DAMming the flow

Digital asset management (DAM) tools help digital content creation (DDC) professionals control rivers of data.

By Jenny Donelan

Digital asset management (DAM) is one of those technologies that can be defined in several different ways. Is it simply a method for organizing electronic files? Is it software that controls the flow of work? Is it a hardware-based system of servers and storage devices? Or a combination of all of these?

Narrow the definition to DAM for the digital content creation (DCC) space and the questions continue. There's production management software, a DAM tool tailored to the DCC production pipeline. That would seem to fit the bill. But does it rule out less production-oriented programs that control and facilitate the distribution of finished assets at the back-end of a production cycle? What about complete hardware/software systems designed to control assets for large media organizations such as ad agencies and broadcast studios? And, just to confuse things, consider those tangential yet essential tools such as Internet services that combine with other processes to provide asset management.

Artesia's TEAMS software helps link detailed information to digital assets. Image courtesy of Artesia Technologies
Click here to enlarge image

In truth, all of the above can be considered digital asset management tools for content creation. Though at first glance they might seem to contend with each other, they are actually more complementary than competitive.

Production management: Avid and NXN

Avid Technology's recent acquisition of NXN Software, maker of the Alienbrain line of production management tools, illustrates this synergy between DAM products. Alienbrain has the lion's share of commercial production management seats in the rarified world of high-end digital content creation, and particularly in game development, for which its Studio product, now in Version 7, is specifically designed. (The product will not ship until later this year.) The company also makes Alienbrain VFX, a version of the product geared for post-production.

Version 7 of Alienbrain Studio from NXN offers new features designed to enhance team performance. Image courtesy of NXN Software
Click here to enlarge image

"NXN is a great example of a niche asset management company," says Tim Claman, director of interoperability and standards for Avid. "They really don't have any direct competitors for games and post-production systems. For production asset management, they're the only game in town." Although Avid already has two DAM products—the Active Content Manager and the Unity Media Manager—those are designed to manage finished content— "what some people call content management," says Claman.

On NXN's part, the new subsidiary now has greater access to the post-production world, in which Avid is well-entrenched. "Avid's strategy is to make, manage, and move media, and we fit in," says NXN marketing manager Eric Schumacher. The company has been looking to branch out from its roots in the gaming world, he says. "We've been looking more seriously at post-production. We've always considered [moving into] broadcast, but there are other products there, like Artesia and eMotion."

(Broad)casting a wider net

Artesia is one of the original players in the DAM-for-media space, with a background in creating workflow systems (both hardware and software) that integrate with electronic publishing tools. Its TEAMS software was introduced in 1998. Artesia counts among its customers content creators such as DreamWorks and Electronic Arts, but specializes in managing the back-end of the content process, rather than its production. There the Artesia system can take on whatever files need to be processed, archived, or made into further assets.

"What we did from day one was decide that the unit of information wouldn't matter," says David Lipsey, Artesia's vice president for media and entertainment. Lipsey says his company's product is complementary with NXN's.

Other DAM vendors involved in the DCC and/or broadcast market include eMotion, which offers a hosted platform of business applications for managing digital assets and marketing content; Canto, with its Cumulus software product that offers DAM for a variety of applications, especially Web publishing; and Adam Systems Group, which develops hardware and software DAM systems for the entertainment, geospatial, and medical markets.

Adam Systems officials are great believers in hardware and software systems designed specifically for DAM. According to David Breen, the company's vice president of sales and marketing, "Developing a DAM system based solely on a storage hardware solution doesn't track the use of resources and the relationships between them. Asset management software packages alone do not deliver an integrated, functioning solution or preserve the quality of digital rich media over time. True digital asset management systems can create an integrated environment to manage, preserve, and re-purpose assets."

Examples of other vendors that provide DAM services include Ascent Media and Savvis, whose services involve streaming, the Internet, or in general, how assets get transported from one place to another. Because digital assets are integral to just about everyone's workflow, there are many other companies that are also getting involved in the process. Type the words "asset management" into the search window of Websites for workstation vendors such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM, SGI, and Sun Microsystems and up pop whole pages devoted to the process, often with specific references to DCC applications. Many of these vendors partner with the previously mentioned vendors to provide DAM services to customers. Sun, for example, lists Canto's Cumulus and many other DAM products as part of its iForce Partners program on the Web. And some of the above vendors are partners with each other. Ascent Media, for example, is a customer of Adam Systems Group.

What's around the bend

The DAM industry's current challenge with regard to digital content creators, says Adam Systems' Breen, is "developing a customized, non-disruptive workflow system that can be integrated with a DCC's facility and dealing with digital rights management, since assets can be easily re-purposed." Re-purposing represents yet another frontier—controlling digital assets from "birth." The more information an asset starts out with, the better it can be classified, used, and protected. Artesia's Lipsey, using the analogy of an identification bracelet on a newborn in a hospital, says, "the better the bracelet, the better the workflow. When content is created, it [should be] described. The more it's described, the better."

Many in the industry believe that IDing assets at "birth" will be the only way to control them, because digital assets are increasing at a relentless pace. One reason is that companies have realized the value of converting their licensed assets to an ever-widening array of merchandise. Another reason is that audiences crave high-quality digital imagery in their movies, television shows, and games. Every time a studio releases a film with breakthrough amounts of imagery, the bar is raised. The challenge to asset-owning companies and DAM vendors is not just coping with all these assets, but with their possibilities as well.

Jenny Donelan is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World.

Vendors mentioned in this article

Adam Systems
Artesia Technologies
Ascent Media
Avid Technology
NXN Software
Sun Microsystems

This article was originally published on March 01, 2004