Review: Professional Alfresco, Wrox

I recently finished reading Professional Alfresco, the new Alfresco book written by some of the Alfresco engineers and John Newton, Alfresco’s CTO. Before I share my thoughts, a few disclaimers: First, I wrote my own book on Alfresco called the Alfresco Developer Guide (Packt, 2008). Second, Wrox provided the book to me free of charge in the hopes that I’d write something about it here. Third, I have a strategic relationship with Alfresco, part of which includes bringing each other business.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get to it. Professional Alfresco is a new book written about Alfresco 3.2 by a team of authors with a unique insider perspective: all are Alfresco employees. It’s not an end-user focused book nor is it strictly for developers–it’s actually aimed at several different audiences:

  • Part 1, “Getting to Know Alfresco”, is aimed at IT managers or other folks who might be evaluating Alfresco. It covers the business benefits of Alfresco and provides a high-level overview of the platform.
  • Part 2, “Getting Technical”, looks at the platform’s components and services at a closer level. These chapters are directed at Technical Architects or anyone who’s trying to figure out the technical capabilities of Alfresco.
  • Parts 3 & 4 are aimed squarely at Developers. More specifically, these 6 chapters cover Web Scripts (primarily JavaScript, but a Java example is given) and Alfresco Share. The last 3 chapters of Part 4 provide a step-by-step example of building a Knowledgebase application by customizing Alfresco Share, including a few (brief) pages on the new Form Service. A lot of people are working on Share customization projects these days so many will find this a welcome set of material.

While the majority of the technical how-to in the book is focused on Web Scripts and Share, I particularly liked the chapter on Advanced Workflows. It did a good job of explaining what you can do with the jBPM engine without getting too far into the weeds. The section on the Authentication subsystem, LDAP config, and chaining was also very good, particularly as the subsystem setup is a fairly recent development that not everyone is familiar with.

While I did find a lot to like about the book, there were a few things to pick on. First, if you read the book front-to-back, you’ll notice a significant amount of repetition. I suppose that could be a good thing when one of the three audiences the book is written for picks up the book and goes directly to their area of interest. I wonder, though, if some of it was due to having so many authors collaborating on the writing project. The repetition left me feeling like I was really slogging through the material rather than cutting to the chase.

I thought the content modeling chapter was thorough, but I had to wonder why the author chose to step us through the modelSchema.xsd file instead of providing example content model XML. It’s good to know the content model schema is there if I need it, but I think examples of what I can do with the XML are far more illustrative than walking through the schema.

The form service and Share/Surf aren’t covered in nearly enough detail. Other aspects of the platform simply aren’t addressed at all. I think some of that may be because of timing. The form service, for example, continues to evolve with version 3.3, and when you undertake a project this big, you have to draw a line somewhere. Plus, the focus on web scripts and Share is aligned with where Alfresco is focused right now.

The organization of the book is good. It follows a logical progression through the platform. And I like that the end-to-end Knowledgebase example is placed at the end as a sort of capstone applying the concepts learned earlier in the book. If you’re looking for a tutorial-style book though, you may be frustrated by the amount of theory up-front. It’s just not that kind of book. One side note on organization, Chapter 17 is a bit of an odd duck. It’s got interesting content–the chapter discusses various patterns of Alfresco implementation and integration with other systems. I just thought it was weird that it was at the end of the book instead of in one of the first two parts. Not a huge deal, and I’m glad they included it, even if its placement makes it seem like an after-thought.

Overall, Professional Alfresco is a good book appropriate to several different types of readers. Even though there were several authors that wrote it, other than the repetition issue I noted, I didn’t feel like the transitions between authors were very noticeable–the editors did a great job stitching everything together and making it seem like one voice.

The bottom line is that if you are evaluating Alfresco and are trying to understand the architecture of the platform, or if you are a developer focused on web scripts and Share, you’ll find this book to be a valuable resource.

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