Blockchain Part of Sphereon’s Content Services Suite

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For a few years now, Harvey Spencer Associates has been promoting blockchain as a natural extension of capture technology. The Harvard Business Review describes blockchain as “an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way.” The technology is currently primarily used for financial transactions and is the basis for bitcoin.
But, blockchain also has potential for more general records management, and Dutch content services provider Sphereon is leveraging it in this manner. In 2016, Sphereon launched a service utilizing blockchain to guarantee the authenticity of documents stored in SharePoint. More recently, it has introduced a service that applies blockchain technology to documents from Kofax Capture.
Sphereon Co-Founder and Product Manager Maarten Boender has a long history in the ECM market, dating back to 1997 when he launched the Benelux operation of Magellan, a U.S.-based document imaging and management ISV. Magellan was sold to Gauss, which was eventually bought by OpenText. Meanwhile, Boender formed an ECM-focused ISV and systems integrator. “A couple years ago, we did a review of where we were and where we were going,” he noted. “A couple of trends were obvious to us.
“First, the market was moving from paper to digital content. We had a digital mailroom customer, for example, that we had started out with a solution for processing more than 12 million pages per year. Ten years later, they were down to 750,000 pages per year.
“The second trend was the emergence of SaaS as a different business model. In 2002, we started out building our own solution for document management, workflow, and scanning. At that time, we were primarily competing with the traditional big ECM vendors like FileNet and Documentum. Players like Alfresco and SharePoint hadn’t really emerged yet. But, as the competition increased, we decided we would just focus on what we were really good at, which was document processing, an area for which we had won several awards.”
Boender compared his definition of document processing to HSA’s definition of Capture 2.0. “We looked at a white paper on Capture 2.0 and decided to design something from scratch. We built a series of microservices around capture and stood them up on a cloud,” he said. “So, if someone needs barcode recognition or automated extraction from forms, for example, they don’t have to buy an entire capture suite, they can just license what they need and pay for what they use.
“We work with technology partners and add some of our own development on top. Basically, we try to bring the best possible technology and functionality into our offerings. We are now utilizing elements of AI, deep supervised learning, and NLP to drive services like auto-classification. Our customers are primarily ISVs, systems integrators, and large customers with their own R&D.”
The introduction of a blockchain service was driven by the desire of a customer that wanted to add digital signatures to prove the authenticity of their documents. “It was a project for a local environmental protection organization,” said Boender. “They were creating a case management system for permits for environmental impact studies. At the end of the process, they had to put everything in a records management system. They wanted to use our service for creating PDFs for archiving.
“When they asked for digital signature technology, I knew a little about blockchain and looked into it. It seemed like a good fit because it creates a hash of the document you want to archive and when you retrieve that document, if it creates the same hash, then you know the document has not been altered.
“In addition to documents, you can also create hashes for measurements and other data in special formats. This gives us the ability to prove that everything about their cases is there and has not changed. Then, we thought why not start at the beginning? So, we incorporated the ability to create hashes for e-mails and e-forms used to initiate the permitting process. This provides the ability to prove what data was received at the beginning and to show that it was not changed. There are also situations where a permit might be declined and an appeal is made. For these important points in the workflow, blockchain records can also be supported.”
Boender added that Sphereon’s initial blockchain customer already had its own fairly comprehensive audit trail, but by adding blockchain services, it created an independent trail as well. To enable its customer to utilize blockchain, Sphereon had to create a connection with its customer’s SharePoint repository. Sphereon made that integration commercially available in 2016.
On the back-end, Sphereon typically utilizes Factom’s blockchain technology. “Because the hash is generated through an open source algorithm, there are all kinds of options for creating it,” said Boender. “We try to be as generic as possible and support a number of blockchain architectures. Factom (which is based in Austin, TX) has a big benefit for enterprises because it always charges a fixed, low price. Pricing for some architectures can fluctuate greatly the way bitcoin does.”
After SharePoint and Office 365, Sphereon introduced an Alfresco integration for blockchain. “They now offer it as a standard service available to their users,” said Boender. “We basically receive compensation whenever blockchain is invoked.
“We’ve now built a custom module that can be inserted into Kofax workflows. Any document scanned with Kofax Capture can be hashed and registered on blockchain.”
According to Boender, Sphereon is currently involved in more than 30 projects (in varying stages of development) involving blockchain. “On the simplest level, you are basically sending out documents to add authentication,” he said. “From there, you progress to the next level, which involves creating records that can be shared among enterprises. This might be a change of address, for example, which is important to the local government and many other institutions as well.”
Boender noted that while Sphereon primarily markets its services in western Europe, because they are hosted in the cloud and anybody can access Sphereon’s Web site and marketing materials through the Internet, he’s seen interest from all over the world. “Some countries are ahead of others in terms of blockchain adoption,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of interest in the Netherlands and Switzerland. Some Middle Eastern countries like Dubai and Saudi Arabia have also been pretty active with blockchain and so has Singapore. We also see the U.S. as a developing market, especially now that we’ve announced our Kofax integration. We’ve already had hundreds of queries from Kofax customers with more than half coming from the U.S.”
Boender said that compliance applications are currently the most popular use case. “But, we are starting to see more complex opportunities in areas like the supply chain,” he said. “Everything being produced is sent through a supply chain and each item can be registered on blockchain. The challenge is that many ERP, manufacturing, and warehousing systems are older and can’t connect through APIs. So, we end up utilizing our document processing features and applying data extraction to PDFs or streaming files produced by these applications to get necessary information like part numbers than can be used to register items in blockchain.”
Its document processing expertise helps differentiate Sphereon in the blockchain landscape. “We come in with our knowledge of forms and document processing, while other companies focus on integrating blockchain with systems like financial management, banking, ERP, or supply chain,” said Boender. “Our specialty is integrating blockchain with our ECM or intelligent information management suite.”
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