Tag: Book Review

Book Review: Learning Alfresco Web Scripts

Packt Publishing recently sent me a copy of Learning Alfresco Web Scripts by Ramesh Chauhan to review in exchange for my thoughts on the book which I’ll share with you now…

Web Scripts are an essential part of Alfresco. If you are extending or customizing the platform and you have time to learn only one thing about it, web scripts might very well be that thing. The reason is that they are key to so much else you might want to do such as integrating Alfresco with a third party system or customizing Alfresco Share, which is, at its core, comprised of web scripts.

Most technical books on Alfresco give some attention to web scripts, but this one dives into the details. After reading it, you’ll know how to do simple things with web scripts and you’ll have some idea of how to do more complex work beyond understanding the Model-View-Controller basics.

While the comprehensiveness is a good thing, I think it also presents a bit of a challenge which comes down to this: Who is this book for? If it is for beginners, it needs a lot more examples and could cut back on a lot of the technical detail. If it is for experts, point to existing sources for the basics and drill deeper on the interesting technical topics.

I did see a couple of bad practices in the book. First, in the chapter on Java-backed web scripts (Ch. 6) the author provides an example Spring configuration XML file that injects the lower-cased Alfresco beans into the web script class. This may sound like a trivial nitpick, but it’s actually a big no-no that I see repeatedly. If you have good reason for using the unsecured, internal-only, lower-cased beans, explain it. Otherwise, stick to the public, secured, upper-cased beans so that beginners don’t pick up a bad habit.

Similarly, there is a part that discusses where web script files can live in the Alfresco WAR. The author does point out that the extension directory is “preferred” but I don’t think this is worded strongly enough. Those other locations should have been left out entirely or maybe it could have said, “Place your files only in the extension directory. While these other locations may technically work, you should never use them.”

I was happy to see the chapter on the Maven SDK and the discussion of AMPs. And I think putting the Eclipse details later was a good idea, as one of the features of web scripts is that you don’t have to use Java or an IDE of any kind if you don’t want to. The book doesn’t cover Surf, Aikau, or Share customization in any detail, and I think that was also a good decision as those areas are too fluid at the moment and because the singular focus on web scripts is one of the book’s assets.

Overall, Learning Alfresco Web Scripts is a very thorough and comprehensive treatment of an important technical topic for Alfresco developers.

Book Review: Alfresco 3 Cookbook by Snig Bhaumik

I finished reading Alfresco 3 Cookbook, by Snig Bhaumik, a while ago and I’ve been remiss in getting my review posted. Disclosure: Packt sent me the book for free.

Alfresco 3 Cookbook is the latest entry in what is now a fairly voluminous catalog of Alfresco-related titles. So I was excited to read Snig’s book in the hope that there would be new information being shared, particularly on the latest 3.4 release. Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed from that perspective–the book does not have much information you can’t find in other books. However, what I do like about the book is that the author covers each use case in very clear, step-by-step instructions. And the book makes use of informative screenshots throughout–I could tell a lot of effort went into that.

The biggest thing missing from the book, in my opinion, is the complete lack of coverage of the Share client. Share has been available since 3.0 and has been the client of choice (over the old Explorer client) for at least a year now, maybe longer, so it is time for authors to shift from Explorer to Share when covering the platform.

Leaving Share out means that some topics, which are most commonly used in Share, get left out as well, such as the Alfresco FTS syntax and “linked rule sets” to name two. But, perhaps more importantly, it means that readers who want to follow along have to use the old client even if their organization is primarily using Share. And, it means there is still no definitive guide available for those who want more technical information on how to customize Share. (As a side-note, I’ve heard one is in the works–I hope the authors of that book will delay publication until they’ve had a chance to incorporate the changes in Alfresco 4 because a lot of work has been done on Share customization in Alfresco 4).

I found a few technical mistakes with the book and I’ve discussed them with the author. Mistakes happen in every book and I normally wouldn’t call them out in a review, but two are important enough to mention here:

  • At the bottom of 271 the author is talking about the name space associated with workflow jPDL. It says, “wf is the workflow namespace defined for jBPM, thus it is pretty fixed, you would use wf namespace prefix in your process definitions,” which is incorrect. This should read, “you would NOT use wf namespace prefix in your process definitions”. The way it reads currently it sounds like the recommendation is to use “wf” as the type namespace, like “wf:someCustomType”, which you should not do.
  • On page 337 it says that Alfresco is GPL, which isn’t accurate. It’s actually LGPL v3.

Still, overall I like the book. The coverage is broad enough to hit just about everything, and deep enough to get most people pointed in the right direction. It should be a good read for those new to the platform. The first four chapters are for end-users or administrators. Topics include things like installing, creating spaces, uploading content and setting metadata, securing content, searching, and creating rules. The author then moves into more technical topics like exporting content, using the node browser, and managing users and groups. The middle of the book is a bit more developer-oriented: Customizing the Explorer client, extending the content model, writing JavaScript and web scripts, and creating and deploying workflows.

One of the last chapters in the book is on integrating Alfresco with Microsoft Office. I thought it was strange that the chapter didn’t mention how to install and configure the SharePoint Protocol module and instead chose to cover the older Office plug-ins.

Bottom-line: If you are new to the platform and are looking for step-by-step instructions for implementing a variety of use cases in Alfresco, grab a copy of Alfresco 3 Cookbook. If you are an experienced Alfresco developer looking for deeper discussions, or you need help with Alfresco Share, look elsewhere.

 

Book Review: Alfresco 3 Records Management by Dick Weisinger

Packt Publishing sent me a copy of Dick Weisinger’s new book, Alfresco 3 Records Management, to read and review. Now, before I tell you what I thought of the book I have to say that I don’t perceive a huge demand for Alfresco’s Records Management offering and I haven’t heard them talk about it much lately. I don’t know if my perception matches reality and, if it does, why we don’t hear about it more often. An open source, DoD-certified, freely-available Records Management product definitely sounds unique and compelling. It could be such a focused niche that there’s a lot of activity around it that I’m simply not aware of.

Still, I was curious to learn more about the topic and Alfresco’s offering, so I gave it a go.

Let me start by saying that Dick does a fabulous job of defining a topic area and a target audience and sticking to that. The book is 457 pages without the online appendices but it feels concise. I think that’s because it is well organized, clearly written, and flows logically and seamlessly from one chapter to the next.

The book is written for both Records Managers and Software Developers. You’d think that having such disparate audiences would be a problem, but Dick handles it very well. Every chapter starts out with an end-user description of the Records Management functionality and then when everything’s been covered, shifts to a “How Does it Work?” section that dives into the technical details behind the functionality covered in the first half. Too often, books written for both technical and non-technical audiences munge their material together in such a way that is frustrating to both audiences. In this case, the content is separated cleanly so it works very well. If you are a Records Manager, and you have no desire to peek under the hood, you can read this book and easily skip the “How Does it Work?” section in each chapter without being confused or distracted.

But here’s the other thing that’s going on, which I thought was really cool. Even though the book is about Records Management, Dick’s managed to write a Share customization primer. As I was reading, I was thinking an alternate title for the book could be, “Learning Share Development by Deconstructing the Alfresco Records Management Application” (if you’re not into the whole brevity thing).

Alfresco’s Records Management add-on is actually just a set of repository tier and Share tier customizations. So, if you learn how the Records Management app is built, you learn how to build other Share-based solutions. In the book, each chapter’s “How Does it Work?” section covers a different example of Share functionality and how it works behind the scenes. So, someone who’s interested in learning about Share customizations can read this book from that perspective, and essentially use Records Management as one big sample application.

For example, in Chapter 5 the Records Manager learns how to set up a file plan. In the same chapter, a developer learns how the YUI data table that renders the file plan actually works. In Chapter 9 the Records Manager learns about holds/freezes, retention, and reviews while the developer learns how to configure scheduled jobs and how Share UI actions work. Every chapter works this way–I’m just picking out a couple of examples.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you can go from zero to Badass Share Developer with this book alone. That’s not going to happen. But as Dick says in the summary of the last chapter, it’s a good start. The technical sections give you a pointer to the pieces that make up a particular area of functionality. That’s useful if you want to change how Records Management works but you can also use it as an example for adding similar functionality to your own Share-based app.

One thing that frustrates developers trying to customize Share (and Records Management) is the question, “Given what I’m looking at in the browser, where does the code reside that makes it work?”. The book shows the technical reader how to go from Share page to template to component to Spring Surf web script which is something you do over and over when you are first learning how Share is put together. Being pointed in the right direction and being shown the general pattern that the Share developers followed is really valuable.

So, if you’re thinking about implementing Records Management, and you need to know whether or not Alfresco’s offering will fit the bill, this would be a great book for you to read during your evaluation or after the selection has been made and you need to learn how to install and configure the product. If you are the technical person on the implementation team, the book will give you the end-user context as well as a peek under the hood. If you need to customize the product and you’ve never done Share customization work before, you’ll learn how Spring Surf works and, more importantly, given a piece of functionality, you’ll know where to look when you need to change it.

Well done, Dick!

Book Review: Alfresco 3 Business Solutions by Martin Bergljung

[UPDATED: To remove my comment about the absence of workflow config in Share, which Martin does cover. Sorry about that, Martin]

Packt Publishing sent me a copy of Martin Bergljung’s new book, Alfresco 3 Business Solutions. I just finished reading it, so I thought I’d write a quick review.

Overall, I think it is a good book with a lot of useful information across a variety of topics. The preface says the book is for “systems administrators and business owners”. Inclusion of “business owners” is a stretch–they’d have to be pretty technical to get something out of this book. I think the intent of including “business” in the title and the target audience is to set up the book as more of a solution-oriented look at Alfresco and less of an exhaustive technical how-to.

Bergljung attempts to organize the book around “business solution” focused chapters. For example, if your main concern is letting your users access the repository through file protocols, then Chapter 5, File System Access Solutions, is for you. If you are doing a content migration to Alfresco, Chapter 8, Document Migration Solutions outlines the different approach available for doing that. I think this is a good approach for the stated audience and most of the chapters fit the approach.

The book starts out with an overview of the Alfresco platform and various repository concepts. Although there are places that risk going into too much detail too early, that first chapter would be a good read for anyone new to Alfresco. The chapters on authentication and synchronization (Chapter 4) and CIFS/WebDAV (Chapter 5) are very thorough and provide some of the best coverage of those topics I’ve seen in any of the Alfresco books. The vigor with which Bergljung attacked those topics makes me think those areas are a particular passion for him. If you are strict about the target audience, Chapters 4 & 5 are definitely the strongest in the book.

However, at various points, the book strays from its intended audience and starts to go into developer topics. Don’t get me wrong, that’s the most interesting stuff to me, but I think it is potentially confusing (or, at best, superfluous) to system administrators. For example, the end of Chapter 1 covers the underlying database schema. Maybe it is a good idea to discuss what the tables are and how they are used so that a DBA gets a feel for the schema and can tune the database appropriately. But Alfresco’s schema is not public and shouldn’t be accessed directly unless you know what you’re doing and if you are willing to sign up for the inevitable maintenance down the road when the schema changes without warning. Bergljung gives a soft warning to this effect at the start of the section but the negative effects could have been emphasized more.

There are a few other developer-centric concepts in the book that I just simply don’t agree with. The first is about AMPs. In a couple of places, Bergljung implies that the Java Foundation API and AMPs are somehow dependent on each other. The statement, “The Foundation API is only used when deploying extensions as an AMP,” is just not true. Later, another statement compounds the problem by saying, “AMP extensions require Java instead of JavaScript”, which, again is not accurate. For some reason, the author is trying to link an API (Java, JavaScript) with a deployment approach (AMPs) which are not related or dependent on each other at all.

Another piece I don’t agree with is about $TOMCAT_SHARED. To be fair, I’ve seen this in other places and have heard certain Alfresco Engineers encouraging the use of $TOMCAT_SHARED for things I think belong in the web app instead. Regardless of where it comes from, I think it’s really bad advice to tell people to use $TOMCAT_SHARED for anything other than alfresco-global.properties and server- or environment-specific settings. Proponents of $TOMCAT_SHARED will say they like deploying their customizations there for two reasons. First, when Alfresco and Share are deployed in the same Tomcat instance, you can deploy your extensions as one package and both web apps will use it. Second, your extensions go into an extension directory external to the Alfresco WAR, which keep them well away from Alfresco’s code. In my option, both of these are actually reasons NOT to use $TOMCAT_SHARED. Why? As to the Alfresco/Share sharing bullet point, why unnecessarily couple those two web apps together? The Alfresco and Share WAR are built to run on completely separate nodes which is helpful. We shouldn’t ruin that by making them both rely on the same shared directory.

As for the “keep your extensions away from Alfresco’s” reason, that’s what the extension directory is for. I can keep my customizations separate and still have them reside in Alfresco’s WAR. In fact, most clients I’ve dealt with prefer that because they have IT Operations teams that only want to deal with self-contained WARs. Being a “special case” is not how you win the hearts and minds of your infrastructure team.

Now, with these picked nits out of the way, I should say that there are some developer-oriented topics that were very good. Bergljung has some good Java Foundation API and JavaScript API examples in Chapter 2 covering Node Service and other commonly-used services. And I like the section in Chapter 3 that talks about setting up Apache Hudson for continuous integration. Chapters 9 through 11 provide good coverage of Advanced Workflows, from designing workflows with swimlane diagrams to a lengthy example showing super states, sub-processes, and custom workflow management dashlets.

In keeping with the “solutions” approach, I think I would have combined the portlet chapter and the mobile app/Grails chapter into a single “integration solutions” chapter and talked less about the specific implementation details and more about the touch points: options for integration (Web Services, CMIS, custom web scripts), single sign-on approaches, what’s available out-of-the-box, caveats, etc. Most of this is covered one way or another between the two chapters. It just seems like a common thing people think through is “What’s the best approach for doing X on top of Alfresco” where X is a portal like Liferay, a community platform like Drupal, a mobile app, and so on.

So, if you’re a “business owner” and by that you mean “non-technical end-user”, you’d probably be better off with Munwar’s book, which is definitely end-user focused. If you are a “system administrator” or someone who needs to know the capabilities of Alfresco and how to integrate Alfresco with various touch points (LDAP, Active Directory, portals), it’s definitely worth a read, particularly if you need to deal with external authentication sources or you are responsible for getting CIFS working. Developers will benefit from the API examples and the chapters on Alfresco’s embedded jBPM engine.

Congrats to Martin and Packt. It’s good to see another title (I think we’re up to 8 or 9 now) added to the Alfresco bookshelf.

Book Review: Alfresco 3 Web Services

I’ve just finished reading Alfresco 3 Web Services, by Ugo Cei and Piergiorgio Lucidi, which Packt sent me to read and comment on.

Alfresco 3 Web Services is meant for developers with a very specific focus: Remotely talking to Alfresco. That might mean communicating via SOAP-based Web Services, RESTful web services (Web Scripts), or either protocol through CMIS. Whichever you choose, Ugo and Piergiorgio have you covered. I really like that the authors set out to write such a focused piece and stuck to it–it allows them to go deep on their topic and keeps the chapter length and total book length digestable.

The book is written very clearly and follows a logical progression. It starts out with SOAP-based services (first 5 chapters), including a chapter on .NET, and then moves on to web scripts (3 chapters). After that, the authors discuss AtomPub, which is an interesting, but not critical, background for the remaining 5 chapters of the book which focus on CMIS.

The discussion on web scripts covers both Java and JavaScript controllers, but JavaScript definitely gets more attention. Something developers new to the platform will find helpful is the chapter on FreeMarker. Most of Alfresco’s documentation and the books that are out there (including mine) relegate the FreeMarker API to appendices or just show examples and assume you’ll look up details later when you need it. Because it is typically such a key component of web scripts and other aspects of Alfresco, it was a good call to include it in the book.

The book comes with several small examples and a couple of tie-it-together examples. None of it runs out-of-the-box without some tweaking which isn’t a surprise given how rapidly things are changing in this area, particularly with regard to CMIS. At the time the book was written, OpenCMIS, the Java API for CMIS available as part of Apache Chemistry, had not been officially released. As I write this, the Chemistry team is about to release their second tagged build. The differences aren’t significant enough to cause confusion–most readers will be able to fidget with the import statements and the other changes required to get the sample code running.

I thought there was a little too much time devoted to SOAP-based Web Services, but that’s just personal preference and the fact that nearly all of my clients over the last four years have gone the RESTful route. The authors note that others may have the same preference and they make it easy to skip over those chapters if the reader wants to.

Although the chapters logically progress and build on each other, the code samples don’t–for the most part, each chapter’s code samples are self-contained. For example, I thought it was kind of strange that the code built in Chapter 13 for the CMIS Web Services binding examples isn’t used in Chapter 14 to build the CMIS Wiki example.

Many Alfresco implementation teams are divided into at least back-end and front-end teams and when the project is large enough, you can definitely have people focused on the middle. This book is perfect for that middle-ware team or for anyone who’s got a handle on the back- and front-ends and just needs to learn how to stitch them together. Nice job, Ugo and Piergiorgio.

Book review: Alfresco 3 Content Management Implementation

Packt recently sent me a copy of Munwar Shariff’s updated book, Alfresco 3 Content Management Implementation. The book is a comprehensive guide to Alfresco from an end-user or power user perspective.

How comprehensive? This edition offers 239 new pages (including the index) over the original. That’s a lot of net new content. The first seven chapters are roughly the same as the first edition, covering fundamentals, installation, security, basic library services, rules, and the content model. The Collaboration and Syndication coverage has morphed into a chapter on Share & SharePoint which is very timely as there is a lot of activity around that area of the product right now.

The organization of the book feels improved over the first edition. It now follows a very logical progression through the entire platform. There are still places where the information feels superfluous (the discussion of ActiveDirectory versus Novell eDirectory, for example) or aimed at a different audience (Chapter 9’s coverage of integration with other systems) but overall I think Shariff and his team have done a great job of covering an expansive platform and its many use cases.

If you are evaluating Alfresco, just getting started with the platform, or you are looking for the missing manual for end-users and power users, you should take a look.

Disclosure: Packt provided me a copy of this book free of charge. Also, Munwar and his team of authors work for Cignex, a services firm that, from time-to-time, competes for business against my company, Optaros.

Review: Liferay Portal 5.2 Systems Development, by Jonas X. Yuan

I’ve just finished Jonas X. Yuan’s book, Liferay Portal 5.2 Systems Development and I thought I’d share a few thoughts.

First, I should probably get this out of the way: Jonas works for Cignex, which, from time to time, competes for business with my firm, Optaros. Okay, back to the book…

My overall impression of this book is that it essentially documents the work Jonas and his team did for one of their clients. While it is great that their project was broad enough to generate enough material to be compiled into a book, I felt like I was reading “here’s what we did on our project” instead of “let me teach you how to do Liferay development”.

When I read a technical book, I like to read about concepts and how I might apply those in different situations, and then dive into a realistic application of that concept. This book definitely covers realistic examples–the screenshots are lifted right out of the solution Jonas and his team built for their client. And I like that the example is fairly consistent throughout the book. But I found it very light on context and concepts. That left me feeling a bit disoriented as Jonas jumped from detail to detail with very little being done to set the scene. A simple explanation of “Why are we doing this?” would have been a big help.

Another thing that made this a tough read for me is that there are many grammatical issues with the text. If this were in one or two places, you could rightly accuse me of being a hard-grading Grandson of an English teacher (which I am). Unfortunately the problem isn’t limited to one or two places–there’s one on nearly every page. I don’t blame Jonas for this, I blame the editor. Is the pressure to publish on schedule so great that there is no time to perform even rudimentary grammar checks for things like missing articles?

If you can get past the style, there are good takeaways in the book. You’ll learn:

  • The difference between building customizations in ext versus plugins
  • How to use ServiceBuilder
  • How to build portlets using Struts and Tiles
  • How to extend the Journal CMS with structures and templates
  • How to build and customize themes and layout templates

There’s a chapter on Liferay’s Social Office and how it works behind the scenes, including details on Inter-Portlet Communication. Jonas has also included a chapter on moving content between multiple environments (Staging/Production) which is an area where portals are often less than optimal.

There is a lot of code included in the book and available for download. Several of the code snippets in the book need to be debugged before they will run properly, but most are easily worked through. The book suggests working with the Liferay source from HEAD, but I had to use the 5.2.3 tag to get the ServiceBuilder stuff to work correctly.

While this book isn’t for everyone, I’m glad Jonas wrote it. Liferay is a complex piece of software and the community needs all the documentation help it can get.