Interview with Daniel Chalef of KnowledgeTree

I recently installed KnowledgeTree for a small office that needed a piece of document management software. Document management is one of those things: you don't think you need one until you actually see one. I noticed that it's free software, financed by private extensions. O got curious and managed to talk to Daniel Chalef, the CEO of KnowledgeTree.

Hello Daniel. Please introduce yourself to our readers and tell them about your background!

I'm the CEO of KnowledgeTree Inc., a commercial open source software vendor. I've been involved with open source software since the early 90's, at first as a user of open source software and then later as a developer, project manager and now leading a vendor-driven project. I hail from Cape Town, South Africa, and believe that the open source development and distribution model provides enormous opportunities to young, talented developers to reach users in a global market.

Your company focusses on Knowledge Tree. Can you describe it in a few sentences?

KnowledgeTree is simple, turn-key document management software designed for business people to easily install and use. We help our users manage the collaboration, compliance and business process challenges around the document lifecycle.

KnowledgeTree Community Edition is open source and licensed under the GPLv3. It has been downloaded over 650,000 times from and the KnowledgeTree forge includes over 70 external community driven projects. Our commercial edition is being used by companies such as Sony Entertainment, Société Générale Group and Mazda Motor Europe.

The product is written in PHP and leverages the popular MySQL database engine. KnowledgeTree runs on GNU/Linux, Windows and Mac desktops, with commercial editions available for GNU/Linux and Windows servers.

So, it's a lot more than what a file server could ever do. Is that how you view your product?

Yes. KnowledgeTree manages the full range of document lifecycle activities, including versioning, workflow, auditing and sharing. Traditional file shares present significant versioning and access control risks, and make it difficult to search for documents. KnowledgeTree alleviates this by offering powerful search functions that can locate documents using metadata and full text content searches.

KnowledgeTree also presents a familiar file and folder UI, which enables new users to quickly adopt the system.

Some example scenarios where KnowledgeTree is utilized:

  • A pharmaceutical firm uses KnowledgeTree’s electronic signature capabilities to ensure compliance with FDA regulations.
  • A county government eliminated over 50 years of paper files by scanning and storing all their documents in KnowledgeTree
  • A health care organization streamlined invoice processing by using KnowledgeTree to expedite approvals and payments.

I can't help but notice that some of the more advanced features are only available to paying customers. I assume that's your business model?

Yes, KnowledgeTree's Microsoft Office Add-in and other tools used by larger organizations are only available in the commercial editions of the software. The commercial editions also include tiered levels of support.

However, the KnowledgeTree Community Edition still provides rich document versioning, workflow, auditing and sharing. It also ships with the same set of rich Web Service and PHP APIs and plugin infrastructure available in the commercial edition.

I realise that the community tends not to compete... but I still have to ask: what if it does? How would you react if somebody starts providing the features you charge for, and releases them under the GPL?

We would be inclined to further differentiate the commercial product by adding features and/or support options. We might learn from how the community implements the functionality (which might take a different approach to the original) and customers and community get a better product.

Are the extensions coded as separate modules? Or do you actually maintain two forks of the same program?

We have a single, publically accessible Git repository for the KnowledgeTree Community Edition and the core of KnowledgeTree commercial editions. Extensions are coded as plugins using KnowledgeTree's powerful plugin architecture.

Are you concerned about the community then independently developing those features that you sell?

We look to the KnowledgeTree community for innovation, and their contributions benefit both community and commercial users. We enjoy an excellent relationship with our community and it tends not to compete with features that we develop for commercial customers. Plus, there are many features needed for an enterprise application that are not necessary for community members, and vice versa.

What about the community involvement in terms of bug reporting and sending patches? Do you think your "mixed" (proprietary/free) nature dents your ability to get more people involved?

Not at all. We have been grateful recipients of a significant number of contributions to KnowledgeTree in the form of bug reports, bug fix code and feature extensions. The KnowledgeTree Community Edition is a powerful product used by a growing number of organizations to meet their document management challenges.


Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.

With thanks to Fremantle Counselling to keep FSM editors sane.