At the beginning of my DAM career, I consulted on a project for a client who was an absolute pleasure to work with. Not only did they have hot coffee and delicious pastries in the meeting room every morning, they also bought me lunch every day. They were a smart, friendly and polite group of people in dire need of a DAM solution for their collection of over 300,000 photos. Unfortunately, the entire project was a disaster because the only thing I did while onsite with them was drink coffee and eat pastries!

Now before you judge me as a good-for-nothing lazy consultant, let me plead my case.

While the engagement was scoped for implementation and training for a DAM system, we ended up wasting the time trying to find answers to some simple questions that were needed before we could set up the system (unfortunately IT was not made aware of the project, although I was told otherwise before the onsite).

I’d like to share with you those six simple questions so you don’t get stuck in the same situation when setting up your digital asset management system. Hopefully I've caught you early enough in your DAM project, before you've selected a DAM solution, because the answers to these questions will help you choose a solution that’s a good fit for your organization and workflow.

If not, you’ll definitely want to know the answers before you install your DAM. I’m hoping this will help you avoid ending up with an empty pastry plate or an empty DAM server.

How Many Files Do We Have?

You might be tempted to shout out something like "we have four terabytes of photos and I can't handle it anymore!"

While it's good to know the total size of your digital asset collection (and also vent some of that frustration), what's often more important in DAM is the total number of digital assets you have -- not how much space they take up. In my experience many people getting started with DAM already know how much space their collection is using on their servers, but fewer people know how many rich media files they have.

Knowing how many files you have now, and also how many more you plan to catalog in the future, can help you plan for your DAM's capacity requirements. A DAM for 20,000 assets is going to require less processing and database power than a DAM ingesting 1 million assets each year.

It should be easy to figure out how many files are in your collection: just go to the root (top-level) folder that contains all of your assets and get properties/info on the folder and let it churn for a bit to see your magic number of items. Since this process can take some time to crawl through all your data, it's better to do this directly on the file server (if applicable) instead of remotely where disk access will be faster.

What Types of Files Do We Have?

What file formats do you plan on managing with your DAM? You probably have photos, but are there other files you'd like to catalog? Lots of DSLRs cameras can capture HD video -- are you going to catalog video? Perhaps another department like Accounting is also looking to catalog their PDFs (maybe you could hook up and combine budgets?).

Knowing what file formats you're going to catalog is vital for selecting a solution since digital asset management systems vary in file formats they support. You'll want to know if the DAM you're considering can show thumbnails, read and write metadata, and convert from or to the file formats in your workflow. Be aware that if you're cataloging or converting video formats, you may need more powerful server hardware since video processing can take a long time on slower hardware.

Where are the Files Stored?

Think about where your files are now and how they'll be cataloged or uploaded into your DAM. Will they stay in the same place on a file server and be monitored by the DAM, or will they be uploaded into a database managed by the DAM, or moved to a new file server? Are all of the files stored in one location, or will the DAM need to take in files from multiple locations on your network? Will users or other systems need to access the files directly outside of the DAM using a network share like Windows (CIFS/SMB) or Apple (AFP) file sharing services?

The answers to these questions may depend on the DAM solution you choose. If you're new to DAM you may not know all the answers until you've selected a solution, but it's good to start thinking about these questions before choosing a solution. Up front planning about file storage can help you select a DAM that integrates well with your workflow and environment.

Who Needs Access?

Who needs a user account to login to your DAM? What departments will need read-only or upload access? Will people outside of your organization like vendors and partners need access?

Answering these questions can help you decide how to configure the DAM for user access. Many organizations prefer using existing Active Directory accounts for logging into the DAM, which means users can simply use their corporate email address and password to login.

Active Directory is also useful for account management in DAM since department groups can be mapped to levels of access in the DAM to automatically allow access. For example, the "Accounting" department in Active Directory can automatically allow editor access to the Invoices catalog for everyone in the accounting department.

If users outside of the organization need access, DAM administrators can also create accounts that only allow access to the DAM. This can be useful in organizations that don't create Active Directory accounts for non-employees. Another option for external access are self-service web portals, which is like having your own stock photo website where people can search, view and download -- but only from a pool of pre-approved assets. Self-service web portals can be public and not require a password, or require a password for secure access.

What Other Systems Need Access?

This question is a continuation of the previous "Who needs access?" question because it deals with people accessing the DAM, but accessing it from within other applications. For example, maybe you use WordPress for your blog or website and need to copy images from your DAM into the WordPress media library for inclusion in a webpage or blog post.

Another example is capturing information about a photo entered in another application, and automatically displaying that information when the file appears in the DAM's search results. This is common in museums where information about objects is stored in a Collection Management System, but digital representations of those objects (like photos of a painting) are stored in a DAM.

Thinking about where people need access in addition to who needs access will help you determine if integrating DAM with other IT systems in your organization is a requirement. To accomplish integrations, DAM systems often provide an application programming interface (API) that allows access to assets and metadata in the DAM from other applications. However, API integration requires good documentation and support from the vendor, and a consultant or programmer on staff to code the connection between the systems.

Do We Use SQL?

The IT department in your organization may prefer storing data in SQL databases whenever possible for consistent management of data across computer systems. Many IT departments prefer SQL servers because application-specific databases (like the built-in databases found in DAM solutions) may use specialized database formats that require exceptions to established data management and backup processes.

Most DAM systems can store metadata about assets, and sometimes the actual files themselves, inside of SQL database systems like Microsoft SQL Server, MySQL, and Oracle.


I’d call these my top six questions, but there are definitely more questions -- some just as important. For those of you who've experienced a DAM roll out, what questions where on your list? 

For those of you who are preparing or implementing a DAM system, I’d be curious to know your answers to the above questions.

Let me know in the comments section below!

Image courtesy of Brent Hofacker (Shutterstock) 

Editor's Note: To read more of Ed's tips on getting the most out of your DAM system, check out Does Your Digital Asset Management System Need an API?