7 mistakes developers make when customizing Alfresco Share

I’ve seen more than my–ahem–fair share of Alfresco Share over the last several months. Many clients feel that their needs are so close to what Share provides out-of-the-box, that they can save time and money by starting with Share as the basis for their custom content-centric application. Whether or not that’s a good idea is the subject of another post. This post assumes that, for whatever reason, you find yourself customizing Alfresco’s Share client and wondering what are some of the common pitfalls to avoid. Here’s seven. Feel free to add to the list.

1. Ignoring client-side JavaScript minification

Here is a massive understatement for you: Alfresco Share has a lot of client-side JavaScript files. Most, if not all, of these are minified, or compressed, to reduce the size of a given page and increase client-side performance. If you’ve ever looked at the FreeMarker source for one of Alfresco’s pages, you may have seen something like this:

<@script type="text/javascript" src="${page.url.context}/components/blog/blog-common.js">

It looks like an everyday JavaScript reference but what’s up with that “@script” tag? It’s a FreeMarker macro. It switches out the JavaScript source file for the minified version when debug is turned off and uses the original uncompressed source when debug is turned on, which makes stepping through the client-side JavaScript much more pleasant.

There are two things you need to be aware of here. First, if you find yourself tweaking Alfresco’s client-side JavaScript, you’ll need to remember to deploy both the expanded and minified version of the file. Otherwise, when people turn debug on and off, they’ll see different results. Second, when you create your own client-side JavaScript, you need to minify your own code for the same reason.

You could turn debug on and leave it on (bad idea) or you could use a “normal” script tag and point to the non-minified versions of your JavaScript, but it is really easy to add minification as a part of your build, so you might as well set that up early in the project and you won’t have to worry about it later.

There are several JavaScript compressors out there. Here’s a link to the YUI Compressor. You can drop the JAR into your project and then invoke it from Ant quite easily. Ask Google for some examples.

2. Assuming Alfresco and Share are on the same host

When you install Alfresco it deploys a web application in the “/alfresco” context–that’s your repository and the old Alfresco Explorer client–and a second web application in the “/share” context. Depending on what you’re doing you might deploy numerous additional web apps based on Share or Surf.

Regardless of how you choose to deploy, you need to remember that there is no guarantee your app and Alfresco will be on the same machine, app server, or port number. One of the beauties of the Surf architecture is that you can scale it out across multiple app servers and they can all talk to the same (or multiple) Alfresco repository servers. The underlying Surf framework on which Share is based has configuration and helper variables you can leverage to deal with this. You should not be hardcoding “localhost” or any other hostname in your Share code.

3. Incomplete theme customization

Alfresco Share 3.3 has user-selectable themes. As part of your customization effort you can define your own theme and then configure that to be the default. An easy way to create your own theme is to copy one of the out-of-the-box themes and then modify it to suit your needs. The keys to cloning a theme successfully are:

  1. Copy one of the themes other than “Default”
  2. Search and replace references to the old theme name in the new CSS files (login.css, presentation.css, and yui/assets/skin.css)
  3. In the previous step, don’t forget yui/assets/skin.css!

4. Duplicating, rather than extending, Alfresco web scripts

Suppose you want to change something in one of Alfresco’s web scripts. You may be tempted to change the out-of-the-box controller JavaScript or FreeMarker views, but don’t do it. A nice thing about the web script framework is that you can override even just a single file that is part of a web script by placing your version of the file with the same name in the same folder structure under web-extension. This also works on the repository tier, but instead of web-extension you use the “extension” directory.

For example, maybe I want to extend the document-actions config XML in Share with my own settings. I will NOT copy my version over the top of Alfresco’s. Instead, I’ll put my copy in a file named “document-actions.get.config.xml” under WEB-INF/classes/alfresco/web-extension/site-webscripts/org/alfresco/components/document-details. When Alfresco loads the web script, it will use my version of the config.

5. Not using the web-extension directory

While we’re on the topic, all of your custom Share config files go in web-extension under the Share web application. Don’t put them in $TOMCAT_HOME/shared/classes and don’t put them in the Share web app’s classes/alfresco directory. Use the web-extension directory to keep your stuff separate from Alfresco’s. I also recommend doing the same with your client-side files–create a directory called “extension” for your client-side JavaScript, images, CSS, and so-on.

6. Using the same Tomcat server as the Alfresco repository during development

This one isn’t going to cause you problems, but it sure will slow you down. Even if your production Share web app will run on the same Tomcat as the Alfresco WAR, do yourself a favor: While you’re coding, use two Tomcats. On port 8080, you’ll run Alfresco and out-of-the-box Share. On some other port you’ll run a second Tomcat server with your custom Share- or Surf-based web app. That way, when you need to restart your custom Share app, you don’t have to wait for the repository to start back up. You’ll cut way down on the time you spend waiting for Tomcat to restart which, over time, can speed up your development cycle tremendously.

7. Failing to test on Alfresco’s supported browsers

Have I mentioned how much client-side JavaScript there is in Share? Every time you touch Alfresco’s JavaScript or create your own, you’ll need to test it on the browsers your client intends to use. So there are two recommendations here: First, make sure you are testing across Alfresco’s supported browsers. Second, make sure your clients only expect to use Alfresco’s supported browsers. Failure to do both of these can lead to some missed expectations on both sides. The browsers Alfresco supports for 3.3 are on the supported stacks page on the Alfresco web site.

What am I missing? Add a comment with your Alfresco Share street smarts.