Alfresco's CMS Is Anything but Stale

 
 
By P. J. Connolly  |  Posted 2010-04-12
 
 
 

Alfresco's CMS Is Anything but Stale


A well-organized filing cabinet may meet the definition of an analog content management system, but in the 21st century, that reliable standby of office furniture is no longer cutting the mustard. Part of the problem is that the "paperless office" we were promised-along with our jetpacks and robot housekeepers-is in actuality drowning in documents. Alfresco Software's namesake CMS does a good job of providing an easily adapted environment that's simple to set up and put to work, without skimping on controls or management features.

The Enterprise Edition of Alfresco's CMS is available either as a cloud-based service hosted on the Amazon EC2 cloud or as a local installation for Linux, Solaris and Windows servers. The company also offers the Alfresco Community Edition, which is suitable for smaller deployments and organizations that are willing to trade off the support available in the Enterprise Edition for more advanced features or a wide range of software stacks.

The two editions essentially share the same code, and the forking takes place during the testing of each release. In short, after an Alfresco release passes its basic usability testing, it is released as a Community Edition and goes on to more rigorous testing against a range of software stacks before it is designated as an Enterprise Edition.

And the term "range" isn't used lightly: The 3.x series of Alfresco Enterprise Edition is supported on various releases of the MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle and PostgreSQL database servers; JBoss, Oracle WebLogic and Tomcat are the supported application servers; and authentication can be provided by the Active Directory service in Windows Server, Kerberos, Microsoft's NTLM service, OpenLDAP and Sun Directory Server. Although the matrix of what the company calls "fully tested" stacks is slightly smaller, customers still have a great deal of flexibility in how they deploy Alfresco.

Despite the snags I experienced in my test drive of Alfresco, it is a remarkably good toolset for collaboration and content management that runs on a variety of software stacks. It's easy to install and configure for initial use, and offers a granular set of user roles that, when paired with the version tracking features, are going to provide an organization with a firm grip on its digital documents.

Although Alfresco's documentation is spotty in places, you really have to work hard to foul up the CMS. When management functions are delegated as designed, it requires minimal care and feeding from an IT perspective. That characteristic alone makes Alfresco Enterprise Edition more than just praiseworthy.

Fast, Easy Installation


 

Fast, Easy Installation

Assuming you have a machine ready to go and set up with appropriate application and database servers, installing Alfresco can be completed in an hour or two. For my evaluation I ran Alfresco Enterprise Edition 3.2r on top of GlassFish version 3 and MySQL 5.1. GlassFish provided the Apache Tomcat servlet container for application services. The Alfresco installer assumes that Tomcat is using TCP port 8080.

If you choose to use another port (as I did), you must change references to the Tomcat service in a few configuration files to access significant parts of the Alfresco system. This wasn't documented very well, but it was easily solved after a conversation with one of Alfresco's support engineers.

Once the installation was complete, I set myself some typical administration tasks, such as user creation and installing sample content, and familiarized myself with the browser-based Alfresco Explorer management interface. This is a powerful tool for manipulating the underpinnings of the system: It allows access to content libraries, site definition and content tags, and other functions that organizations often want to manage centrally.

How you want to administer and authenticate Alfresco users is a decision best made early in the deployment. It's possible to pass much of the work of user definition and authentication up to a corporate directory service, with some adjustments to the system configuration and limitations imposed by the directory service used. That is probably the best way to go in large deployments, but for instances of up to a few score users, Alfresco's internal user management tools are likely to suffice.

In either case, Alfresco permits a fine degree of control over a user's access to the system's features and the individual sites and workspaces of the CMS. Users are assigned roles according to their responsibilities for content creation and management, and their authority to make changes to the environment. Site managers have complete control over their sites, while the roles of collaborator, contributor and consumer provide diminishing levels of ability to modify content.

Arranging Dashboards

Most of the day-to-day user interaction takes place through Alfresco Share, another browser-based interface designed around the now-ubiquitous dashboard paradigm. Users have the option to arrange dashboard tools (or "dashlets") according to their needs. Alfresco provides canned dashlets for calendaring and task managemen,t as well as for content management and manipulation.

The company makes its Surf view composition framework available for the design of custom dashlets on top of Spring. The code for Surf was released to the SpringSource community site last fall, although documentation for the Surf APIs is still "coming soon."

Content in an Alfresco CMS is managed by sites within the organization. The basic collaboration site dashboard displays recent activity on the site, recently modified documents, a list of site members and their roles, and other related features including blog and wiki components.

Typically, you start a collaboration site in Alfresco by using the wiki tool to create an introduction and explanation of the site, followed by adding content to the document library, and then inviting site members from inside and/or outside the organization.

As an alternative to Alfresco's browser-based interface, users with Microsoft Office 2007 can access collaboration sites as if they were SharePoint team sites. However, there are some limits to this, as Alfresco doesn't support the full range of SharePoint's features. Alerts, custom metadata, subsites and tasks are among the missing functions.

Comparing Apples


 

Comparing Apples

If you really want to, it's even possible to run Alfresco Enterprise Edition on Mac OS X, as I did during testing. That wasn't done by design: The company's download site provided the optional Mac installer on what appeared to be an equal basis with the Linux and Windows installers. It wasn't until several days into my testing that I learned that, officially, Alfresco offered only the Community Edition of the CMS for Apple's server platform.

That didn't explain the presence of the phrase "certified and supported" on every page of the Web-based front end for the Enterprise Edition as it was installed on Mac OS X Server-or the absence of any note in the installation guides regarding the unsupported status of Alfresco Enterprise Edition on Apple's OS. (Call me old-fashioned, but when someone has setup instructions for a platform, I generally assume that the platform has some degree of support.)

When Paul Hampton, Alfresco's product marketing director, explained to me that the Mac installer was provided for the convenience of evaluators, I nearly bit my tongue off to keep from laughing. I've run across some strange things in 13 years of reviewing products, but the idea that someone would evaluate a product for business use on a software stack that wasn't going to be supported in the actual deployment strikes me as beyond silly and approaching delusion.

 

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