Working in distributed teams is one of the major trends in the 21st century. Many technology start-ups are spearheading this development with teams distributed across different countries and time zones working on one and the same project. Traditional companies are heading in the same direction with an increasing share of employees working from home and international project teams collaborating across departments and sites. On top of this, corporate intranets are on the way to becoming the tool of choice for company internal collaboration.
Here at CQ Net, we searched for a technology solution that supports team learning.
Having this in mind, we started our journey to find a collaboration technology stack for our start-up CQ Net that specializes in team learning across time, location and organization boundaries. At the beginning, we considered using proprietary software or some of the many available free commerical tools for file sharing, video conferencing, collaborative editing etc. as basis for our collaboration platform. Going through many different product specifications and testing sessions, we concluded that due to three reasons we had to go for our own collaboration technology stack. First, none of the solutions we had a look at provided the flexibility we needed to add custom features such as a simple Kanban Board, an invitation functionality and team chats necessary for our Team Consulting & Learning approach. Second, we were surprised about the level of fragmentation of available collaboration features. Of course, there is a team chat feature available in many of the popular social media platforms, there are free file sync and share tools and last but not least there are great video conferencing tools for small money out there. However, which user wants to switch between numerous different tools to discuss a recent research paper in his team and summarize the key message in a collaborative editing tool?
Beside flexibility and integration we looked for data security.
Finally, we raised the especially in Europe delicate question about data security. CQ Net is intended to be a knowledge production power house which connect evidence based knowledge with know-how from practitioners from business. Taking this into consideration we were asking ourselves whether we could afford having third parties’ data mining algorithms searching through our clients and CQ Net teams' data? The obvious answer to this question was of course no. Consequently, we had to start thinking in a different direction in order to find a viable technical solution for our team collaboration platform.
Open access and open source constituted a perfect match.
As an evidence based learning platform that targets at bridging the gap between science and business, we are active supporters of open access in research. We think that publicly funded high quality research should not be locked behind paywalls only accessible to a handful of people but instead be available to the wider public. From our point of view, this is the only way to learn and develop in a 21st century knowledge economy and to appreciate high quality research by additional funding and reputation building for scholars all around the globe. The corresponding ecosystem in technology is open source software which perfectly matches with our strategy of knowledge sharing, team collaboration, openness and transparency.
Four ingredients for the perfect open source collaboration stack.
There are numerous open source collaboration tools around which, when properly customized and integrated, lead to a high end open source collaboration stack that meets all requirements in terms of flexibility and data security stated earlier. In addition, there is an active support community and a range of enterprise support services available for each tool. This is crucial when it comes to bug fixing, security and scaling in a mission critical environment. We would like to introduce each tool in more detail in the following section.
Open Atrium is a collaboration platform and a flexible intranet backbone.
Open Atrium is an intranet solution that is based on the popular open source content management system Drupal. It integrates many of the popular Drupal modules to a flexible and powerful collaboration platform with team spaces, discussion and document sections as well as task management and calendar features. Many more available modules and a well-defined API interface provide the required flexibility to adjust Open Atrium to almost any use case. A strong security team embedded in the Drupal community and the fact that Open Atrium is trusted by many companies and governmental organisations makes it a safe and secure collaboration platform. In order to meet our Team Consulting & Learning requirements, we use Open Atrium as intranet backbone with many of its core features such as access rights management, discussion and notification functionality.
BigBlueButton is an open source web conferencing system for online collaboration.
Team Consulting & Learning can be done almost entirely in the virtual world with little or no face to face contact. One of the key feature required to follow this “virtual approach” is a secure web conferencing system that is suitable for team collaboration. Having looked at many of the available web conferencing systems, we came to the conclusion that BigBlueButton is the right choice for our open source collaboration stack. Used in many different learning management systems such as Moodle, BigBlueButton can be used with any browser and provides WebRTC audio, video, desktop sharing among other important collaboration features. In addition, BBB codebase is open and transparent which adds to data security and can be easily integrated into Open Atrium due to its well-documented API.
Nextcloud is the next generation enterprise file sync & share system for safe file management.
Another key functionality required for a collaboration platform is a file management system. Even though there are Drupal modules available that connect some of the popular free commercial file sharing tools to Open Atrium, we decided to go for Nextcloud. It has a strong focus on data security, an intuitive user interface and a big community that continuously develops Nextcloud to the next level. Additional enterprise level services help companies to integrate the system in their IT landscape and scale it to their requirements. An integration with Open Atrium was achieved via LDAP and Shibboleth SSO authorization which is supported by both systems.
Collabora Online is an office suit in the cloud based on LibreOffice that support collaborative editing.
One of the hottest topics in team collaboration is collaborative editing in an office suit environment. Collabora Online solved exactly this problem by putting Libre Office, a popular open source office suit, online. It supports various editing functions for many popular media types such as spreadsheets, presentations and documents. Due to its mature collaborative editing functionality, it is perfectly suited to simultaneously work on team documents. There is already an integration of Collabora Online with Nextcloud available which combines file management with file editing into one system.
There is a huge amount of collaboration tools out there. However, finding the right ones for specific requirements and combining them into a collaboration stack is a challenge. We think that the tools presented today is a great starting point for setting up your own open source collaboration stack.
Barinder Singh is part of our founding team and responsible for the technology part of our CQ Net. After a bachelor's degree in electronics and a master's degree in computer science at the University of Gujarat, Barinder has founded his own software company.