Alfresco User Interface: What are my options?

People often need to build a custom user interface on top of the Alfresco repository and I see a lot of people asking general questions about how to do it. There are lots of options to consider. Here are four options for creating a user interface on top of Alfresco, at a high level:

Option 1: Use your favorite programming language and/or framework to talk to Alfresco via REST or Web Services. PHP? Python? Java? Flex? Whatever, it’s up to you. The REST API is nice because if you can’t find a URL that does what you need it to out-of-the-box, you can always roll-your-own with the web script framework. This option offers the most flexibility and creative freedom, but of course you might end up building constructs or components that you may have gotten “for free” from a higher-level framework. Optaros‘ streamlined web client, DoCASU, built on Ext-JS, is one freely-available example of a custom UI on top of Alfresco but there are others.

Option 2: Use Alfresco’s Surf framework. Alfresco’s Surf framework is just that–it’s a framework. Don’t confuse it with Alfresco Share which is a team-centric collaboration client built on top of Surf. And, don’t assume that just because a piece of functionality is in Share it is available to you in the lower-level Surf framework. You may have to do some extra work to get some of the cool stuff in Share to work in your pure Surf app. Also realize that Surf is brand new and still maturing. You’ll be quickly disappointed if you hold it to the same standard as a more widely-used, well-established framework like Seam or Django. Surf is a good option for quick, Alfresco-centric solutions, especially if you think you might want to leverage Alfresco’s browser-based site assembly tool, Web Studio, at some point in the future. (See Do-it-yourself Alfresco Surf Code Camp).

Option 3: Customize the Alfresco “Explorer” web client. There are varying degrees to which you can customize the web client. On one end of the spectrum you’ve got Freemarker “presentation templates” followed closely by XML configuration. On the other end of the spectrum you’ve got more elaborate enhancements you can make using JavaServer Faces (JSF). Customizing the Alfresco Explorer web client should only be considered if you can keep your enhancements to an absolute minimum because:

  1. Alfresco is moving away from JSF in favor of Surf-based clients. The Explorer client will continue to be around, but I wouldn’t expect major efforts to be focused on that client going forward.
  2. JSF-based customizations of the web client can be time-consuming and potentially complex, particularly if you are new to JSF.
  3. For most solutions, you’ll get more customer satisfaction bang out of your coding buck by building a purpose-built, eye-catching, UI designed with your specific use cases in mind than you will by starting with the general-purpose web client and extending from there.

Option 4: Use a portal, community, or WCM platform. This includes PHP-based projects like Drupal (Drupal CMIS Screencast) or Joomla as well as Java-based projects like Liferay and JBoss Portal. This is a good option if you have requirements that match up well with the built-in (or easily added-on) capabilities of those platforms.

It’s worth talking about Java portal servers specifically. I think people are struggling a bit to find The Best Way to integrate Alfresco with a portal. Of course there probably is no single approach that will fit every situation but I think Alfresco (with help from the community) could do more to provide best practices.

Here are the options you have when integrating with a portal:

Portal Option 1: Configure Alfresco to be the replacement JSR-170 repository for the portal. This option seems like more trouble than it is worth. If all you need is what you can get out of JSR-170, you might as well use the already-integrated Jackrabbit repository that most open source portals ship with these days unless you have good reasons not to. I’m open to having my mind changed on this one, but it seems like if you want to use Alfresco and a portal, you’ve got bigger plans that are probably going to require custom portlets anyway.

Portal Option 2: Run Alfresco and the portal in the same JVM (post). This is NOT recommended if you need to scale beyond a small departmental solution and, really, I think with the de-coupling of the web script engine we should consider this one deprecated at this point.

Portal Option 3: Run the Alfresco web script engine and the portal in the same JVM. Like the previous option, this gives you the ability to write web scripts that are wrapped in a portlet but it cuts down on the size of the web app significantly and it frees up your portal to scale independently of the Alfresco repository tier. It’s a fast development cycle once you get it set up. But I haven’t seen great instructions for setting it up yet. Alfresco should document this on their wiki if they are going to support this pattern.

Portal Option 4: Write your own portlets that make services calls. This is the “cleanest” approach because it treats Alfresco like any other back-end you might want to integrate with from the portal. You write custom portlets and have them talk to Alfresco via REST or SOAP. You’ll have to decide how you want to handle authentication with Alfresco.

What about CMIS?

CMIS fits under the “Option 1: Use your favorite programming language” and “Portal Option 4: Write your own portlets” categories. You can make CMIS calls to Alfresco using both REST and SOAP from your own custom code, portlet or otherwise. The nice thing about CMIS is that you can use it to abstract the underlying repository so that (in theory) your front-end code will work with different CMIS-compliant back-ends. Just realize that CMIS isn’t a fully-ratified standard yet and although a CMIS implementation is in the Enterprise version of Alfresco, it isn’t clear to me whether or not you’d be supported if you had a problem. (The last response I saw on this specific question was a Peter Monks tweet saying, “I don’t think so”).

The CMIS standard should be approved by the end-of-the-year and if Alfresco’s past performance is an indicator of the future, they’ll be the first to market with a production-ready, fully-supported CMIS implementation based on the final spec.

Pick your poison

Those are the options as I see them. Each one has trade-offs. Some may become more or less attractive over time as languages, frameworks, and the state of the art evolve. Ultimately, you’re going to have to evaluate which one fits your situation the best. You may have a hard time making a decision, but you have to admit that having to choose from several options is a nice problem to have.

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