Alfresco, a bit like Quickr but Bettr
Quickr, for those who are lucky enough not to know, is the morphologically challenged relative of Lotus Quickplace. In reality it is Quickplace with two new themes, two new placetypes and two versions of dojo dumped on the filesystem to make things look a bit more “Web 2.0” and some windows-only integration with Microsoft only applications. So why I am I telling you about proprietary software here on “The Open Sourcerer”? Well I have a bit of a background in the IBM/Lotus area and I have been developing corporate themes for Quickplace since sometime in the last millennium. It hasn’t changed much, but there is a very serious Free and Open Source alternative now.
In brief, Quickr is a website creating tool, each site is known as a “place” and within a place you can have folders and rooms. Rooms are like sub-places, they can have their own access control rules and a different style. They can contain rooms as well so you can have a hierarchy of places. It looks quite pretty, and 10 years ago it was 5 years ahead of its time. It has now got a client install, which integrates with some legacy Windows applications, more on that later.
Alfresco is an Open Source Enterprise Content Management System, which runs as a J2EE application on Linux and other platforms (I would stick to Linux+Apache+Tomcat+MySQL for preference). Like Quickr you create areas for storing stuff, in Alfresco they are called “Spaces”. Spaces can contain files, folders and more spaces.
Inheritance of security to sub-spaces/rooms
So in Quickr you create a place, you add members to that place, you create a room within the place, you carefully check the checkbox labeled “inherit members from parent place” as you create it so that all the members of the place can get into the room. Lovely. Now add another member to the place. You would expect them to be able to access the room wouldn’t you?
No. Inheritance is a one shot deal when you create a room, it just copies the access control list from the parent room as it creates the subroom. Now imagine an place in an enterprise with 100+ rooms and managing user access to this lot. It gets messy.
In Alfresco, inheritance works just like it should. You can set a space to inherit from the parent space, and override it at will. Nice, friendly and fit for the enterprise user/administrator.
Access as a file system
The big new feature in Quickr (the pretty skins don’t count as they are only skin deep) is the Quickr Connectors. This Windows only program installs as a Windows Explorer extension and sits alongside the network neighbourhood, it sort of works like a filesystem.
You can’t do linked spreadsheets (OpenOffice.org or Symphony, or the other one) because the files don’t reside at a resolvable UNC path.
Folders are deeply broken. You can create folders, and nested folders, but they look rubbish in most of the web themes which are designed for a single level of folders. If you do use a web theme with a hierarchical folder tree and then use the web interface to move folders between rooms, they break in the connector. Moving them in the web doesn’t update some important UNID field somewhere, I couldn’t figure out which, but I reported it as a bug.
Personal spaces (aka Quickr Entry) were supposed to be a wonderful thing, when you send an email with an attachment from a proprietary email client (Lotus Notes or the other one) it asks you if you want to store the attachment in your Quickr place and send a link instead. This sort of works. With no security. Your place is public, anyone can see stuff you put in it (with a lame security-by-obscurity option which I haven’t figured out how to get to yet). So you want to organise your space, putting stuff in folders etc. well you can’t. Folders aren’t allowed in personal spaces. Tough.
So how does file system access work in Alfresco? Well it will act as a WebDav server or a CIFS server or both. There is no mucking about with locally installed connector clients and Windows Explorer extensions to make it look a little bit like a network filesystem. It is a network filesystem. WebDAV is well supported on Linux and Mac and it works on Windows too. Once you connect to your server via WebDAV it just looks like another bit of your filesystem. You can drag and drop documents into and out of it, double click things to open them etc. Linked spreadsheets work fine, and in fact every application that expects to be storing or accessing data on a regular drive works just fine with your remote content management system. It isn’t just any remote drive though, it is still a content management system, if the business rules for a space where you drop a file dictate version control then that is exactly what happens.
So lets say you have a document in Quickr created with a form set up for optional version control (which is a bit of a sloppy concept in itself). You are doing some edits and what started as correcting a few typos turns into a major re-factoring session. You now want to save your document as a new version. Tough. Too late. You have to create a new version before you start editing it, otherwise you are just editing and overwriting the existing version. Quickplace always had a published version + working draft system, it now has a sort of revision history stuffed into it. The two models don’t seem to like each other very much.
Version control in Alfresco is somewhat more thought out, it has a very powerful Advanced Versioning Manager, which can track back not just individual files, but directories, it can show you the state of the whole repository at a particular point in time. Very useful for the multiple linked spreadsheets example. It can do way more than this, it is configurable as
So what does work Bettr in Quickr?
Well Quickr has a truly sickening theme/skin engine. It only works in Internet Explorer with ActiveX and you can upload 6 files (stylesheet + 5 HTML files) which it scoops up along with any referenced images. The HTML files basically duplicate each other, or you can upload just one HTML file and have it guess what the others should look like. There is no community site to share and sell Quickr skins that I know of, unlike Joomla! and WordPress etc. However, rubbish as the theme engine is, it is better than Alfresco which doesn’t yet have a skinning capability (you can edit the stylesheet and all the .jsp files, but that isn’t the same as a facility for uploading a package of skin elements so that places can be individually styled.)
Quickr isn’t just for storing files, it has a nice calendar that can show custom forms on it. I haven’t yet seen a calendar view for Alfresco. The Gantt chart view in Quickr isn’t very sophisticated at all, I wouldn’t miss that, but the calendar is useful.
When uploading files though the web interface from some Microsoft Office applications it does an ActiveX/COM control thing that gets the application to save as HTML as well as the native binary format and it uploads both the HTML version and the native format. It then serves up the HTML version to browser clients, which would be a nice trick. If it worked a bit better. It doesn’t do this trick if using the windows explorer integration, so if you use a mixture of the Quickr connector and the web client you get a great big muddle and a mess.
If I had to do a 15 minute sales demo, on Windows, I could easily make Quickr look fantastic, but when comparing Quickr against Alfresco as a serious tool for long term use in a modern business, Quickr falls short and Alfresco is the one I would choose.