Does Alfresco Share need to go on a diet?

When Alfresco first told me about the Surf framework and the plan to build a new then unnamed collaborative client on top of Surf I liked the sound of it. Of course anything other than JavaServer Faces sounded pretty good at the time.

But things didn’t quite turn out the way I thought they would.

See, what I thought would happen was that Alfresco would release a bunch of “mini” clients–highly-specialized apps for the task at hand. Want RM? Here’s the RM client. Doing some team stuff? Here’s Share. Basic Document Management, here’s the DM client. Web Content Management. Digital Asset Management. You get the point. With all of these sitting on top of Surf, each client app would only have the code that made it unique for that particular use case. It’s like taking one Ritz cracker (Surf) and then having a veritable smorgasbord of delicious ECM toppings to choose from.

The Dagwood SandwichInstead, what’s happened is that Alfresco launched their first Surf-based client, Share, for team collaboration, and then, rather than go back to the platter for another cracker, they kept piling on and piling on until that once dainty hors d’oeuvre became a towering Dagwood sandwich.

Let’s face it: Clients love the Share interface. They love it so much they want all of their content-centric apps to be based on it. If the client wants basic customizations–some form tweaks, a new dialog here, a new page there–it isn’t so bad. But the more complex the changes are, the more cruft you have to sift through and either eliminate or work around. A quick perusal through the Share code will turn up tidbits that deal with Records Management, SharePoint, and Google Docs. All of these are optional add-ons to Alfresco, but have worked their way into the Share client “just in case” someone installs that extension.

Okay, so if Share has too much to serve as an agile base in some cases, why not drop down to the underlying Surf framework? Because sometimes, Surf can be too bare bones. Recently, I did an implementation for a client that was essentially a community solution. We used two customized versions of Share: One for the “admin” interface for the community and the other for the front-facing community itself. Share worked great for the admin interface–not much tweaking was needed there at all. The dashboard, document library, wiki, discussion, and data lists functionality all made sense in the context of administering content. The front-facing community, however, was another story. We didn’t need 80% of what was in Share out-of-the-box. But we didn’t drop down to Surf because we wanted blogs, discussions, and some of the Share-tier web scripts for data lists and whatnot. We knew gathering up all of the dependencies needed to “push down” those features into Surf would be a pain. The solution turned out great, but the ratio of used to unused code is kind of scary.

Alfresco seems too far down the every-new-feature-we-come-up-with-goes-into-Share path at this point. But I wonder if the concept of a “distribution” could apply to Share. This would mean stripping down Share to some sort of bare bones minimum, just slightly bulkier than raw Surf. Then, provide AMPs or Maven builds or scripts or something that developers can use to “build up” Share with only the functionality they need.

Or maybe the solution is to make things that are optional, truly optional. It would be nice, if, through a script or this “tear down, then build up” approach, you could completely remove things like:

  • Sharepoint integration
  • Google Docs integration
  • Records Management
  • Wiki
  • Blogs
  • Discussion
  • Links
  • Anything else that’s not about the document library, data lists, categories, tags, and search.

By “completely remove” I don’t mean “hide from the user”. I mean when I recursively grep the Share web app for “Sharepoint” (for example) I get zero hits.

The goal here is to cut way down on the amount of code developers have to sift through, override, and extend when starting with Share as a base. And, once deployed, reduce the amount of code that has to be maintained and upgraded going forward.

Maybe Alfresco should take a lesson from Drupal. Some would argue that the core of Drupal is already too big, but at least the majority of extensions are in (truly) optional modules. And there are a number of Drupal distributions that take core and bundle different sets of modules for specific use cases. Django has something similar with the pinax project.

What do you think? Am I just being a picky eater? Is it realistic to think that Alfresco can whittle Share down to a more suitable base for the rest of us to build on?

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