5 rules you must follow on every Alfresco project

I know that people are often thrown into an Alfresco project having never worked with it before. And I know that the platform is broad and the learning curve is steep. But there are some rules you simply have to follow when you make customizations or you could be creating a costly mess.

The single most important one is to use the extension mechanism. Let me convince you why it’s so important, then I’ll list the rest of the top five rules you must follow when customizing Alfresco.

All-too-often, people jump right in to hacking the files that are part of the distributed WARs. I see examples of it in the forums and other community channels and I see it in client projects. Not every once-in-a-while. All. Of. The. Time.

If you’ve stumbled on to this blog post because you are embarking on your first Alfresco project, let this be the one thing you take to heart: The extension mechanism is not optional. You must use it. If you ignore this advice and begin making changes to the files shipped with Alfresco you are entering a world of pain.

The extension points in Alfresco allow you to change just about every aspect of Alfresco Share and the underlying repository without touching a single file shipped with the product. And you can do so in a way that can be repeated as you move from environment to environment or when you need to re-apply your customizations after an upgrade.

“But I am too busy,” you say. “This needs to be done yesterday!”, you say. “I know JavaScript. I’m just going to make some tweaks to these components and that’s it. What’s the big deal?”

Has your Saturday Morning Self ever been really angry at things your Friday Night Self did without giving much consideration to the consequences? That’s what you’re doing when you start making changes to those files directly. Yes, it works, but you’ll be sorry eventually.

As soon as you change one of those files you’ve made it difficult or impossible to reliably set up the same software given a clean WAR. This makes it hard to:

  • Migrate your code, because it is hard to tell what’s changed across the many nooks and crannies of the Alfresco and Share WARs.
  • Determine whether problems you are seeing are Alfresco bugs or your bugs, because you can’t easily remove your customizations to get back to a vanilla distribution.
  • Perform upgrades, because you can’t simply drop in the new WARs and re-apply your customizations.

People ask for best practices around customizing Alfresco. Using the extension mechanism isn’t a “best practice”–it’s a rule. It’s like saying “Don’t cross the foul line” is a “best practice” when bowling. It’s not a best practice, it’s a rule.

So, to repeat, the first rule that you have to abide by is:

  1. Use the extension mechanism. Don’t touch a single file that was shipped inside alfresco.war or share.war. If you think you need to make a customization that requires you to do that I can almost guarantee you are doing it wrong. The official docs explain how to develop extensions.

Rounding out the top five:

  1. Get your own content model. Don’t add to Alfresco’s out-of-the-box content model XML or the examples that ship with the product. And don’t just copy-and-paste other models you find in tutorials. Those are just examples, people!
  2. Get your own namespace. Stay out of Alfresco’s namespace altogether. Don’t put your own web scripts in the existing Alfresco web script package structure. Don’t put your Java classes in Alfresco’s package structure. It’s called a “namespace”. It’s for your name and it keeps your stuff separate from everyone else’s.
  3. Package your customizations as an AMP. Change the structure of the AMP if you want–the tool allows that–but use an AMP. Seriously, I know there are problems with AMPs, but this is what we’re all using these days in the Alfresco world. Ideally you’ll have one for your “repo” tier changes and one for your “share” tier changes. An AMP gives you a nice little bundle you can hand to an Alfresco administrator and simply say, “Apply this AMP” and they’ll know exactly what to do with it.
  4. Create a repeatable build for your project. I don’t care what you use to do this, just use something, anything, to automate your build. If a blindfolded monkey can’t produce a working AMP from your source code you’re not done setting up your project yet. It’s frustrating that this has to be called out, because it should be as natural to a developer as breathing, but, alas, it does.

The Alfresco Maven SDK can really help you with all of these. If you use it to bootstrap your project, and then only make changes to the files in your project, you’re there. If you need help getting started with the Alfresco Maven SDK, read this.

These are the rules. They are non-negotiable. The rest of your code can be on the front page of The Daily WTF but if you stick to these rules at a minimum, you, your team, and everyone that comes after you will lead a much less stressful existence.

You might also be interested in my presentation, “What Every Developer Should Know About Alfresco“. And take a look at the lightning talk Peter Monks gave at last year’s Alfresco Summit which covers advice for building Alfresco modules.

 

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