Alfresco 3.2 – Creating a Better Collaboration Experience
I’ve been using Alfresco for quite some time as a document management and “collaboration” platform. Alfresco works with documents as one would expect, but as a collaboration tool it lacks many of the things we would like to have. We are looking to bring in things like blogging, wiki-ish functions, and more functions that expose what other people are working on and contributing to the repository. We would also like to have some way to see things happening in other places – for example commits to our SVN repos. Let’s see what’s new in the 3.2 community release.
We’re currently using the 3.0 alfresco release. We tried the Share product about 6 months ago and it had potential but really it was not well baked. I’m going to take a look at that product, the latest and greatest features in the 3.2 release – especially the new email functionality, and then look at what is new in APIs and the ability to create custom UI’s. Portal integration with JBP or Liferay is another option.
Installation of Alfresco 3.2 Community Edition is really a breeze on Windows. Everything is installed for you and starts up smoothly from items added to the Start Menu. The base Alfresco interface starts cleanly (login with admin/admin). I see in this version it is packaged with MySQL database. The first time you start up the system it will create the database for you. There are some minor changes to the UI (new icons for example). One thing I notice right away is that services for rendering to PDF work! That’s great.
One missing improvement that would be great is to have a usable hyperlink on a space’s name (or an icon or a menu item on the little drop-down arrow) so that you can copy and paste it. It is such a pain to have to go to the details screen to get a hyperlink to include in an IM or an email.
Straight off I am interested in any improvements to the share product. After quickly creating a user and adding it to the admin group I went over to the Share site (http://lcoalhost:8080/share) and logged in. Share is the Alfresco equivalent to Drupal or Plone – more of a “WCM/Web 2.0” style interface. One thing I notice right off is this version is snappier. There’s a bunch of nice AJAX interactions when editing and adding things.
The default configuration is fairly complete with a “dashboard” page that allows you to have widgets that links to sites, show the latest things happening, and give you access to your profile. I was unable to get an avatar loaded and rendered, not sure why. I also noticed that there are spaces in your profile for a skype ID and other “presence” id’s, but these do not seem to be used anywhere as far as I can tell.
The share interface is fairly utilitarian, but it does hang together pretty nicely. The CSS is pretty clean so using CTRL+ and CTRL- to shrink and enlarge the layout works perfectly. Since we switched to Alfresco from a Drupal based system (we needed doc management) we have really missed the “wiki-blog” concept that can be easily created via Drupal pages, comments, and books. In Share you can use wiki’s, blogs, and discussions along with libraries. These items are all created within a “site”. A quick run thru these shows them to be basic, but workable. The blog tools are really the best of the bunch because you can create posts locally and then publish them to the site and/or an external blog service like wordpress (yes – I authored this post in Alfresco and then published it here).
You can see in the screen capture that the tools all share TinyMCE as the editor to give you a basic set of capabilities. For example – you cannot upload images thru the interface. I had to do this in WordPress. You’re also missing any other controls specific to blogs.
This theme holds with the wiki and discussion tools – basic tools hat could not really stand on their own, but can as an integrated set that includes search across all the tools and the ability to create multiple “sites” it can become a powerful set of capabilities for the organization that adopts and uses them. Of course that’s the real trick, right?
The “Library” concept is where one can imagine an integration or tie into the main Alfresco repository. For example it would be great to have a Library that exposed a set of project documentation allowing users on a Share site focused on a project access to the project’s formal documentation. Hmmm….well that’s apparently not what the Alfresco guy’s had in mind. A Library is simply a space dedicated to document storage, but is not normally used outside of the Site. Strange. I sure hope they re-think that. It would be very powerful to be able to create new libraries and create them as “linked” from an existing Alfresco space.
I kind of just bashed on Document Library…but there is one cool thing here. The details view of documents and objects is pretty slick and you have a lot of control over meta-data and other things like workflows. This is really quite nice. I’ve put in a view of an image, but the screen will also render preview images of MS Office formats too. Very cool!.
Customizing Look & Feel
If you are familiar with my Drupal theme posts then you know I think having a custom UI is one way to draw your users into your collaboration application. The main Alfresco document management system has traditionally been a fairly non-customizable thing; maybe Share is different?
It is a little different. Share comes with a themes folder. You can create new themes by adding new folders and then setting the theme in a config file. Not very elegant and you can have only one theme per installation, but it does give you the ability to mess around. On my install the themes folder is on this path: C:Alfrescotomcatwebappssharethemes. In order to “activate” a new theme what I did was locate the web-extensions directory and use one of the sample files in that directory to add a new XML section to define the theme. The path on my machine is: C:Alfrescotomcatsharedclassesalfrescoweb-extensionweb-framework-config-custom.xml.sample. I added this block to the file:
<config evaluator=”string-compare” condition=”WebFramework”>
Then I restarted Alfresco and bingo – new theme active. I messed around with simple changes to logos, fonts, and colors; it seems pretty straight forward. Although this process worked I suspect that I should add that XML chunk to a deployment descriptor inside the Share app itself. There’s a file with the same name in C:AlfrescotomcatwebappsshareWEB-INFclassesalfresco, but it does not seem to work to use that one. Not sure why.
Alfresco 3.2 and Share look really quite cool. Share is improved a lot and now I think it is at a point where we can use it. I think the fact that the wiki abd blogging tools are fairly basic is a good thing. Too many features will confusse all my newbie business users. I will probably turn off the wiki stuff at first and just go with blgos and discussions. I need to better understand how Share and the main Alfresco Explorer tool are integrated because we heavily use the document management tools in Alfresco Explorer. I’m going to mess around with the skinning and CSS stuff to see if I can get a layout I really like. Perhaps I will reincarnate the Troopers 🙂