What is a Digital Asset Management System (DAM)?

Digital Asset Management image
If you take the literal translation of what a 'digital asset' is, then in essence it is any form of media that has been converted into an electronic (binary) format that has a 'value' to a company.

This however results in a degree of confusion - as Document Management Systems and Records Management Systems also are used for storing 'Digital Assets' and it will not suprise you to hear and read DMS and RMS suppliers - and even WCMS suppliers all talking about how they provide for Digital Asset Management.

For the purpose of this explanation and to clarify, this article does not discuss or consider the 'streched capability' of other ECM products but focuses on the purer understanding of what a DAM is and does. If your requirements however go beyond the pure requirement to manage a digital asset and you wish to manage other types of content at the same time then of course you should consider the types of asset management in conjunction with your other requirements.

What are DAM characteristics?

    A Digital Asset Management tool would typically be expected to provide the following list of generic functions:

  • Organizing digital assets
  • Manipulating digital assets (converting, merging, collating)
  • Searching for a digital asset
  • Verifying the integrity of digital assets
  • Delivery and distribution of digital assets
  • Securing digital assets - including copyright protection mechanisms
  • Backing up digital assets

In terms of the way in which a Digital Asset Management tool stores its assets - they can broadly be subdivided into two basic types;

a) media catalogues
b) asset repositories.

What is a Media Catalogue?

The primary characteristic of a media catalogue type of DAM is that the actual source files are left untouched and under control of the operating system or network drive - so the Media Catalogue is not managing the asset itself. What the Media Catalogue does is create a layer of information about the actual files themselves and stores this typically in a database as an 'index' of the assets. This index is used as a source of information to search the assets and then access the native (original) asset via a link for whatever purpose it is required. Typically the Media Catalogue will present thumbnails of the source image or a snapshot of the movie as the information that is displayed prior to retrieval. Media Catalogue have the benefits of being lower cost, easy to install and administer, providing a fast search result and scalable across multiple divisions of an enterprise. Given that they don't control the actual asset, anyone with system access can typically view, change, move, or delete any content element without using the Media Catalogue interface unless the storage locations are set up to prohibit such activities.

The downside of some of the more basic Media Catalogues is that they can lack features such as check-in/check-out of content, rights management, and automatic versioning (the latest version of a print, for example). Equally, some of the more basic Media catalogues can also become sluggish when scaled, especially if distributed across multiple servers or geographic locations, as the index may have to retrieve information across multiple networks and storage environments (though increasingly with web clients (as opposed to desktop clients) this can be negated.

What is an Asset Repository ?

In asset repositories, unlike the Media Catalogue, the content itself is physically stored inside a secure database and accessed only via the Digital Asset Management software. The assets are viewed directly within the DAM rather than viewing e.g. a thumbnail view of the source image. This results in a host of benefits, including security levels, replication, referential integrity, and centralized data management (including full hierarchical storage management and disaster recovery). Whereas the Media Catalogue is used to reference assets stored as any number of locations (and as a result it cannot provide any certainty of availability of the asset which is indexed), within the Asset Repository, full control over the asset is afforded to the customer. This becomes particularly important when for example the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) of the asset need to be protected and/or the rights and permissions to owned assets need structuring to give a known access by employees or customers to the assets stored.

The flip side of this argument however is that Media Catalogues, by referencing the original, will not suffer any degeneration of the original (which can sometimes occur when an asset is imported or moved into an Asset repository). Whether the 'loss' is significant enough to outweigh the benefits, will usually depend on the types of asset being stored and their intended usage. It would also be worth mentioning that without the appropriate hardware, searching across an Asset Repository can be a slower experience than with a Media Catalogue - but this depends on the size of the repository and the nature of the assets being stored and indexed.

As might be expected, centralising all of an organisations assets into a single repository means that the hardware to support the storage are the best that money can buy - and other infrastructure requirements such as high speed networks need to be ramped up to cater for the bandwidth needed (especially given that many assets such as movie files, print ready images etc are large in size). Not forgetting, that as well as the main storage repository, back up systems will need to be maintained as well as the security models - resulting in a higher level of administration of the system than that associated with the 'Media Catalogue'.

Types of Asset Management system deployed within organisations?

Whilst the assets can be managed either as a Media Catalogue or as an Asset Repository - a number of common uses can be found within organisations;

  • Library Asset Management Systems - these are typically DAM solutions that focus on storage and retrieval of large amounts of assets that are 'historical' in nature and don't change frequently - such as video footage of old news or events - or images that are stored due to their value as a snapshot.
  • Brand Asset Management Systems - these are typically DAM solutions which have a focus on encouraging the re-use of content within large organisations. Typical types of asset could be company logo's or centrally controlled imagery.
  • Production Asset Management Systems - these are typically DAM solutions which focus on the storage, organisation, workflow and revision control of frequently changing digital assets. Typical examples of this could be assets used for marketing collateral, online web pages, product catalogues.
  • Digital Supply Chain Asset Management - these are typically DAM solutions where the assets being managed are distributed to retailers either as an assistive or costed service. The assets tend to depend on the industry being supplied but could be e.g. images and video of a new phone to mobile phone retailers.