Things continue to be in flux at Alfresco with regards to how they manage their community. Today, Richard Esplin announced that he is stepping down as Head of Alfresco Community Relations to become a Product Manager for Alfresco Community Edition. In his blog post, Richard says that although his title changed a while back, his day-to-day job has still been mostly focused on the community, until now.
It sounds like rather than having a centralized team focused on managing the community, the various community touch points will be diffused throughout the organization.
Last month, Alfresco hired long-time community member, author, and former Ixxus employee, Martin Bergljung. I know through the grapevine there are more community hires on the way. These seem to be focused on “developer outreach” and “developer ecosystem” which is one aspect of community management.
I hope the “community is everyone’s job” approach does not lead to a “community is no one’s job” problem at Alfresco.
Related to Community Edition, Richard said, “I will be rethinking our approach to Alfresco Community Edition in order to make it a better product for its target audience”. My worry here is that there hasn’t always been agreement on what is the “target audience” for Alfresco Community Edition. In the past, Alfresco Software, Inc. has wanted the target audience to be developers who experiment and test out code that will ultimately become Enterprise Edition. The reality has been that many people want to run Community Edition in production–they want a high quality, free/libre open source software product that helps them solve document management problems.
Hopefully, Richard and the rest of the Alfresco team are aligned to the new reality of how Community Edition is being used.
It will definitely be interesting to see how these staffing shifts work out for the community.
Packt Publishing recently sent me a copy of Learning Alfresco Web Scripts by Ramesh Chauhan to review in exchange for my thoughts on the book which I’ll share with you now…
Web Scripts are an essential part of Alfresco. If you are extending or customizing the platform and you have time to learn only one thing about it, web scripts might very well be that thing. The reason is that they are key to so much else you might want to do such as integrating Alfresco with a third party system or customizing Alfresco Share, which is, at its core, comprised of web scripts.
Most technical books on Alfresco give some attention to web scripts, but this one dives into the details. After reading it, you’ll know how to do simple things with web scripts and you’ll have some idea of how to do more complex work beyond understanding the Model-View-Controller basics.
While the comprehensiveness is a good thing, I think it also presents a bit of a challenge which comes down to this: Who is this book for? If it is for beginners, it needs a lot more examples and could cut back on a lot of the technical detail. If it is for experts, point to existing sources for the basics and drill deeper on the interesting technical topics.
I did see a couple of bad practices in the book. First, in the chapter on Java-backed web scripts (Ch. 6) the author provides an example Spring configuration XML file that injects the lower-cased Alfresco beans into the web script class. This may sound like a trivial nitpick, but it’s actually a big no-no that I see repeatedly. If you have good reason for using the unsecured, internal-only, lower-cased beans, explain it. Otherwise, stick to the public, secured, upper-cased beans so that beginners don’t pick up a bad habit.
Similarly, there is a part that discusses where web script files can live in the Alfresco WAR. The author does point out that the extension directory is “preferred” but I don’t think this is worded strongly enough. Those other locations should have been left out entirely or maybe it could have said, “Place your files only in the extension directory. While these other locations may technically work, you should never use them.”
I was happy to see the chapter on the Maven SDK and the discussion of AMPs. And I think putting the Eclipse details later was a good idea, as one of the features of web scripts is that you don’t have to use Java or an IDE of any kind if you don’t want to. The book doesn’t cover Surf, Aikau, or Share customization in any detail, and I think that was also a good decision as those areas are too fluid at the moment and because the singular focus on web scripts is one of the book’s assets.
Overall, Learning Alfresco Web Scripts is a very thorough and comprehensive treatment of an important technical topic for Alfresco developers.
See if you can answer this question: What is the current stable release of Alfresco Community Edition?
Some of you probably blurted out “5.0”. But that’s not specific enough. Alfresco Community Edition releases have letters as part of the release name. Did I hear someone say “5.0.c”? That is certainly the latest version but is that the current stable release? I would argue that it’s not and that the correct answer to the question is actually “4.2.f”. That’s the newest version I would recommend to anyone wanting to run Community Edition in production.
The problem is that you can’t actually tell what is supposed to be the stable release by looking at the version labels like you can with virtually every other open source software project. Hindsight is actually the only tool we have. The reason 4.2.f is the latest stable release is because it was the last release in the 4.2 Community Edition code line. We won’t know which 5.0 release is the stable one until Alfresco stops creating 5.0 releases!
Really, 5.0.a, 5.0.b, and 5.0.c should be labeled 5.0-RC1, 5.0-RC2, and 5.0-RC3. I’m using RC for “Release Candidate” here because that’s basically what they are, but “snapshot” or “milestone” could also work. We just need something that indicates that, eventually, we’re going to see an end to the iterations and finally arrive on a stable release and that you should really wait to deploy to production until that stable release comes out.
If you look at 4.2, I think 4.2.e was the “final” release and then 4.2.f was a special release to address a serious security vulnerability. So 4.2, a, b, c, and d should have been “release candidates”, 4.2.e should have just been 4.2.0, and 4.2.f should have been 4.2.1. I wouldn’t expect the third digit, which normally signifies a “service pack” to be anything other than 0 for the vast majority of Community Edition releases. The 4.2.f release was an exception to the norm which is that Alfresco doesn’t provide service packs for CE.
The reason an easily identifiable release label is important is because today people in the community are going to the Alfresco download page and assuming that what they are downloading is a stable release. They are then installing and running that release in production. This leaves those people disappointed down the road when they find out they installed software with numerous known issues or partly-implemented features (I know those issues are often documented in the release notes and in Jira). The point is that downloaders, particularly newcomers, don’t have (and shouldn’t need) the insight that Alfresco releases don’t really settle down until the fourth iteration or so. That should be explicit.
The reason Alfresco doesn’t use “stable” to describe the release is partly commercial. The thinking is that doing so makes running the freely-available Community Edition in production seem less risky or even encouraged by the company that depends on revenue from the paid edition.
The other challenge is about process. I don’t think engineering always knows that a given Community Edition release is going to be the last one until after the fact.
Both of these could be addressed with a mindset change. Instead of “Let’s iterate on release X.0 until we’re ready to work on the next major release” the thinking ought to be, “Let’s drive toward a stable, production-ready X.0 release and once we think we have it, let’s call it that”.
I’ve heard chatter that Alfresco might, at some point, consider offering support for those running CE. Based on the number of SMB’s who have told me that Alfresco One is out-of-reach for them financially, there ought to be a strong demand for a low-priced subscription around Community Edition. If that happens, I assume both the mentality and the process around CE version labels will get cleaned up. But I hope we don’t have to wait.
Cloud CMS has been around since 2010. It was founded by Michael Uzquiano, formerly of Alfresco, Epicentric, and Vignette. This year they brought on a new CEO, Malcom Teasdale, who, prior to joining Cloud CMS, ran Rothbury Software, an Alfresco partner that was ultimately purchased by Ixxus. Malcom spent some time at Interwoven earlier in his career. So these two have a lot of content management experience and that’s evident in their product. (Disclosure: I’ve known Michael and Malcom for several years but I do not currently have a business relationship with Cloud CMS).
My CaaS overview described functionality you’ll find in all CaaS offerings. Similar to my posts on Prismic.io and Contentful, in this post on Cloud CMS I’ll focus on some select areas of the Cloud CMS offering:
User interface for content authors
Creating content types
Working with content via the API
Cloud CMS is an extensible platform with a long list of features. This is more than just a place to stick content and an API to get it back out–this is a full-featured CMS that happens to be running as SaaS in the cloud. But I’m primarily interested in it for its ability to act like a CaaS offering, which to me means a more pragmatic, stripped down approach to content management, so this review is going to ignore a lot of the Cloud CMS features that go beyond that. Perhaps I’ll come back to those in a future blog post.
User Interface for Content Authors
Before I describe the Cloud CMS user interface let me tell you a little about how Cloud CMS stores content. A Cloud CMS account has one or more repositories. How you use your repository is up to you–you might have one repository per project, for example.
Within a repository there are one or more branches. A branch works just like it does in source code control–it is a view of the repository. Each repository has a “master” branch, but you can have as many branches in a repository as you want. Branches can be areas where individuals work on content in isolation, or they can be for teams. Branches can never be deleted.
Within a branch are one or more changesets. Adding content to a branch (or making any change) takes place against a changeset–you’re never actually changing anything that was written previously.
And, finally, at the object level you have nodes. Everything in Cloud CMS is stored as a node. If you have a blog post, that’s a node. If your blog post points to an image, the image is also node. All nodes are typed. There are out-of-the-box types but you can also define your own. I’ll talk more about that in a bit.
Cloud CMS provides a web user interface that helps teams organize content creation built around the notion of projects. For the most part, your users see your repository through the lens of a project. They don’t have to understand the underlying structure of the Cloud CMS repository.
The first thing you see when logging in to Cloud CMS is a dashboard. From here you can manage your projects, tasks, members, and workflows. For my review I created a project called “My Cloud CMS Project”.
Drilling into the project displays the project’s dashboard. Clicking on Documents shows a hierarchical view of folders and documents. Multiple files can be dragged-and-dropped which triggers an upload to the folder. As you can see in the screenshot below, thumbnails are automatically created and displayed in the document list.
Clicking a specific document opens the details page for that object where users can edit the properties of the object, make comments, assign tags, start workflows, and perform a number of other actions.
So that’s how content authors manage content in Cloud CMS. Let’s take a look at how the content model is defined.
Creating Content Types
Content Type definitions are created using JSON Schema. You can define types using either the Cloud CMS UI by typing your JSON Schema into a web form, or by using the API. I really like the ability to define a content type simply by typing the JSON Schema that defines it. Of course, the trade-off is that you have to know how to define a type using JSON Schema. Fortunately, there is documentation that can help.
Content modeling in Cloud CMS is much more advanced than what I’ve seen in other CaaS offerings. Three examples of that are: hierarchical content models, aspect-orientedness, and role-based form definitions.
The first one, hierarchical content model, is easy to grasp: Your types can inherit from parent types. This can potentially save you time setting up your content model if your types lend themselves to being organized in a hierarchy.
The second one requires a little more explanation: aspect-orientedness. A content model is aspect-oriented when it has the ability to define bundles of properties that can be “attached” to objects, regardless an object’s underlying type. In Alfresco these are called “aspects”, in CMIS these are called “secondary types”, and in Cloud CMS these are called “features”.
For example, you might have a set of metadata that you want to track for anything that is “client-related” like the client’s name, industry, size, and primary contact. In Cloud CMS you define that set of metadata as the “client-related” feature, and then any object can become “client-related” just by adding the client-related feature–the bundle of properties having to do with a client–to the object.
The third advanced content model-related feature in Cloud CMS is role-based forms. When you create instances of a content type, Cloud CMS looks at the schema and generates a default form, similar to how other CaaS offerings work. What’s different is that Cloud CMS allows you to define multiple forms for the same content type. You can tie forms to specific roles so that different people see different authoring forms depending on their role. This is helpful when you have different types of people who need to edit the same content–you can use role-based forms to structure the form the way it makes the most sense for each type of user.
By the way, like content type definitions, form definition is also JSON-driven. Cloud CMS leverages the open source AlpacaJS forms engine into their product, which you might want to consider for your own projects, even if you don’t need Cloud CMS.
Working with Content via the API
Cloud CMS can host your application for you. This makes it nice for people who are looking for a one-stop shop for their content-centric mobile and web applications because you don’t need separate services for your content and your app. If you look back at the project dashboard screenshot I showed earlier you’ll see an example–I’ve created an application called “demo”.
What wasn’t obvious to me initially is that even if you are going to host your application elsewhere, you still need to create an application, and within that, a deployment. That’s where you’ll find the API keys needed to work with the API.
In addition to the API keys you’ll need to know your repository ID (which you can get from the Cloud CMS admin console). If you are going to fetch content from anything other than the master branch you also need the branch ID. Once you have that, querying for nodes is straightforward, as shown in this gist:
Every object in Cloud CMS can have an ACL and child objects can inherit ACLs from their parents. There are out-of-the-box roles you can use in those ACLs, including: Connector, Consumer, Contributor, Editor, Collaborator, and Manager. Unfortunately, to set permissions on an object you have to switch from the project user interface to the administrative user interface. Still, this is the only vendor in the round-up offering object-level permissions.
Cloud CMIS offers a free 14-day trial. After that you have to switch to one of four monthly plans:
Starter: $20/month. Limited to a single project and email support.
Platform: $200/month. Unlimited projects and email support.
Enterprise: $2400/month. Private cloud with an on-premises option
The ability to run the entire stack on-premises is an interesting option for those not ready for the cloud although I haven’t explored how practical that really is for Cloud CMS.
The usual caveats apply to pricing here. Like other CaaS offerings, Cloud CMS places limits on total storage space and data transfer so look at the details to make sure you understand what this will cost you each month.
Cloud CMS is a full-featured platform for content management. Where some startups focus on the minimum viable product, Cloud CMS has gone for a kitchen sink approach that approximates the functionality you might expect in more mature, on-premises ECM offerings. Cloud CMS can even be the platform that runs your application, if that’s what you need.
Content management professionals will appreciate the advanced content modeling and forms features, which is just one example of functionality that reflects the founders’ ECM industry heritage. The flip-side of that coin, however, is the complexity also reminiscent of those systems. The documentation and tutorial videos help but there is a learning curve here.
Cloud CMS can compete against CaaS players like Prismic.io and Contentful as well as established ECM vendors like Alfresco and Documentum. Compared to other CaaS players it has much richer functionality, but it is also more complicated to use. To compete against them successfully Cloud CMS may need to further streamline the UI so that users can harness that power without being overwhelmed by other features.
Compared to established vendors like Alfresco and Documentum, Cloud CMS offers a hosted system running in the cloud with a similar feature list while maintaining the ability to customize the platform. Customers looking to move to the cloud may find an easier migration to Cloud CMS than to one of the newer CaaS players. In this respect Cloud CMS also competes with other traditionally on-prem document management offerings now offered in the cloud like Hippo onDemand and Nuxeo Cloud.
With two ECM veterans at the helm and impressive functionality it will be interesting to watch Cloud CMS go after one or both of these markets.
Contentful came out of beta to be generally available in May of 2014, so it is the youngest vendor of the three in my round-up. The company is based in Berlin and has a number of well-known clients including EA, Disney, Viacom, Asics, Nike, Playboy, and McAfee.
My CaaS overview described functionality you’ll find in all CaaS offerings. Similar to my post on Prismic.io, in this post on Contentful I’ll focus on the areas that typically differentiate one CaaS offering from another, namely:
User interface for content authors
Creating content types
Working with content via the API
Finally, I’ll wrap up with my overall impressions and takeaways.
In Contentful you have one or more “spaces”. You can think of a space as a repository. It’s a collection of “entries”, which are instances of content types, and “assets”, which are file-based assets like images. In addition, each space has its own users, roles, and API keys.
When you log in to Contentful you’ll be sitting in one of your spaces (the first one in the list). The Contentful user interface is clean and quite minimal. It’s easy to get going quickly because you have a limited function set. You can define your content model, manage entries, manage assets, or manage your API keys and that’s about it.
Options for organizing lists of entries and assets are limited to filtering based on status (Published, Changed, Draft, Archived), content type (for entries), and file type (for assets). There is a saved search feature and saved searches can be organized into folders. But, there is no notion of hierarchical content storage.
This minimalistic approach to content management is what I characterized as a Good Thing in my Content-as-a-Service overview.
Every content management system has a way to describe the data stored in the repository which is referred to as a “content model”. In Contentful, each space has its own content model which is simply a set of content type definitions. A content type is a set of typed properties. There are property types you’d expect, like text, date, number, decimal number as well as “pointer” types that reference other objects in the system, where those objects are either entries or file-based assets.
For example, the screenshot below shows a Promo content type I created. It has a name, a description, and a set of fields such as pubDate, geoCode, image, alt, etc. In the case of the image field, it points to a file-based asset.
Unfortunately, there is no support for cross-cutting concerns (aspects) so if you want to repeat property definitions across types you have to do that manually. For example, a type called “Cat Picture” and a type called “Dog Picture” might both have “height” and “width” properties. In Contentful, you have to repeat similar properties across type definitions.
On a related note, there is no way to clone or copy content types in the user interface. If you have two similar content types you have to re-do the property sets in each one or use the Contentful content management API to do this.
Managing your content model in the Contentful UI takes way too many clicks. I much prefer the approach other CaaS offerings take where you edit the content type definitions using JSON rather than the point-and-click approach. The nice thing with Contentful is that you can use the API for everything, including defining your content model–you don’t have to use the UI at all if you don’t want to.
One thing to watch out for: If you want to change a field on a content type (like maybe change the type of field) you have to deactivate the content type first. That’s not such a bad thing until you realize you cannot deactivate a content type without first getting rid of the instances of that content type. This could be a challenge once you go to production, so make sure you are happy with your content model before you get too far down the road.
Working with content via the API
Content can either be “published” or “draft”. The API keys you generate for a space can either be “production” or “preview”. The production URL and access key can only fetch published content. The preview URL and access key will see everything.
The Contentful Content Delivery API lets you fetch content by space which can be further filtered by query terms that will be AND’ed together. There was not an obvious way to OR query terms.
Note that content is initially created in draft mode. You must publish the content if you want it to be retrievable via the “production” content delivery API.
I should mention that Contentful also offers a sync API, which is particularly useful for mobile applications.
In Contentful, everyone belongs to one or more Organizations. Organization owners can create spaces and can invite users to a space. Users can be editors (edit all content) or developers (edit all content, manage API keys). Space admins can create new content types. The UI shows a “custom role” but this article says that custom roles will be implemented for the enterprise offering at some point in the future.
Contentful also makes it easy for agencies or consultants to administer an organization on their client’s behalf while the client remains the main contact for billing purposes.
Contentful offers the following plans:
Free plan which is limited to 3 users, 3 spaces, and 1,000 objects
Plus plan for $99 per month which includes 5 users, 5 spaces, and 5,000 objects
Pro plan is $200 per month for up to 10 users, 10 spaces, and 10,000 objects.
Most of my clients would probably need the “Enterprise” plan which could cost anywhere between the low thousands to the tens of thousands of dollars per month depending on exactly what is needed.
Also, be aware that Contentful, like other CaaS vendors, places limits on additional things such as API requests, API bandwidth, and API keys. These and other details may change so take a look at the pricing page (click “Compare Plans” for the expanded details) to be sure.
Contentful is an extremely basic offering in terms of both the user interface and the capabilities of the underlying platform. But the simplicity of the offering is precisely what makes it so attractive. Developers will appreciate the “API-first” approach to content management, and without a lot of extraneous sub-systems getting in the way, they’ll be able to develop a solution quickly, and then let content authors manage the content with the easy-to-use interface. Contentful’s stripped down, pragmatic approach to content management is a category-defining building block you can use to create really cool content-centric solutions.
It won’t be long before we’ll be celebrating Alfresco’s tenth birthday. Sniff, sniff, they grow up so fast!
As part of that growth, it’s only natural that certain areas of the product will reach their end-of-life. Since its first release we’ve seen very little pruning of old or obsolete features, but that changes with the Alfresco Community Edition 5.0.b release.
Some of the things that have been dropped won’t surprise anyone. Some I consider regressions and may actually come back quickly, at least I hope they do. The surprises have been handled a little sloppily–Richard Esplin, the current head of community apologized for that earlier this week, essentially saying it was due to the rush to get 5.0.b out in time for Alfresco Summit.
You can read Richard’s post and the release notes for the full list of feature removals. In this post I’ll call out the major items you will no longer find in Alfresco Community Edition as of 5.0.b.
If you’ve paid any attention to my blog or just about anyone else who speaks or writes about Alfresco you already knew to avoid the original JSF-based web client called “Alfresco Explorer”. It’s the original web client accessible at /alfresco.
Alfresco has been saying Explorer was going away for a long time and they’ve finally done it. If you fire up Alfresco 5.0.b Community Edition and go to /alfresco you’ll find our old friend is no more. Good night, sweet prince!
All of my clients have been focused on Alfresco Share for years so if the impact of the change was simply that you couldn’t log in to that old client any longer it wouldn’t be a big deal, but there has been some collateral damage, which brings us to the next section…
Workflow Console, Tenant Console, or Basically Any Console
Unfortunately, some vital consoles leveraged the same JSF code base as Alfresco Explorer. When that went, these consoles went as well. The old saying about babies and bathwater comes to mind.
The removal of the workflow console is particularly irksome. It’s critical to anyone doing anything with either Activiti or jBPM in Community Edition. In my opinion, this is the most important console of the bunch.
The data dictionary console is also gone, which is used to enable or disable hot-deployed content models. If you only use content models deployed as part of the WAR this won’t affect you.
The tenant console is also gone. This obviously won’t affect you unless you are using the multi-tenancy feature.
The AVM console is also gone, but then again, so is the AVM as I’ll touch on briefly next.
The frustrating thing about these missing consoles is that they aren’t planned to make a return until 5.1, according to Richard. That makes 5.0 Community Edition harder to use than it needs to be. It’s possible that Alfresco will make the console framework available so that the community can help get these back in place quickly.
The AVM is the ill-fated Web Content Management offering that Alfresco told you was reaching its End-of-Life back in February of 2012 so, again, you should not be surprised about this one. All but a handful of people have found other WCM solutions.
This one sparked a WTF moment on Twitter earlier in the month when I was shocked to realize that 5.0.b Community Edition required Solr to be fully functional. Without it, you can’t do a people search, for example. Actually, you can’t do a full-text search either. So in my book, this makes Solr required to run.
Prior to this change you could choose either Solr or Lucene. I often used Lucene locally because it was one less WAR to deal with and it was the default when doing a manual WAR install. Some people preferred Lucene’s in-transaction indexing over Solr’s asynchronous indexing and eventual consistency.
I understand that Solr is the way forward for Alfresco. It just felt like this one was a bit rushed. I don’t remember any public communication saying that Lucene would no longer be an option in 5.0. The Alfresco Product Support Status page doesn’t list it either. Richard’s post says, “When we added Solr to Alfresco 4, we deprecated Lucene.” That may be true, I’m just not sure Alfresco told anyone, although it is possible I missed it.
These are all positive changes and I suspect will help Alfresco a lot on the engineering and support side.
The release notes also include a note that NFS and jBPM are now officially deprecated. I’ve been expecting the jBPM removal for a while now. If you haven’t started moving everything to Activiti process definitions you should definitely do so now.
Getting the old stuff out of the distribution is great–I’m glad to see it. I hope that going forward Alfresco can do a better job communicating openly in a timely manner about major changes like dropping Lucene. It sounds like Richard is going to take that on as part of his new role in Product Management, which is a very good thing.
Today I’m going to take a brief look at Prismic.io. Prismic.io is one of three commercial Content-as-a-Service (CaaS) vendors I’m reviewing as part of my CaaS round-up. If you missed my overview of the emerging CaaS market you might want to take a look and then come back.
Prismic.io was founded by Sadek Drobi, one of the co-creators of the Play framework, and Guillaume Bort, one of the Play lead developers. It launched in early October, 2013.
My overview talked about the kind of functionality you’ll find in all CaaS offerings. In this post on Prismic.io I’ll focus on the areas that typically differentiate one CaaS offering from another, namely:
User interface for content authors
Creating content types
Working with content via the API
Finally, I’ll wrap up with my overall impressions and takeaways.
User Interface: Let me show you to your room
Your Prismic.io account starts out with a sample repository called Les Bonnes Choses (The Good Stuff) and some sample content within that. The repository and sample content powers a sample web app for a fictitious pastry shop.
When you first log in to Prismic.io a dashboard lists the Les Bonnes Choses repository and any other repositories you’ve created. A quick side-note on repositories: When creating a new repository I was forced to pick a name no one else had taken. The repository name is used as a sub-domain under prismic.io, so I see why it has to be unique, but this seems like an odd choice for a service I’m sure the founders are hoping will grow wildly.
Anyway, clicking on a specific repository takes you into that repository’s “writing room”, which is the primary interface for not only authoring content but also configuring your repository’s various settings.
The writing room UI is certainly the most polished of any of the CaaS vendors I reviewed. While it looks great, I feel like the fly-in/fly-out animation is a bit over-used and many of the icons are un-labeled. The UI also uses colors to indicate status, but the meaning is not obvious initially.
The overall organizational model is activity-centric rather than asset-centric. If you’ve got a team of people pushing out content in a rather flat hierarchy this will probably work well. If you like a more traditional list-of-assets-in-a-nested-folder hierarchy you’ll have to adjust. The “Live Now”, “Your Documents”, and “Favorites” help filter the list of content.
Releases provide snapshot capability
A helpful concept in Prismic.io is the “content release”. This gives you the ability to plan releases ahead-of-time. When your content authors write content they can publish it to a release. When the release is published, all content associated with that release goes live. You can control who can access to-be-published content in the API settings.
Creating content types
In Prismic.io, content types are called “Document Masks”. Document masks are defined via the Prismic.io UI by writing JSON that describes the mask. For example, here is a snippet from the Blog Post document mask:
Notice that there is an object called “Blog Post” and an object called “Metadata”. These are rendered as tabs in the writing room UI. You can segment your document mask definitions however you see fit. Within the top-level object there are one or more fragments, each of which has a name, like “author”, a fieldset, a type, and a config.
Looking at the “author” config you can see that it is possible to add references to other documents in the repository. In this case the association is between the blog post and an author object. Elsewhere in the blog post example are similar links to “related posts” and “related products”.
I like that the content type definitions are expressed as JSON. It’s a lot easier to work with definitions in this way than with a UI-driven approach, especially when the content type definition language is fairly rich, as it is here.
Another nice feature of the document mask editor is the ability to quickly preview what the form will look like in writing room.
Collections and Bookmarks
Document masks define the type of documents your content authors can create. Prismic.io also gives you the ability to define collections and bookmarks.
You can think of a collection as a saved search. A collection defines a set of filters (document masks and/or tags). Content authors can then navigate to content by clicking collection names in the writing room. In fact, aside from the filters I mentioned earlier, collections are the only way to organize content.
Your front-end can use the API to get the documents matching a collection by specifying the collection name rather than building the query from scratch. I’ll show you an example of that in a minute.
A bookmark is a collection for a single document. It is kind of like an alias. Suppose you are building an app that needs to promote a “deal of the week”. The deal might change from time-to-time. One way to implement this would be to create a bookmark named “dealOfTheWeek” and point it to a document for this week’s deal. The front-end app can always ask for the same bookmark, but the object it points to can change as needed.
Fetching Content via the API
Here’s an example showing how to get the documents in a collection named “blogPosts”:
In the bookmark example you can see that once the document ID is fetched from the bookmark I constructed a query against the “everything” collection using the ID. This barely scratches the surface of what’s available in the query language–check out the developer docs to learn more.
One extremely disappointing thing about the Prismic.io API is that it is read-only. Yes, you read that right. Prismic.io is a content service that only lets you read content via the API, not create it.
The lack of a write API means that if you have existing content that you want to move to Prismic.io, there’s no way to do that short of hiring a bunch of temps and re-keying it into the system. Potentially worse, if your content originates from some other system and you want to use Prismic.io for delivery, there’s no way to do that either. And of course if you have user-generated content you need to persist from the front-end, you’ll have to write to some other service.
I suspect that a year from now we will all agree that a write API is table stakes for a viable CaaS offering and Prismic.io either will have fixed it or they will have relegated themselves to a microscopic corner of the market focused on tiny, greenfield, content silo projects. We shall see!
By default, the API requires an OAuth token. Per repository, you can change that. For example, you might make it so that the API can fetch content from the “master” release without a key, but fetching content from future releases requires a token. Or, you can make access completely open.
With Prismic.io, development is free. You don’t pay until you go to production. There are three paid plans available: Simple gives you all of the featues, but is limited to three users for $7/month. Team gives you unlimited users for $40/month. Enterprise gives you an SLA and a private cluster but you’ve got to negotiate pricing.
Something that’s pretty cool for all of my open source friends is that if you make your content available under the Creative Commons 4.0 license, you can use a Simple plan for free.
The lack of a write API for programmatic content creation makes Prismic.io a non-starter for anyone having anything more than the most modest requirements, particularly in cases where there is a large volume of pre-existing content or when other systems need to write into the content store.
If you have the luxury of starting with zero content and all of your content will be created by humans using the snazzy Prismic.io user interface, then it is worth considering.
Prismic.io certainly has the most helpful developer on-ramp of any of the solutions I looked at with lots of client libraries, good examples, decent documentation, and useful starter apps. And I also liked their “free while you are developing” model, which makes it easy for teams to get started building their real solution, rather than a scaled-down PoC.
If Prismic.io puts a write API in place they’ll be a strong CaaS contender.
There is an interesting new market emerging in the world of content management: Commercially-hosted Content-as-a-Service (CaaS). These are vendors who provide a service your applications can leverage for content management. Different than, “Hey look, we’re running our old school CMS in the cloud!”, CaaS is singular in focus and free from the feature bloat and operational complexity typical of the CMS your parents probably used.
At a minimum, CaaS vendors provide the following:
a hosted repository,
some mechanism for defining the types of content you need to manage,
a RESTful API to get content and static assets into and out of the repository,
a web-based user interface for managing content,
web hooks for taking action when content changes,
CDN integration for efficiently serving up static assets, and
an up-time and performance SLA.
You then build your web site or mobile app using any technology that suits your needs and fetch content as JSON using the API.
The best approach is to use the service to manage reusable, presentation-agnostic chunks of content. Metadata associated with the content chunks can then be used to make it easier to fetch the content for a variety of contexts. Because it is free of presentation the content can be more easily shared and reused across properties and channels.
Why not Drupal or WordPress?
CaaS vendors do not directly compete with full-featured platforms like Drupal or WordPress. There are Drupal and WordPress modules that add RESTful APIs on top of those platforms, so you could build a web or mobile site that is completely de-coupled from your Drupal back-end. Conversely, you could build a web site on top of a CaaS vendor’s service that had the same look, feel, and features of a site built with a traditional CMS. But both of those examples miss the point of CaaS which is, in a word, simplicity.
I’m not saying products like Drupal and WordPress are hard to use. On the contrary, you can install those tools and have a great looking site up-and-running in minutes. I’ve run this blog on WordPress for years and I am extremely happy with it. And sites like wordpress.com and Drupal Gardens take the hassle out of setting up your own server.
When I say the key to CaaS is simplicity I mean it strips away everything. It makes no assumptions. A hosted CaaS offering should distill content management down to its very essence, implied by the term itself: to manage content. Do nothing else. Take this chunk of JSON, free of any hint of style or presentation, and store it for me, making it available via a tool-agnostic API to my front-end channels to present as I see fit.
This pragmatic approach to content management can be implemented on-premises or on your own cloud-based servers using freely-available technology. I’ll talk more about that in another post. The nice thing about hosted CaaS is that you don’t have to assemble, test, scale, and maintain the solution yourself. Yes, you are giving up some amount of control, the degree to which varies across vendors, but many are willing and able to make that trade-off.
As with other Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offerings, CaaS vendors charge a monthly subscription for their service. Some charge additional fees based on things such as number of content objects managed, number of content authors, and data volume. All of the market leaders I looked into provide a free-to-get-started plan to make it easy on developers in the early days of their projects.
Approach appeals to both startups and enterprises
The primary target market for CaaS vendors is clearly start-ups who are writing mobile and/or web apps that need some form of content management. Cost is usually a major factor for this segment, at least until the venture proves itself successful, but so is simplicity and efficiency. There’s no time for complex server installs, any sort of run-and-maintain burden, or pushing new app versions as content evolves. Hosted CaaS is a natural fit for these folks.
But this approach also make sense for enterprises, many of whom are still wrestling with their legacy content management vendor boat anchors (I’m looking at you, Interwoven). A hosted service that does nothing more than capture and share content chunks is a refreshing contrast to those bloated, over-priced WCM systems that require a huge staff to run and maintain yet still leave end-users frustrated.
Those systems haven’t changed much in nearly two decades and yet they remain firmly embedded in many companies where they are busy managing sites that may have been state of the art in 1999, but in a world where even the concept of a “page” is falling by the wayside, are now woefully outdated.
The content-as-a-service approach (API-first, native JSON, pragmatic, emphasis on reuse) aligns with how mobile apps and modern web sites are built and deployed as well as their content needs. This is true whether those apps are built by scrappy startups or huge enterprises.
Stay tuned for a CaaS round-up
So join me as I take a look at some of the players in the CaaS space. In the coming posts I’ll be looking at Prismic, Contentful, and Cloud CMS. If you have used any of these for your mobile or web project and you want to share your story with other ecmarchitect.com readers, do let me know.
Make your office space available for local Alfresco meetups. If there isn’t a regular meetup in your area, start one and keep it going quarterly.
If you customize Alfresco, take the customizations that don’t represent a competitive advantage to your business and contribute them to the community as freely-available addons. If you don’t want to take the time to package it up as a formal add-on, at least stick your code on github or a similar public code repository.
Similar to the above, if you hire systems integrators, word your contracts such that they can contribute the code they write for you to the community. (Often the default language assigns IP ownership to the hiring party).
If you choose Community Edition, give your time to the Order of the Bee so that you can help others be successful running Community Edition in production. The Order is particularly interested in Community Edition success stories at the moment.
File helpful bug reports and make sure they are free of information specific to your business so that Alfresco will keep them public.
If you not only find a bug but fix it, contribute the patch. One way to do that is to create a pull request on GitHub in the Alfresco Community Edition project then reference that pull request in an Alfresco Jira.
If you see something wrong or missing on the wiki, log in and fix it.
Really, this list is mostly applicable to anyone that wants to participate in the community, not just customers. What did I leave out? Add more ideas in the comments.
For the first time, ever, I will not be in attendance at this year’s annual Alfresco conference. I’m going to miss catching up with old friends, meeting new ones, learning, and sharing stories.
I’m also going to miss hearing what Alfresco has planned. Now, more than ever, Alfresco needs to inspire. As I won’t be there I need the rest of you to go to Alfresco Summit and take good notes for me. Here’s what you should be listening for…
What Are You Doing With the Money, Doug?
At last year’s conference Alfresco CEO, Doug Dennerline, made a quip about how much fun he was having spending all of the money Alfresco had amassed prior to his arrival. Now he’s secured another round of funding.
I think partners, customers, and the community want to hear what the specific plans are for all of that cash. In a Q&A with the community, Doug said he felt like there were too few sales people for a company the size of Alfresco’s. In the old days, Alfresco had an “inbound” model, where people would try the free stuff and call a sales person when they were ready for support. Doug is inverting that and going with a traditional “outbound” model. That obviously takes cash, and it may be critical for the company to grow to where Doug and the investors would like, but it is rather uninspiring to the rest of us. Where are the bold, audacious plans? Where is the disruption? Which brings me to my next theme to listen for…
Keep Alfresco Weird
Remember when Alfresco was different? It was open source. It was lightweight. It appealed to developers and consultants because it could approximate what a Documentum aircraft carrier could do but it had the agility of a speedboat. And, perhaps above all, it was cheap.
Now it feels like that free-wheeling soul, that maverick of ECM, that long-haired hippy love-child, born of a one-night stand between ECM and Linux, is looking in the mirror and realizing it has slowly become its father.
Maybe in some ways, growing up was necessary. Alfresco certainly feels more stable than years past. But what I want to hear is that the scrappiness is still there. I want to see some features that competitors haven’t thought of yet. I want to look into the eyes of the grown-up Alfresco and see (and believe) that the mischievous flicker of youth is still glowing, ready to shake things up.
Successfully Shoot the Gap Or Get Crushed?
Alfresco is in a unique position. There are the cloud-only players on one side who are beating Alfresco on some dimensions (ease-of-use, flawless file sync, ubiquity) and are, at least for now, losing to Alfresco on other dimensions (on-premises capability, security, business relevance). On the other side, you’ve got legacy players. Alfresco is still more nimble than they are, but with recent price increases, Alfresco can no longer beat them on price alone. That gap is either Alfresco’s opportunity or its demise.
Every day those cloud-only players add business-relevant functionality that their (huge) user base demands. They’ve got endless cash. And dear Lord, the marketing. If I have to read one more bullshit TechCrunch article about how Aaron Levie “invented” the alternative to ECM, I’m going to lose it. Bottom-line is that the cloud-only guys have their sites set on Alfresco’s bread-and-butter.
And those legacy vendors, the ones Alfresco initially disrupted with an open source model, are not only showing signs of life, but in some cases are actually introducing innovative functionality. If Alfresco turns away from the low-cost leader strategy they miss out on a huge lever needed to unseat incumbent vendors. “Openness” may not be enough to win in a toe-to-toe battle of function points.
So what exactly is the strategy for successfully shooting the gap? We’ve all heard the plans Alfresco has around providing content-centric business apps as SaaS offerings. That sounds great for the niche markets interested in those offerings. But that sounds more like one leg of the strategy, not the whole thing. I don’t think you’re fighting off Google, Microsoft, and Amazon with a few new SaaS offerings a year.
So Take Good Notes For Me
Alfresco has had two years to establish the office in the valley, to get their shit together, and to start kicking ass again. What I’m hoping is that at this year’s Alfresco Summit, they will give us credible details about how that $45 million is going to be spent in such a way as to make all of the customers, partners, employees, and community members glad they bet their businesses and careers on what was once an innovative, game-changing, start-up called Alfresco.