Tag: Alfresco Share

Now available: Alfresco Fivestar Ratings add-on for Alfresco Share

A couple of weeks ago I posted a survey asking if anyone saw any value in a five star ratings widget for Alfresco Share. Honestly, it would have only taken one or two positive responses–even if no one needed one, there’s value in it for example’s sake. It turns out about 20 readers of this blog voted positively, so I went ahead and knocked it out.

This Alfresco Share customization makes it possible for any document in the repository to become “rateable”. When a document is rateable, the Alfresco Share user interface will show a clickable five star ratings widget. The stars light up to indicate the average rating for that document. Users simply click one of the stars to post their own rating. When clicked, the widget refreshes itself with the updated average.

Here is a short screencast that demonstrates the customization. You’ll want to make it full screen.

To implement this, I took the Someco Ratings Service from the Alfresco Developer Guide, moved it to the Metaversant namespace, and changed the names of my Spring beans and JavaScript root variable. Even though my initial target Alfresco version is 3.3, I didn’t want the code to conflict with Alfresco’s new back-end-only ratings service in 3.4 which uses some of the same names that were in the book. I also changed the JSON that the ratings web scripts use to be closer to what exists in 3.4. That way, when I do make a version that works with 3.4, it could potentially work with either my ratings back-end or Alfresco’s.

I then went to work on the UI side, integrating the widget into Share’s document details page, document library (both Share and repository views), search results page, and document-related dashlets. To go from what was in the book to a working integration I revamped the client-side ratings JavaScript from a set of functions to an actual object. Then, I started injecting my own methods into Alfresco’s client-side object prototypes to drop my widget in where appropriate.

Alfresco is still working to make customizations like this more modular and easier to plug in alongside their code and code from the community. Until then, be aware that if your Alfresco implementation already has customizations that override some of the same web scripts and client-side components this module does, there may be some manual integration needed. If you have an out-of-the-box installation (or a set of customizations that won’t conflict with this one) you can deploy the AMP to the Alfresco WAR and the Share customizations to the Share WAR and you’ll be set.

The Alfresco Fivestar Ratings project lives at Google Code. Feel free to check out the source, try it out, and use it on your projects. If you find a bug, log it, then fix it!

Deconstructing DeckShare: A brief look at Alfresco Web Quick Start

Last Fall, just before the Developer Conference in New York City, Alfresco approached Metaversant with a small project–they needed a web site to share presentations from the DevCon sessions and other events. There are several generic slide-sharing sites out there–Alfresco and I have both used SlideShare for that sort of thing pretty extensively. But Alfresco was looking for something they could have complete control over, plus they were looking to exercise their new Web Quick Start offering. So I rounded up a sucker–I mean a collaborator–named Michael McCarthy from over at Tribloom, and we knocked it out.

Although it makes good marketing sense for Alfresco to use its own offering for the site, I do think the “private presentation-sharing” use case is also generally applicable to many other businesses out there. Technology companies, of course, but also any company with a large sales force or even more modest extranet needs could benefit from a solution like this. SlideShare is great when what you want to share is public. When presentations need to be securely shared, many companies use expansive portals to share sales collateral, marketing presentations, or company communications, but those often come with a very low signal-to-noise ratio. The solution we built–we call it “DeckShare”–is laser-focused on one thing: Making it easy for content consumers to find the presentations they need, quickly.

DeckShare is built on top of Alfresco’s new Web Content Management (WCM) offering called Web Quick Start. Honestly, Web Quick Start, as the name implies, provides a good starting point for building a dynamic web site on top of Alfresco, and the sample site was so close to what a basic slide-sharing site needed, we didn’t have to do a whole lot of work. Even so, if you want to do slide-sharing on top of Alfresco, you can save even more time by starting with DeckShare.

I thought it might be cool to walk you through how we got from the Web Quick Start sample app to DeckShare as a way of getting you familiar with Web Quick Start and to help you understand how DeckShare works in case you want to use it on your project.

Some of this write-up is also included in the “About” page within the DeckShare site. Alfresco is currently branding DeckShare to meet their needs so I have no idea if the About page will still be there when the site goes live, so I may or may not be repeating myself somewhat.

What is DeckShare?

Alfresco’s DeckShare implementation isn’t live yet, so let me give you the nickel tour. DeckShare is a solution for quickly creating a self-hosted presentation-sharing site on top of Alfresco without having to write any code. DeckShare lets non-technical users manage and categorize presentations that are then consumed by end-users. End-users can find presentations by browsing one or more hierarchies (“Topics”, “Events”, “Audience”, for example), performing a full-text search, or by browsing the list of the latest and “featured” presentations. Content managers can associate presentations with “related” presentations and can link supporting files with a presentation.

In this solution, Content Managers are a different set of users than Content Consumers. As it stands, the solution doesn’t accomodate user-contributed presentations, unlike SlideShare. Obviously, it could be customized to do that.

Here’s what it looks like when a Content Manager edits the metadata for a particular presentation (click the image for full-size):

DeckShare Manage Details Screenshot

Those familiar with Alfresco can tell from the screenshot that Content Managers use Alfresco Share as the “content administration” user interface. Optionally, you could turn on Alfresco’s Web Editor Framework and allow Content Managers to edit the site in-context, but that will require some minor tweaking if you go that route. Using Share for content administration works really well. What started out as a team collaboration web app has essentially turned into Alfresco’s uber client.

Now let’s take a look at the Content Consumer user interface:

DeckShare Home Screenshot

If you’ve seen either of the sample Web Quick Start applications, the layout will look familiar. The home page includes a featured content carousel, a recently added document list, and a document category tree. We’re using a different carousel widget than the Web Quick Start sample apps and the category tree is also something we’ve added.

The set of categories is almost completely arbitrary and can be managed by DeckShare administrators. In fact, if you are running DeckShare on top of an existing Alfresco repository, you can specify the subset of categories you want to show in the category tree. When you click a specific category, the resulting page looks like this:

DeckShare Category Page Screenshot

The category page shows only the presentations for a specific category and features the same category tree browser that appears on the home page.

Ultimately, an end-user will either download a presentation or they’ll click on the details page link to learn more. The details page, shown below, shows high-level metadata about the presentation, supporting files that accompany the presentation, related presentations, and a flash-based document preview. The flash-based preview allows end-users to browse the presentation without downloading the entire file.

DeckShare Presentation Details Screenshot

That’s really it from a Content Consumer perspective. The site also has full-text search and that page is very similar to the category list page.

From a Content Manager’s point of view, DeckShare, like all Web Quick Start sites, is built on concepts familiar to anyone who has built or managed a web site: A site consists of collections of assets that get categorized and tagged and then presented in various ways across one or more pages. The look-and-feel of the end-user web site can be completely customized to match client branding needs. And, both the metadata model and category hierarchy can be extended to support specific client requirements.

Assets are stored in Alfresco’s Document Management repository and managed through the Alfresco Share User Interface. Alternatively, Content Managers have several other options for getting presentations into the repository, including FTP, drag-and-drop via Windows Explorer or Mac Finder, emailing content into the repository, drag-and-drop from within Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes, or saving directly from Microsoft Office as if the repository were a Microsoft SharePoint Server. Regardless of how the files arrive, Alfresco automatically takes care of creating thumbnails and PDF renditions of the presentations.

What is Web Quick Start?

Web Quick Start is a sample web application built with Spring, Spring Surf, and Apache Chemistry’s OpenCMIS library. It is essentially a sample web application that sits on top of the Web Quick Start API (Java), some presentation tier services, some repository tier services, and an extended content model.

Assets are stored in Alfresco’s Document Management repository and managed through the Alfresco Share User Interface. That means you can use all of the familiar building blocks present in the repository such as custom types and aspects to model your data, behaviors, and web scripts.

The presentation tier uses Alfresco Surf to lay out pages and to define regions on those pages. Regions get their content from presentation tier web scripts. What’s different with Web Quick Start as opposed to previous Surf-based web application examples is the use of the Apache Chemistry OpenCMIS library. Instead of using Surf’s object dispatcher to load and persist objects, the Web Quick Start API uses OpenCMIS to make CMIS requests between the front-end and the repository tier. There are some places where the Web Quick Start API uses non-CMIS web scripts, so it is not a pure CMIS implementation, however.

The Web Quick Start API is exposed to the Alfresco JavaScript API and Freemarker API on the presentation tier, so everything you’ve already learned about Spring Surf is immediately leverageable when you build the front-end. However, if you’ve decided on another framework, you can still use the Web Quick Start API, the services, the content model, and Share for editing content. For example, Metaversant recently worked with a client that chose Spring 3 and Apache Tiles for the front-end because that was their standard, but they used Web Quick Start for everything else from the API, back.

Web Quick Start sites have a flexible deployment configuration which can be boiled down to “single-server” or “multi-server”. In the single-server approach, the same Alfresco server is used for content authoring and content serving whereas in the multi-server approach, Alfresco’s transfer service is used to move content from the “authoring” or “editorial” web server to the “Live” server (it doesn’t have to be one hop, you could throw in one or more “QA” servers as well if you want to, for example).

High-level steps

Web Quick Start is meant as a starter application. It’s functional out-of-the-box, but you’re expected to use as much (or as little) of it as you need. Here are the high-level steps we took to reshape the starter app into DeckShare.

Step 1: Extend the content model

Web Quick Start has a simple content model that provides for articles, images, and user feedback. For DeckShare, we added two new aspects to our own model. One is used to associate a presentation with zero or more related presentations. The other is used to associate a presentation with zero or more supporting files (like source code downloads). At some point we may also add an aspect to track fine-grained event metadata such as session time, speaker, etc. Extending the model with your own aspects is pretty easy–it’s some XML to define the model and then some XML to expose the model to the Share interface.

Step 2: Set up site sections and collections

Web Quick Start has a default folder structure that lives in the Document Library of the Share site being used to manage the content. Within that there is one folder for editorial content and one for live content. Then, it breaks down into “section” folders for site assets (publications, in this case) and collections. Each section will typically map to a section of a site and will therefore show up in the site navigation, but you can exclude sections from the navigation.

Every section folder has a set of collections. A collection is an arbitrary grouping of site assets. Collections can either be static or query based. For a static collection, Content Managers choose the assets that belong in that section with standard Share “picker” components. For a query-based collection, Content Managers can use either CMIS Query Language or Lucene to define queries that identify the assets that are included in the collection. Either way, from the Web Quick Start API, a developer just says, “Give me this collection and let me iterate over the assets in it” to produce a list of the assets in a collection.

There are two sample data sets that ship with Web Quick Start. One is for a Finance example site and the other is for a Government site. We started with the Finance site (the choice was based on luck–there’s really not much of a difference between the two other than images and content). Once we imported the sample site, we deleted all of the sample content and then tweaked the collection definitions. The “latest” collection, for example, contains the most recently-added presentations. The “featured” collection is static out-of-the-box, but we wanted it to be dynamic. So, we simply edited the collection metadata to add a query that returns all of the presentations that have been categorized as “Featured”. Alfresco runs the query periodically so that Content Consumers don’t take the performance hit when the page is rendered.

The carousel works similarly. We wanted Content Managers to be able to specify which presentations appear in the carousel simply by applying the “Carousel” category to the content from within Share, so the carousel collection looks for content that has that category applied.

The other tweaks we made to the sample data set include telling Web Quick Start which rendition should be used for the various thumbnails in the site. We added a new rendition definition for the images shown in the carousel and a new rendition for the thumbnails used everywhere else. Web Quick Start has its own rendition definitions, but the thumbnails aren’t set to maintain the aspect ratio when they are resized and that looks a little weird for images of thumbnail presentations, hence the need for our own.

Step 3: Customize page layout

Once we had some sample data in place and our collections defined, it was time to start laying out the pages. As luck would have it, the requirements matched up fairly closely to the layout of the sample financial site. Surf pages and templates are used for layout, but you don’t have to be a Surf Guru to make changes. Surf templates are just FreeMarker, after all. Other than minor re-arranging, our template modifications were limited to adding additional regions to existing templates.

Once you define your page layouts, you use metadata on the section folders to tell Web Quick Start which page layout to use for a given piece of content. The mapping is type-based. For a given section, you might say, “All instances of ws:indexPage in this section should use the ‘list’ template” which is expressed like this:

ws:indexPage=list

The template mapping is hierarchical. That means for a given piece of content, Alfresco will look at that content’s section for the template mapping but if it isn’t specified, it will look in that section’s parent, and so on. So if we specify:

cmis:document=publicationpage1

in a high-level section folder, all instances of cmis:document in child sections will be layed out using publicationpage1 unless it is overridden by a child section.

Note: If you are familiar with Surf, don’t be confused by the use of the word “template” here. It’s used by Web Quick Start in a generic sense. In the example above, “list” and “publicationpage1” are actually page data objects in Surf. For the Metaversant client that used Spring 3 and Tiles, for example, the template mapping specified which Tile definition to use.

Step 4: Add custom components

We spent most of our time on components. In Surf, components are implemented as web scripts. A web script implements the Model-View-Controller (MVC) pattern. In this case, controllers are JavaScript. Here’s what one of the controllers looks like:


model.articles = collectionService.getCollection(context.properties.section.id, args.collection);

if (args.linkPage != null) 
{
	model.linkParam = '?view='+args.linkPage;
}

This one is simply grabbing a collection of articles and a parameter and sticking them on the model for the FreeMarker-based view to pick up. Behind the scenes, the Web Quick Start API is making RESTful calls to the repository to retrieve (and cache) objects. This is a typical controller–in this app, most of the controllers are less than 10 lines long.

Web Quick Start already has components for different types of content lists. So doing something like the carousel was relatively easy: The collection service returns the “carousel” collection and a FreeMarker template dumps the collection metadata into a list that the YUI carousel control can grok.

We had a couple of places where we had to write our own components. One was the Categories component and another was the Related Presentations component. The Categories component is rendered using a YUI tree control. It gets its data by invoking a Surf-tier web script which, in turn, invokes a repository-tier web script that returns a list of category metadata as JSON. YUI then styles the data as a tree.

The Related Presentations component similarly invokes a repository-tier web script, but its JSON contains only node references. It then asks the Web Quick Start API to convert those into CMIS objects. That allows us to take advantage of the cache if the object has been loaded before, and it means we can re-use the Web Quick Start view templates that already know how to format lists of CMIS objects.

But wait, there’s more

Web Quick Start also has a user feedback mechanism that you can use for comments, “contact us” forms, and, at some point, ratings, but none of that was a requirement for this solution at the time we built it. The capability is there, so we’ll probably expose it at some point. Refer to the wiki for more information on the user feedback functionality.

There’s also a workflow that is used to submit content for review. Once approved, the content is queued up for publishing to the live site. The workflow is the same jBPM engine you are probably already familiar with so the process can be modified to fit your needs.

Although it is a new product and there are still a few hitches here and there, I was happy with Web Quick Start and the time it saved for building a site like this. I’m looking forward to seeing its continued evolution.

DeckShare is a simple site. There is a lot more that could be done with it and, based on client demand (or contributions from others, hint, hint), new features will be added over time. I think it’s a good example of what you can do quickly with Web Quick Start.

Hopefully, this write-up gave you some ideas you can use on your own projects. If you want to dive deeper into the Web Quick Start web application, check out the Web Quick Start Developer Guide on the Alfresco wiki. Feel free to grab the DeckShare source from Google Code and use it on your own projects.

If you’re interested in major customizations to DeckShare or you have a project that might be a fit for Alfresco Web Quick Start, let me know.

Workflow Dashboards in Alfresco Share

Metaversant recently had a client with some interesting requirements around workflow. I thought I’d post what we did here and get a conversation going about the various pluses and minuses of the approach and find out what others have done when faced with similar needs.

There are two main buckets of requirements I want to focus on: Workflow Reporting/Dashboard and Folder Monitoring. I’ll talk about Workflow Reporting/Dashboard in this post and Folder Monitoring in the next.

Workflow Reporting/Workflow Dashboard

Workflow Reporting is something I’ve seen quite often and handled differently each time based on what the client is trying to do. Alfresco is pretty sparse on Workflow Reporting (capturing the data and making it easy to report on) and Workflow Dashboarding (presenting a dashboard of running workflows and/or workflow reports in the user interface). By “sparse” I mean there really is none. Recent releases have seen the addition of the “My Tasks” page, but that is limited to what it sounds like: A page listing the tasks the current user is assigned to.

What most people want when they ask for Workflow Reporting is the ability to capture workflow data both before and after a workflow has completed. This is significant because if you do nothing about it, data about running workflows disappears into the ether when the workflows complete. A Workflow Dashboard is the ability to see all workflows assigned to all users or a subset of users and perhaps some historical via Workflow Reports (maybe time started, current task, time on current task, current actor, etc.).

For this particular project, my client really only cared about running workflows, so we didn’t have to worry about capturing workflow stats before the workflow ended–they just wanted to see all workflows, no matter who started them, in a sortable list with a link to the workflow details and the ability to perform batch operations against the workflows (such as selecting all workflows and canceling). The twist, however, was that the client wanted to scope the list of running workflows to the Alfresco Share site they were started in. So if there were two Share sites, A and B, and Site A’s users had started 24 workflows on documents stored within the site while Site B’s users (which may overlap with Site A) had started 35 workflows on Site B documents, Site A’s Workflow Dashboard should show a list of 24 workflows while Site B’s should show 35.

The Solution

When workflow data needs to be persisted beyond the life of the workflow, we’ll typically just create some objects in the content model to persist the data and we’ll write to those objects from one or more actions defined within the business process definition. In this case, that wasn’t necessary.

The problem boiled down to how to capture the specific Share site a workflow was scoped to and, then, how to query for and display that information. Once that was resolved, the data could be displayed on a custom Share page.

I may post the code at some point, but for now, here’s the high-level recipe:

Step 1: Capture the Site ID in a Process Variable

Alfresco jBPM workflows have process variables that can store metadata about a running workflow. And, the workflow API allows me to query against that metadata. So, the first step was to capture which Share site the user was in when they launched the workflow.

To do this, I used the Form Service to define a hidden field on my workflow’s startup form. Then, I overrode Alfresco’s client-side JavaScript StartWorkflow component to add my own code that finds the hidden field and sets it with the Share site’s unique identifier (the Site ID field).

Initially, I used a straight hidden field for this. Later, I came back and created a new custom component that included not only the hidden field, but some additional markup and client-side logic that pulled back additional context about the Share site for that workflow so that when someone viewed the workflow or managed a task, they would know more about the Share site than just its Site ID.

Step 2: Create a web script that returns the workflow metadata

With the Site ID stored in a process variable, the next step was getting the workflow data to the front-end Share tier so it could be displayed in a dashboard. This involved creating a repository tier web script that accepted the Site ID as an argument and returned the data as JSON. There are some out-of-the-box web scripts related to workflows, but they return tasks assigned to the current user and for this I needed all running workflows for a given site ID, so that required a custom web script.

The JavaScript API has come a long way with respect to workflow, but the ability to apply a filter on task metadata isn’t there yet, so that meant my controller had to be Java-based.

The interesting part of that web script controller looks like this:

WorkflowTaskQuery tasksQuery = new WorkflowTaskQuery();
Map<QName, Object> processCustomProps = new HashMap<QName, Object>();
processCustomProps.put(SomeCoWorkflowModel.PROP_RELATED_SITE_ID, siteId);
tasksQuery.setProcessCustomProps(processCustomProps);
tasksQuery.setTaskName(SomeCoWorkflowModel.TYPE_DASHBOARD_TASK);
tasksQuery.setTaskState(WorkflowTaskState.IN_PROGRESS);
List<WorkflowTask> tasks = workflowService.queryTasks(tasksQuery);

This gives us all of the tasks that have the Site ID we’re looking for, but the Dashboard needs more than that–it needs the Workflow Instance for full context. No problem–the Workflow API can handle it. Here’s where the controller iterates overs the tasks and adds the workflows to a List of WorkflowMetadata objects that will get set on the web script’s model:

for (int i = startIndex; i < endCount; i++) {
WorkflowTask task = tasks.get(i);
WorkflowInstance wf = workflowService.getWorkflowById(task.getPath().getInstance().getId());
workflows.add(new WorkflowMetadata(wf, task));
}

One potential gotcha with this approach is that there has to be a task assigned to an actor in order for the workflow to show up in the WorkflowTaskQuery results. If a workflow were sitting on a wait-state, for example, that workflow wouldn’t be returned by the code above. To work around this, the workflows in this solution always queue up a “Dashboard Task” assigned to the initiator to guarantee that all workflows, whether they are currently sitting on a task node or not, always show up in the workflow dashboard.

The view for this web script simply returns the data as JSON, so I’ll spare you the details.

The other web script I wrote for this piece deletes workflows for a given set of workflow IDs. You’ll see where that comes in next, but, again, the logic of that controller (also Java-based) is very straightforward, so on to the next step!

Step 3: Create a custom Workflow Dashboard page

The workflow tasks are tagged with Share Site IDs and a repository-tier web script is in place that knows how to find those tasks and give back the Workflow Instance data as JSON. The final step is to render that as a dashboard. For this, I used standard Surf framework techniques to create a new page called “Workflows”. The page contains a client-side JavaScript component that renders a YUI DataTable. The data source for the DataTable is the web script created in the previous step.

Step 4: Create actions

The specifics for what someone might want to do to one or more workflows displayed in the dashboard varies. For this project, users needed to be able to view the workflow details. Initiators needed to be able to cancel the workflow. Viewing the workflow details is just a matter of building the right URL. Canceling the workflow is a little more involved–I used client-side JavaScript to make repo-tier web script calls to a custom web script that can cancel one or more workflows given the workflow IDs.

To make it so that only workflow initiators can cancel a workflow, I use the same mechanism that document actions uses: The XML configuration file that defines the cancel workflow action specifies that the user must be the workflow initiator. Then, the client-side JavaScript that builds the dashboard actions checks the workflow data to see if that’s the case and hides the link if the current user is not the initiator.

Here’s the XML for the cancel workflow action:
<toolbar>
<actionSet>
<action type="action-link" id="onActionCancel" permission="initiator" label="menu.selected-items.cancel" />
</actionSet>
</toolbar>

The client-side code that checks action permissions is a direct copy of Alfresco’s out-of-the-box logic that does the same.

The Result

Once fully-assembled, the workflow dashboard looks like this:

Workflow dashboard screenshot

In the screenshot, I’ve got multiple workflows selected and have clicked the “Selected Workflows…” link to show that you can cancel more than one workflow at-a-time.

Now you’ve seen a simple workflow dashboard implementation. My next post will be about launching workflows automatically when objects are dropped into a folder.

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?

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.

Custom Data Lists in Alfresco Share Community 3.3

One of the new features of Alfresco 3.3 Community is Data Lists. The ability to create an arbitrary list within a team collaboration site is a feature so loved by SharePoint users, it is often cited as one of the things holding back a migration to Alfresco. I agree that it’s a useful feature and I’m glad to see it making its way into Alfresco Share. Let’s take a look at the new feature, then we’ll lift up the hood to see how it works so you can implement your own custom data lists.

Quick Review of Data Lists in Alfresco Share

First, take a look at this screencast. It shows the new Data List feature in action as well as the high-level steps needed to create your own custom Data Lists.

As you can see, Data Lists let you keep track of team information that lends itself to being managed by classic web form interactions and displayed in sortable columns. You can probably think of a lot of examples of things your team needs to track that don’t make sense in a blog or a document library or maybe need a little more structure than the wiki. The screencast showed To Do’s and Issues but it could really be anything.

In the Community 3.3 releases, Alfresco Share includes To Do Lists. It sounds like more Data List examples are coming in the 3.3g release. But if you want to add your own custom data list type, it’s really easy, especially if you’re familiar with Alfresco content models (tutorial). However, right now, this still requires XML editing. SharePoint allows lists to be defined on-the-fly, so while Alfresco’s roadmap does have this as something to address in the future, right now this is still a gap between the two products.

If you are interested in just the end-user functionality of Data Lists in Alfresco Share, this is where you should bail. If you want details on what’s going on behind the scenes, keep reading…

How Data Lists are Implemented

Data Lists are persisted as nodes in the repository. One node represents the list itself–it contains child nodes for each item in the list. The data values for each list item are stored as metadata on the node–sometimes we call these “content-less objects” because there is no file content associated with them. The nodes live in the DM repository just like data from the other tools in your Share site.

If you want to see this for yourself, go into the Explorer Client. In the Sites folder, there is a folder for Share site and within that, a folder for each site tool. Data List nodes reside in the one called dataLists. In the back of your mind you should be thinking that this means items in a Data List can trigger rules and be routed through workflows just like any other node. In fact, any API call that can work with a node can work with an entry in a Data List, including CMIS. (Shameless plug: “Heck, you could even create Data Lists with Python using cmislib!”)

You know from working with data models that each Alfresco data model has an XML file that describes it. If you go look at the out-of-the-box model directory you’ll see a new content model XML file called datalistModel.xml. If you take a look at that file, you’ll see that the node that represents the container of list items is an instance of dl:dataList which inherits from cm:folder.

The nodes that represent each item on the data list are instances of specific data list types. So, for example, the out-of-the-box To Do List has items that are of type dl:todoList. In my Issues example, Issue items are instances of scidl:issuesList. All data list item types must inherit from dl:dataListItem. For one thing, that’s how the Share user interface knows what to offer as an available data list type.

The form that’s displayed when you create and edit new Data List items is configured through the Alfresco Form Service. In my example I didn’t do anything fancy with the form, but you’ve got the full power of the new Alfresco Form Service behind you so you’re not limited to simply listing one field after another.

So, creating your own custom Data List types involves two steps:

  1. Define and deploy a custom content model for your new Data List type, making sure it inherits from dl:dataListItem.
  2. Configure the Alfresco Form Service in the Alfresco Share application to display the metadata from the custom Data List in the create and edit forms as well as in the browse grid.

In my example, I used an AMP to deploy the content model to the repository tier (my Alfresco WAR) and a JAR to deploy the form service configuration to the presentation tier (the Share WAR).

If you want to try this example in your own environment, you can download the Eclipse project here. It includes an Ant build file, the content model, and the form configuration. Note that I deployed the Forms Development Kit to both the Alfresco and Share WARs prior to deploying my Data List form configuration. The example assumes you’ve done the same. If you don’t want to fool with the FDK, that’s cool, it’s not required for data lists. You may want to look at the Forms Development Guide for tips.

Alfresco Share microblogging component released as open source

Back in February (I know, it’s been simmering on the back burner for too long), I did a couple of screencasts on Optaros Labs showing a demo of Alfresco Share (part 1, part 2). In part 2 of that screencast I showed two custom components: Status and Bookmark. Alfresco made Bookmark obsolete by releasing their own shared bookmarks module for Share, and that’s a Good Thing. I kind of expected them to release a microblog component as well, but they haven’t yet. Well, I finally got around to making ours available, so until a similar feature makes it into the product, feel free to use it in your own projects.

The component is simple: A “My Current Activity” dashlet lets you and your team give a quick blurb about what you’re working on. Another dashlet aggregates all of the status entries from your teammates. A global dashlet aggregates the entries from all Share sites. All status changes automatically show up in Alfresco’s Activity Feed as well.

My Current Activity Dashlet
My Current Activity Dashlet

Unlike Twitter, the status component lets you mark an entry as “done”. When you do that, your current status gets reset and the old entry moves to the archive. So it’s a little more task-oriented than more general purpose, free-form microblogging tools.

Deployment is pretty easy. An AMP gets deployed to your Alfresco WAR, and a ZIP gets unzipped into your Alfresco Share web application. That’s it. No configuration necessary. All of the data lives in the same structure as the other tools in your Share site.

I’ve put the code out on Google Code under a BSD license. There’s a pre-built AMP and a ZIP for download or you can checkout and build from source. There’s one Eclipse project for the repository tier and one for the Surf tier. I’ve tested this on Alfresco 3.2 Community. I’ll test it out on the Enterprise releases when I get a chance. There were some changes in the Activity Feed that I had to deal with and I’m not sure how far back those go so I may have to have version-specific releases.

Have a look and give me your feedback. If you want to dig in and make enhancements, bring ’em on.

Customizing Alfresco Share: Five things to watch out for

Alfresco Share is a team-centric collaboration tool. It’s really cool and our clients have been reacting very positively to it. When customers see the AJAXalicious UI, a common reaction is to want to take the next 5 projects on their list and “do them on Share”.

In cases where the functional requirements closely resemble team collaboration, that can be a great choice. In others, it’s an abuse of the tool. Just like a lot of things in software and life, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. (Remind me to tell you the story about building a tennis court reservation system in Lotus Notes some time).

Anyway, let’s assume you’ve got a set of requirements that reasonably resembles team-based collaboration, but some of Share’s tools (wiki, blog, document library, calendar, and recently, bookmarks) don’t work exactly the way you need them to. I’m not talking about adding new, self-contained custom components. This is specifically about customizing the out-of-the-box Share components. With that in mind, here are five areas where even simple Share customization efforts could take longer than you might think.

Custom Metadata

In its current incarnation, if you have custom metadata you want to display when looking at document detail, that’s code you have to write. Alfresco’s Mike Hatfield said, via Twitter, that the 3.2 Forms Service will make this better, so that’s good. If your Share sites contain simple documents that use only out-of-the-box metadata, this won’t be an issue for you.

Custom Workflows

Currently, in Share, there are a couple of places where the jBPM workflow engine is used. First, when you invite someone to a site, that kicks off a workflow. Second, you can “assign” an advanced workflow to a document in the document library.

The first issue is that the workflow submission dialog includes only the two out-of-the-box, document-centric workflows, “Ad hoc” and “Review and Approve”. It won’t show any custom workflows you’ve deployed. The workflow modal is not inspecting the workflow UI configuration like the web client does, so even if you got your workflows to show up in that list, the form wouldn’t have the custom workflow metadata you need to launch your custom workflow properly.

When you log in to Share, you’ll see a “My Tasks” dashlet. This gives you hope that maybe that dashlet could manage tasks for any workflow. Unfortunately, it only works with the “invite user” workflow and the two document-centric, OOTB workflows.

Long story short, Share isn’t set up to work with custom workflows out-of-the-box. If you’ve got custom workflows that need to work in the Share context, you’ll need to write your own dialogs for launching the workflow and your own component for managing workflow tasks.

YUI Bubbling Events

Share makes heavy use of YUI Bubbling Events. This results in a great end-user experience–the Share components communicate with each other and refresh themselves via AJAX without page refreshes. But it does mean there’s a bit of a learning curve when following the same pattern to implement your customizations if your team has never worked with the bubbling library before. It can get kind of thick in places.

Incidentally, all of the YUI stuff is part of Share, not Surf, which is the framework used to build Share. If you’re building your own Surf app you’ll need to grab the YUI libraries (or any other libraries you want to use) yourself. It’s the same for the Flash pieces (multi-document upload, document preview). It keeps Surf light, but if you want to incorporate that kind of functionality into your Surf app, some assembly will be required.

Code Sprawl

In Share, every module has as least one JavaScript file. For example, the Document Library has six different JavaScript files weighing in at about 136KB. Sometimes what should be a simple change (adding a button, creating a new modal) requires changes to every one of those files. This combined with grokking the bubbling events translates into potentially lengthy development cycles for stuff that you wish would be quick.

Theming

The main CSS file for Share is in the themes directory. But changing that will only affect the global dashboard header and the site dashboard header. If you want to change the theme for everything in Share, including individual tools, you have to change each tool’s CSS file. Those CSS files live in the “modules” directory. It would be nice if it were easier to implement site-wide or global themes.

Adding your own Components/Tools

The impact of these issues are lessened somewhat if you are adding your own components or tools instead of customizing what’s already there. It’s easy to write your own dashlets that show up on the global dashboard or the site dashboard. And with a little work, you can write dashlets that talk to each other using YUI Bubbling Events, just like the OOTB dashlets. The area for improvement is in skinning, configuring, and extending the out-of-the-box tools.

Share Your Thoughts on Share

There’s no doubt that Share is a cool application for team-based collaboration. I didn’t expect it to be configurable to the Nth degree right away, and we may be pushing the limits of its intended use. I’m curious to hear from others who have been tweaking the app: Have you worked through these issues? Are there other examples of specific extension points Alfresco could address to make your lives easier?