels--standard, silver and gold--priced from free to $2,995 per year. The vendors also provide self-support through online help. Atlassian's online help is strongest. Confluence's default installation is as an application, rather than as a service, on Windows servers. We spent less than a minute searching Atlassian's online help facility to figure out how to configure Confluence as a service and another minute to add an environment variable and type the command into a DOS prompt.

Security Concerns

To determine the level of security these architechture implementations provide, we examined their authentication, access granularity and role-based rights. Although all the wikis have internal mechanisms to ensure security, including authentication, user and group access controls and roles, we were disappointed with each one's external authentication facilities--in particular, authenticating against an external namespace using LDAP. Confluence and Socialtext support LDAP authentication but require a user with the same name on the wiki system--which means maintaining two namespaces. These two wiki solutions use the external namespace for password checking only. Confluence can import LDAP users by reading the information from the external namespace, but it's a batch-mode process that doesn't synchronize the information automatically between the two namespaces. Socialtext, meanwhile, uses a tab-separated file containing one user per line, rather than accessing the user information through an LDAP lookup. Neither CustomerVision nor JotSpot offers any mechanism for external authentication.

Of the four distributions we tested, JotSpot has the most flexible and complete user and group access controls. We found it easy to assign rights to users and groups to read, edit, delete, and create new sub pages, and to attach documents down to the individual page level. Rights to hierarchical content are inherited from rights assigned to the parent, similar to Windows NTFS file access permissions.What You Get

Performance and scalability are difficult to judge in this type of test. Because half of the solutions were hosted, their performance varied greatly. In our tests, the hosted solutions generally responded more slowly than the systems we ran in-house, due to the overhead created by Internet latency and resource contention by a number of customers sharing the same hardware at the hosting site.

Atlassian's Confluence offers limited scalability. Although you determine the hardware's size and power, the product doesn't support clustering. Rather, you can split the workload by implementing the Confluence database server on separate hardware from the application server. Hosted products require you to share hardware resources and speeds and feeds with other customers so be sure to arrive at a solid understanding about performance issues before you sign the contract.

All these products use WYSIWYG editors to make content creation and formatting as simple as creating documents in a word processor. This easy-to-use interface is really what sets wiki software apart from other Web-based content creation tools. Wiki software removes hurdles like HTML coding that might otherwise inhibit widespread adoption and use. CustomerVision's WYSIWYG editor provided outstanding controls for text and table formatting, made it a snap to insert sound into pages, let us toggle between WYSIWYG and source mode so we could edit the HTML code directly and, with the right click of the mouse, provided a cut, copy and paste menu. We'd like to see wikis add support for other document types, such as spreadsheets with cell formatting and formulas, but for now we're impressed with the approachability inherent in the current crop of WYSIWYG editors.

After taking support, security, management, configuration, features and price into consideration, we picked Atlassian's Confluence as our Editor's Choice award winner. Confluence is easy to install and configure on a variety of host OSs. The software is reasonably priced, secure enough for enterprise use, and extensible through RPC-XML, SOAP, the Confluence Plug-in APC and the Java API. Source code is freely available to licensed users, so even though Confluence is likely to meet most of your needs out-of-the-box, you can customize and extend the system to your heart's content.JotSpot finished a very close second to Confluence. Its only pitfall was its lack of any method for using external authentication. JotSpot is extensible, but only through 13 add-ons available in the vendor's application gallery. JotSpot has the best price and provides the best role, user and group granularity for securing your site's content.

CustomerVision and Socialtext received low marks for security and price. For 100 users, CustomerVision is by far the most expensive product, while Socialtext topped the charts in the 5,000-user scenario. Socialtext lets you set access permissions at the workspace level only, not on a page-by-page basis. Also, the namespace for each Socialtext workspace is separate, so inviting a Socialtext user to a new workspace involves entering the user's e-mail address in a form and e-mailing the invitation, rather than simply selecting that person from a list of existing users. From an administrative standpoint, CustomerVision's use of categories and levels let us set group and role-based access to various parts of the wiki, but the implementation had us scratching our heads at times. After gaining some experience and getting some direction from technical support, we could set group access rights--but who wants to add such administrative overhead?

Atlassian Software Systems Confluence 2.1.2
Our Editor's Choice, Atlassian Software Systems' Confluence 2.1.2, has all the features that suit an enterprise wiki. It's easy to install and set up, yet flexible and extensible. It supports user and group access controls down to the page level. The price is reasonable, and, most important, the software doesn't demand extensive training or users with degrees in rocket science.

Of the wikis we tested, only Confluence was delivered as software. It took five minutes to download the full package from Atlassian's Web site and to grab the required J2SE SDK from Sun's Java site. Wespent about two minutes running the J2SE installation and two more for the Confluence standalone edition, which includes Tomcat as the application server and an HSQL database server. Add another couple of minutes for the initial configuration and we were up and running in less than 15 minutes.We installed the standalone edition because we weren't running a Java application server or production database server in the lab. For enterprises using an application server, Atlassian provides a version of Confluence that installs into your existing environment. Confluence supports Apache Tomcat, BEA Systems WebLogic, Caucho Resin, IBM WebSphere and Orion application servers and IBM DB2, Microsoft SQL server, MySQL, Oracle, PostgreSQL and Sybase ASE for database backends.

Confluence content is organized into an unlimited number of spaces, each of which can operate as a separately administered wiki. We created an article production space to contain information about different articles' editorial requirements. Since different editors control those specs (for example, our reviews' requirements are different from those of our workshops), we needed to assign rights to the content based on the editor's role.

Atlassian did this very well; we were impressed by the granularity of Confluence's access rights. Confluence supports permissions at the space or page level, including rights to view; rights to create, export, restrict or remove pages; rights to create or remove news items, comments or attachments; rights to remove mail; and rights to export and administer the space. These rights can be assigned to groups, users and anonymous users.

Atlassian Software Confluence 2.1.2Click to enlarge in another window

Each wiki page typically has multiple versions, as users refine the content. With Confluence, we easily managed page versions by viewing the history, and comparing different versions with visual aids that highlighted the changes. We could also restore previous versions.Confluence's WYSIWYG editor is more simplistic and less feature-rich than CustomerVision's, but it still supports text and table formatting. If ease of use is one of your goals for a wiki, then rest assured that you won't need to spend a ton on training users to add content--sometimes simplicity is best.

Our test scenario called for a 100-user and a 5,000-user system. Atlassian doesn't have a 100-user license--only 50, 500 and unlimited users. The best pricing for 100 users is actually achieved by purchasing the 500-user license, which works out to $30 per user per year, for two years, including second-year maintenance. An unlimited user license runs $8,000 for the first year and $4,000 per year from the second year on for support.

JotSpot Wiki 2.3.3
JotSpot bills its hosted wiki as an application wiki that can be up and running in 30 seconds and is as easy to use as a word processor. Because we were provisioned for this review differently than regular customers are, we can't vouch for the 30-second part, but we were impressed by JotSpot's ease of use. JotSpot's simple interface uses a handful of large buttons to activate simple tasks such as creating and editing pages and attaching documents.

JotSpot has simplified the administrator's interface and tasks so well that any power user can set up, run and train users to use a JotSpot wiki. Administrators also can install a set of predefined applications for tasks such as blogging, task management, project management and user polling. Some of these apps, such as polling, are well integrated into the wiki; others, such as the project management app, look and feel so different from the main product that users may get confused and have a difficult time navigating in the new space, as well as in getting back to the old space.

Like all the products we tested, JotSpot provides a mechanism to view a page's revision history. The side-by-side comparison color codes changes between two page versions but lacks an easy mechanism to revert to a previous version. To go back, you need to copy the content of the old version and paste it on top of the latest version--an inadequate solution.

JotSpot 2.3.3Click to enlarge in another window

Like Confluence's, Jotspot's WYSIWYG editor won't present any hurdles for users; it's simple and has the right feature set for most content. JotSpot's WYSIWYG makes better use of right-click context sensitive menus than the other products we tested, and the menus let users easily import Word and Excel documents as wiki pages.

JotSpot charges $69.95 per month for unlimited users, but limits the wiki to 1,000 pages--about the right size for a workgroup. If 1,000 pages aren't enough, an account for unlimited users with unlimited pages runs $199.95 per month. The company's recently revised support options include the Gold level for $2,995 per year, with 24/7 one-hour response time; Silver for $995 annually, providing four-hour response on an 8/5 schedule; and standard support, which doesn't include phone support and specifies a 48-hour response time.

CustomerVision Enterprise Wiki
CustomerVision is really a knowledge management system wrapped in a wiki. The search page, identified as the "Knowledge Search," should have been a dead giveaway. All wikis manage knowledge to some degree, but CustomerVision has taken this concept a step further by making the initial wiki setup and ongoing content creation a more rigorous--and arduous--process than the other products we reviewed.

To effectively create content, users must understand CustomerVision's concepts of categories and levels, as defined by the administrators. Categories are used as metadata to help segment the wiki's content into easily searchable containers. Levels, meanwhile, are used to determine what groups have access to what content. For example, we defined two levels in our test wiki: Network Computing staff and public. We also created sublevels under staff for management, section editors, technology editors and freelancers to reflect the different access rights we wanted to maintain for our content. Levels and categories are normally set up in consultation with CustomerVision support, since segmentation and categorization are prerequisites to content creation.

Because CustomerVision content creators must enter the categories, training requirements are higher than with other products. Good content will include such metadata as a title, summary, the article, keywords, links to related articles, information about the author, and a summary of changes. The publisher also must decide if this is a priority article and what additional toolboxes should be displayed with the article.Though CustomerVision's Enterprise Wiki has training hurdles, the company's WYSIWYG editor, with its built-in spelling checker, is the best in the group. We easily created complex Web pages with formatted text, tables, bulleted lists, images, audio and hyperlinks to other CustomerVision or Web content. We appreciated being able to toggle into source code editing to fine tune the page layout. CustomerVision also supports forms creation within the editor, a feature that no other product included.

CustomerVision charges a flat fee of $25 per user per month, which makes this the most expensive 100-user system in our review: $30,000 per year. For $5,000 per month ($60,000 per year), CustomerVision provides companies with unlimited users on a single database.

Socialtext Enterprise

Although Socialtext Enterprise wiki has organization and ease of use in its favor, its quarter-million dollar price cap and lack of page-level security should make you think twice.

Socialtext is available as a hosted solution or as an appliance you house behind your firewall. We looked at both solutions during the review and, aside from access to an administrative console on the appliance, these two solutions are functionally identical. The console provides access to such administrative tasks as initial settings, setup for external authentication through LDAP, an overview of the resources in use, scheduling backups to a local SMB-compatible file server, shutdown and reboot.

Socialtext provides standard training for new wiki administrators. The product is easy to use, so you won't need to cover the basics. Instead, the training helps you get the most out of your wiki by implementing effective practices.

A Socialtext wiki comprises as many workspaces, with their associated pages, weblogs and attachments, as you need to create. We created new workspaces by filling out a form with the workspace title and a unique workspace ID. The only way to add users to a workspace is to invite them through a form that sends e-mail; you can't select the users from a pick list even if they are already members of another workspace. Once users are part of a workspace, they can be assigned an administrative role: They can add and remove users and create new workspaces. Otherwise, all workspace users have the same access permissions. This is the least granular security model of all of the products we looked at.

Socialtext Enterprise to enlarge in another window

Socialtext's WYSIWYG editor has simple and advanced modes. It's not immediately apparent what the difference is when you toggle between the two, since they look identical. When you try to do something like add an image to a page, Socialtext warns you that you need to be in advanced mode. Neither mode has the same formatting controls provided by the other products in the review.

For our 100-user scenario, Socialtext charges $495 per month--about $59 per user per year--in a hosted environment. Socialtext recommends an in-house appliance for a 5,000-user system. The appliance would cost $10,000 per year.

Ron Anderson is Network Computing's lab director. Before joining the staff, he managed IT in various capacities at Syracuse University and the Veteran's Administration. Write to him at [email protected].

Executive SummaryWhen Network Computing needed to develop a collaborative workspace for editors to share article requirements, style guides and other publishing necessities, we turned to an open-source wiki. It's been quick, easy, and even our most technophobic wordworkers can create or edit documents within it. For this review, we considered commercial wiki tools with ample tech support. Four vendors sent us a form of their product: Atlassian Software Systems sent its Confluence software-based wiki tool; JotSpot and CustomerVision gave us access to their hosted solutions; and Socialtext sent an appliance. Despite the different form factors, all four were remarkably simple to set up and flexible to use. Some lack sufficient security, but our winner, Confluence, has it all: good pricing, security, extensibility and customizability.


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