From time to time at Rivet Logic we get questions concerning Alfresco‘s ability to build and manage component-based websites due to its file / folder based organization. In many cases this question arises from either a limited look at Alfresco’s features (sometimes sourced from industry analyst reports that lack depth) or a far too simplistic understanding of Alfresco’s core capabilities and established best practices for web content management and dynamic content delivery.
Through this short article I will demonstrate the following:
- Repository organization has no bearing on website placement of components
- Primary organization in a file / folder structure is a strength and offers technical capability that differentiates Alfresco from lesser Web CMS platforms.
This article will approach this question with the capabilities of Crafter Rivet, a 100% open source web content and experience management solution built as a plug in for Alfresco. Crafter Rivet consists of two major subsystems: 1) Crafter Studio, an authoring environment built on top of Alfresco’s content repository and 2) Crafter Engine, a high performance content delivery platform which relies on Apache Solr for dynamic content queries. Crafter Rivet and Alfresco enable a de-coupled content management architecture: Crafter Studio and Alfresco for content authoring, management and workflow, and Crafter Engine for high performance dynamic content delivery. Content is published from Alfresco to the de-coupled Crafter Engine delivery stack, which is where the website application(s) runs. Once deployed to Crafter Engine, content updates are immediately available and are reflected in a high performance, queryable Apache Solr index to support dynamic content delivery. Moreover, all content is cached in memory for very low response times.
With this understanding of how the separation of content management from content delivery work in a de-coupled Web CMS platform such as Alfresco, we can now discuss how the content organization within the Alfresco repository facilitates component-based site development. We refer to content organization within the repository as the “primary organization” of the content. Crafter Rivet allows authors to build component-based websites, and place content components anywhere on the site regardless of the primary organization found inside the Alfresco repository. Components may be placed in a region of a page explicitly through drag-and-drop construction, or they may be surfaced through a dynamic query.
Explicit placement simply links the content to a page through an ID-based association, completely independent of the underlying file/folder structure. Query-driven content placement leverages a Solr-based index and returns a list of component IDs (and other attributes) based on the given criteria. And in both cases, the primary organization of the content plays no role in the ability for the content to be used in any region of any page of the website.
Within the repository and authoring life cycle, primary organization is an extremely useful paradigm. Authors need to be able to find content quickly. By putting every content item in a structured location (i.e., folder) it is much easier to find when browsing. Contrast this with the opaque database/data structure approach taken by many other platforms which offer no direct access or ability to browse for content. In general, we have found it best to remove abstraction as much as possible when modeling content. For site pages, as an example, we model these as files and folders that match the URL. Crafter Engine understands that specifically for pages, the URL and this structure are related. A change in to the folder structure also changes the URL. This is extremely helpful to authors as it maps directly to their expectation when thinking about page hierarchy in their information architecture.
Components, on the other hand, tend to be grouped by type or some other such criteria. Authors may create arbitrary folder structure to house components, forming a primary organization that enables them to quickly find and work with content. This primary organization has nothing to do with how, when or where the content will be rendered on the site. Further, Alfresco allows content managers to attach rules, policies and permissions to folders inside the repository. This is an extremely useful and powerful capability not found in may other Web CMS systems. By leveraging the primary organization of pages and components, content managers can enact specific rules for content transformation, metadata extraction, validation, workflow, and much more throughout the authoring life cycle.
As you begin to work with Alfresco for web content management you want to keep in mind that the organization of your content inside the repository and the delivery of that content are two very different things. Alfresco as a content repository is generally de-coupled from the delivery mechanism as we have seen with Crafter Rivet. Take advantage of the fact that Alfresco’s file / folder structure has many organizational and technical benefits during the authoring life cycle and has no bearing on the delivery of that content when deployed to a dynamic content delivery engine like Crafter Engine.