Data asset management: surviving in the terabyte world

You don’t have to look too far past your own computer to realize we are living in an age of large volume electronic data distribution. A quick look at some of the statistics floating around on the Internet can be mind boggling: over nine billion emails are said to be sent around the world everyday, and it is estimated that over 90 per cent of business documents today are created electronically, 70 per cent of which are never printed.

When it comes to the graphic communications industry, the challenges of managing and organizing electronic data span far beyond the relative simplicity of text-based documents. Whether we are dealing with proprietary application files, fonts, graphic images or multimedia content, the files we manage tend to be larger, more diverse and more complex to deal with.

Today, many graphic communications companies have simply adopted data asset management as a natural progression of doing business. I still remember a time when the company I worked for managed assets by organizing them in large film bags and storing them in massive racks numerically by docket number. When an asset needed to be repurposed, the film bag was retrieved from the shelves, the asset used and then re-archived for later use.

When desktop publishing and filmsetters came on the scene, final film was still stored on shelves, but a new system for managing the electronic data had to be developed. We chose to archive everything to disks, and keep a binder that referenced which job was on which disk.

Yet, still technology evolved. Filmsetters were replaced by platesetters, and the need for all those racks and cardboard sleeves faded. The digital information, however, kept on growing. We went from archiving several jobs on a single CD to archiving one job on multiple DVDs. As the amount of data we needed to store kept growing, we knew we had to change the way we looked at data.

Of course, asset management today goes far beyond the basic need of file archiving. We are always looking for ways to maximize efficiencies through automation and repurposing, to add value to our product or to provide new services to our customers. Today, asset management solutions offer great tools to achieve these ends. Companies around the world, in all different sectors, are all facing similar situations in managing their digital data – from sheer volume of data, to mixed media types, to brand protection concerns, to security and distribution – there is a lot that has to be considered when dealing with all this digital information.

Whether you are a small company or a large corporation, there are economical and effective ways that you can mange your assets and maximize their potential.

Asset Management 101: Deciphering the Terminology

Whether you are an asset management novice, or an experienced pro, one thing that you will notice is that there are a lot of different definitions and terms used in the asset management field. To make things even more complicated, many of the terms are often interchanged with one another, or defined differently by different people. This can get confusing for anybody. For example, it is common to hear the terms “asset” and “content” being used interchangeably. The terms “content management,” “asset management,” “digital asset management,” and “media asset management” tend to blend together and be used in a wide variety of contexts. To make things a bit clearer, let’s look at some of the common terminology and what it all means.

Data asset managementAssets versus Content

The word asset is a general term that can mean a lot of different things depending on the context in which it is used. For the purposes of asset management, an asset can be defined as any item or property of value, or use, that is owned by a person or company. I like this definition because it doesn’t restrict an asset to something that has a measurable economic benefit.

Several years ago, I stumbled upon an article written by Michael Moon, president of a company called GISTICS Incorporated. Although I didn’t know it at the time, Moon is considered to be one of the forefathers of modern asset management. In the article, Moon breaks down assets into seven major categories: brand assets, media assets, information assets, knowledge assets, social assets, education assets and network assets. These are very broad categories, but Moon defines them well and gives good examples for each category.

Over the years, I have found that pretty much every asset I have worked with fits well into one of these seven categories. Although it may seem a bit simplistic, knowing exactly what an asset is and how it can be categorized is a significant milestone in asset management.

When we look at asset management, the term content can be defined as all the items or property that an individual or company owns. Some people use these two terms interchangeably, but if you look at the two definitions together, there is a difference. An asset must have some sort of value or worth, but content does not. So it could be argued that assets are always a part of content, but content does not have to be an asset.

Content Management versus Asset Management

It is likely that most people in the graphic communications industry have heard both of these terms, especially if they are looking at software solutions to manage assets. To better understand the difference between the two terms, it can be helpful to think in terms of broader scope to narrower focus.

Content management is an umbrella term that encompasses several different types of asset management. In general terms, content management is the process of overseeing the storage, access, distribution, sharing, and use of assets and/or content, at a company level.

Asset management specifically relates to the process of overseeing assets from the narrower focus of a workflow, and can be sub-divided to specialized forms such as digital, media, web and so forth. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on digital asset management as it is most closely linked to the graphic communications industry.

Digital Asset Management

DAM is the most popular form of asset management in the graphic communications industry. The origins of digital asset management can be traced back to the need for graphic arts companies to manage their digital assets. Many people interchange the terms digital asset management with media asset management (MAM), but again, the two are somewhat different. Where digital asset management evolved from the graphic arts industry, media asset management was born from the entertainment industry, where there is a need to manage a diverse mix of digital and analog video and audio data.

There are many different digital asset management solutions on the market today, ranging in price from “free” to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and everything in between. Regardless of price, at the core of a digital asset management solution is a specialized database that can read, store and configure metadata associated with assets. It is the combination of the database and the metadata stored in the database that makes digital asset management work so well. While the concept of a database is easy enough to grasp, metadata can be somewhat more of a challenge. It’s not that the idea of metadata itself is very complex, but rather, that there are so many different models and methods behind using metadata that it can be hard to keep up sometimes. Not only are there several different types of metadata standards out there, but metadata varies in its editability as well as where it is captured and stored.

Metadata: the Key to Effective Management

In order for asset management to be effective, assets must have some degree of metadata association. Metadata, simply put, is data about data. Metadata is assigned to assets so that each asset can be uniquely identified, described, searched, catalogued and so on. In a sense, metadata is to your assets what an adjective would be to a noun.

Metadata can be assigned to assets in many different ways, and can be as simple as a text-based keyword, or it can be as complex as a video or audio annotation. Let’s use the example of a digital photograph to look at metadata.

First, there is metadata that is automatically embedded into the digital file by the camera that took the picture. This metadata can be seen when the picture is opened up in a program like Photoshop, and users can select to view the file information. In addition, users can add metadata to digital images by filling in some predefined fields in that same information section in Photoshop, or almost any other standard digital image repository program like Adobe Lightroom, Apple Aperture, Phase One Capture One, or even iPhoto. In most cases, the information entered here, as well as the automatically generated metadata, remains part of the digital image file and is embedded into the file when it is saved. (This varies slightly from metadata entered in asset management programs like Xinet WebNative, or Canto Cumulus, where it is often stored in the applications database and not as part of the file itself). So, not only is it important to understand how metadata is assigned to an asset, it is also important to know how and where metadata for an asset is stored.

When metadata is applied to an asset, it is usually associated with a digital file in one of three ways: the metadata can be embedded directly within the asset; the metadata can be stored in a separate file that is linked to an asset (often called a boxcar file); or the metadata can be stored in a database that creates an association between the metadata and the asset. It is important to understand these relationships, and to be aware of how your metadata is associated with your assets. For example, if key metadata for an asset is stored in a database, there is a possibility that when that asset is exported out of the database, the metadata will not come with it. This can be a serious concern if metadata is used to track such things as rights management on digital images or docket number associations.

Having a good understanding of what metadata is and how it is applied can result in greater productivity, better metadata functionality and fewer issues down the road.

Embedded metatata

Linked metatata

Metadata web native

Metadata Standards and Specifications

In order for asset management to really work, metadata must be widely recognizable by a variety of programs, and it must transcend any compatibility issues across multiple computer platforms. To accomplish this, several metadata standards and specifications have been written to cover the metadata needs of just about any type of asset, including images, video and documents. Some of the more popular standards are listed in the chart on the next page.

The table is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a sample of some of the more common metadata standards and formats that are in use today. It does take time to get used to it all, and unfortunately everything doesn’t always fall into neat little categories. For example, XMP metadata can contain both EXIF and IPTC metadata within it, and XMP data can be embedded in an asset or linked to it.

Asset Management Solutions

Asset management applications are the last piece to the asset management puzzle: for asset management to work, we need a tool that can read, sort and store assets and metadata to help us organize, track, repurpose and manage assets.

Asset management solutions on the market today vary in their functionality, complexity and, of course, cost. Choosing the right solution starts with a good understanding of what your needs are so you can find the best product to fill those needs.

If you are looking for a low volume digital image repository with limited yet functional metadata capabilities and no centralized access, you might be able to get away with Apple’s iPhoto included on almost any Mac you buy for little or no additional cost. For relatively simple multi-format document organization, Adobe’s Bridge software (included with Creative Suite) is actually quite powerful, and worth looking into if you own the Creative Suite anyway.

For the asset management beginner, these products might be a great way to learn and grow with little or no capital investment. You can use these tools to gain a better understanding of the processes involved and to better understand what your own needs are.

When we begin to look at what are considered to be professional asset management solutions, there is a broad range of solutions at just about every price point. At the low end of the price scale are single client applications like Extensis Portfolio Client and MediaDex (formerly Canto Cumulus Client), both retailing under $200 U.S.

Moving into centralized server-based solutions expands the price tag quite a bit, but offers the flexibility of centralized asset databases and multi-user access. At the low to mid-level entry point, both Extensis Portfolio and Canto Cumulus come in various server-based configurations ranging from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands, depending on the number of users and the configurations chosen.

Within the mid- to high-range sector of asset management products, one very well known product is Xinet WebNative. For those of us that have been around awhile, we remember Xinet as a workflow solutions company with their OPI server product Fullpress. As Fullpress developed, and an add-on web portal called WebNative was added to the product, WebNative grew into a very powerful asset management tool. Coupled with Venture, a powerful database tool, WebNative Suite offers a very powerful, internet accessible, customizable asset management solution that offers a lot of valuable tools for a graphic arts company. With a price tag of about $75,000 U.S., it is reasonably priced for what it can do.

If you are looking for an asset management solution that will integrate into your existing workflow, most of the major workflow vendors are now offering some degree of asset management. I personally have had the chance to use Kodak’s Insite Creative with Asset Library, and I find it a really great tool for managing digital assets in a way that integrates seamlessly with Prinergy Connect and Insite Prepress Portal for things like user rights management, OPI Swaps, and Matchprint Virtual for accurate colour assessment.

Of course, there are also the big players in the field of asset management. These solutions – often called enterprise solutions – can run you well over $100,000 U.S., but offer functionality that is unsurpassed. This is where brand names like Media Bank, Documentum and Interwoven come into the mix. The sophistication of these products is phenomenal and they can do some amazing things. Due to the complexity and cost of these systems, they may not be suitable for smaller shops, but then again it would depend on the volume of assets you have and what you are planning to do with them.

For anyone looking for a solution that involves less upfront capital, there are asset management tools that can be subscribed to for a monthly fee. These solutions require little or no hardware/software commitment, and come with guarantees for data safety security and accessibility. Some even insure your assets for a specified monetary value. One company offering this type of subscription service is Savvis.

A few years back, Savvis merged with Wam!Net, a company well known in the ‘90s for its fast, private file sharing and transfer networks. Using Wam!Net’s robust network and storage infrastructure, Savvis has created a few online asset management solutions that users can subscribe to, foregoing the large capital costs of hosting an in-house solution. The bottom line is that regardless of your budget, there is likely an asset management solution out there that will fit your needs. Of course, if there isn’t, you could always create your own custom solution, but that is a conversation for another time.

As we continue to work with faster turnaround, shorter lead times, smaller press runs and rising commodity prices, process efficiency remains vital for reducing the cost of producing a job. A strong asset management strategy can increase efficiencies in controlling, managing, accessing, retrieving, distributing and repurposing assets. As the volume of assets we manage continues to grow, these strategies will increasingly become vital to successful management of your files.

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