Django + Alfresco was a winning combination for retailer’s intranet

Last week I spent some time with one of our clients talking about what it’s been like to live with their Intranet platform based on Django and Alfresco. The conversation got me really excited about what they’ve been able to do since the original implementation and where they are heading.

The client is a well-known, high-end retailer based in Dallas. About a year ago they engaged Optaros to replatform their intranet from a legacy Java portal product to something more agile. They had seen Alfresco and liked it as a core repository, but needed something for the presentation tier (See “Alfresco User Interface: What are my options?“).

The Optaros team worked with the client to consider many options, including open source Java portal servers. The client felt like they needed something lighter and more flexible than a portal server. They were willing to do a lot of the presentation work themselves in exchange for complete design freedom and yet still be enough of a framework to be highly productive. The winning solution turned out to be Django.

Python? No problem.

I was initially worried that introducing a Python-based framework into a Java shop was going to be a problem but they weren’t married to Java. Our team got them up-to-speed quickly and they never looked back. It also helped that the client’s intranet sites were very communication-centric which matched up well with Django’s newspaper heritage.

Here’s how they use the solution in a nutshell:

  • Content owners use Alfresco Explorer to upload HTML chunks, office documents, and images, set metadata, and submit content for review. This triggers any number of rules that automatically process the changed content (e.g., creating thumbnails, extracting metadata, converting images to a consistent type, creating PDFs from office documents).
  • Content owners and reviewers can use Alfresco’s “custom views” to preview the content chunk in the context of the front-end site.
  • Site designers lay out site pages and create components using the Django template system, CSS, JQuery, and other front-end libraries.
  • Content publishers use the Django administration UI to map areas on the site to categories, folders, and objects in the Alfresco repository–Alfresco has no idea where or how the chunks are being used. This means the repository tier is truly decoupled from the presentation tier, allowing the client to reuse content across multiple areas of the site and across multiple sites within the enterprise.
  • Designers leverage a Django tag library to create dynamic areas of a page (e.g., when the page is rendered, retrieve all of the content chunks in this particular category from the repository). Django calls Alfresco web scripts to get and post data. The web scripts respond with serialized Django XML which Django caches and then deserializes into Django objects that the front-end can work with.

Separate concerns, play to strengths

The thing to notice about the Alfresco piece is how it sticks to core Alfresco capabilities: Metadata, rules, search, basic workflows, transformers/extractors, presentation templates, web scripts, DM repository. This is straight out of the Alfresco best practices playbook and aligns the client well with Alfresco product direction. A nice enhancement would be to refactor the Django-Alfresco integration to use CMIS which is something we are considering for the open source version of the integration (Screencast, Code).

Agile intranet, happy team

Since the initial rollout, the client has been able to make changes and roll out new sites quickly and easily thanks to the productivity inherent in the Django framework and the clean separation between the front-end app and the repository. Unexpected benefits the client mentioned were how fast they can add new features to the administrative UI (a core admin UI gets built for you automatically by Django) and the ease with which the development team can stand up a new environment.

The language the client team used to describe their work since the rollout summed it up best. They were using words like “beautiful” and “a real pleasure to work with”. When was the last time you heard those sentiments expressed about a WCM implementation?

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