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!