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Archive, DMS, ECM, etc. – clearing up the alphabet soup

A brief explanation: Archive, DMS, ECM – all key terms in our industry, but what do they mean?

Max. Reading time 5min

To be honest, the IT industry’s vocabulary is an almost impenetrable jungle for outsiders: enigmatic abbreviations and terms, often used synonymously, that keep changing with trends and fashion. This is also true for our industry, which is why we are going to make a small attempt at defining some terms today – at least for the ECM industry, explaining what those words mean to us now.

We will quickly learn that definitions of terms are nice, as far as they make it easier for us to grasp certain concepts. Nevertheless, it will ultimately be seen that existing systems do not correspond to the terms and are mostly hybrids.

What is an archive?

An archive generally refers to a location for the safekeeping of information media for the future. In reference to electronic archives, it means providing a system which ensures three key points:

  • Record management: The information media must be traceable, unalterable and retrievable, and guarantee completeness. In technical terminology, this process is known as record management. In the case of easy archive, we store all types of documents in the archive system, such as records from commercial departments.
  • Storage: This area of the archive serves only for the temporary storage of information; none of the information held here is considered to be worth archiving/required to be archived. In technical terminology, this area is called storage. This sort of storage is also often used for documents that are in circulation. For example, a purchase invoice arrives and is distributed in-house through an electronic system. The document is to be transferred to the ERP system and archived in a legally secure manner only at the conclusion of this process.
  • Preservation: This area of the archive serves for the long-term, stable, static, and unchangeable storage and safeguarding of information. In technical terminology this component is called preservation. It is important at this point to make a distinction between archivingand long-term archiving. The latter preserves data forever, usually in external storage systems. Such data are not required for functional operation in the present.

DMS – document management system

Document management systems, abbreviated DMS, are usually database-supported software systems which handle the organization of electronic documents – regardless of format and content. The main task of a DMS is to record documents, store them, and make them available throughout the organization. A DMS should thus be seen as an extension of the archive. Because of the wide variety of systems on the market, there may be some overlap.

  • D for documents: Everything in this system is a document; no matter the format of the incoming material, it is digitized, if necessary, and recorded as a document
  • MS for management system: These documents are stored by the system and made available throughout the organization

Side note: DMS is the first term introduced in Germany. As is usual in the IT sector, the term ECM has become internationally accepted over the course of time. A clear distinction is only possible based on the systems used, because a DMS also handles the “transportation of the documents,” that is the manual or automatic control of the documents through the company. Legally compliant storage is then usually handled in the DMS by the archive component.

ECM – Enterprise Content Management

The abbreviation ECM stands for enterprise content management. Here we see a further development and internationalization. While the talk was all about documents in the systems described above, now everything is about content; quite often, there is no actual document available, but rather a dataset without a physical file. These systems, represented in software, comprise the methods, technologies, and tools for the import, management, storage, preservation, and provision of content. All of this serves to support organizational processes in the company. ECM brings together structured and unstructured information. Breaking it down once again by the abbreviation ECM:

  • E for enterprise stands for a software solution usable by everyone authorized for access in an organization
  • C for content stands for all digitized, i.e. electronic, content in this system
  • M for management stands for the administration, processing and supervision of this system and its content

Nothing but sensitive data – legal aspects

It is obvious that, particularly when used in a corporate environment, both ECM and DMS as well as an archive are subject to comparatively strict guidelines. The latter also requires both revision security and process documentation. What this is all about goes beyond the boundaries of this article and offers content for another blog entry.


Of course, it is certainly not possible to describe every system for the recording, storage, provision, management, and supervision of content within an organization using the terms archive, DMS, and ECM. New terminology has long since been introduced. Information management and content services are some of the names frequently discussed in the ECM industry of late. There are exciting developments in store.

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