We have been working with Sharepoint since the 2001 version came out. It’s main purpose was to act as a Content Management System (CMS) for document control within our manufacturing area. It quickly expanded to be our corporate Intranet site with areas for each operational department. In that version, it was fairly difficult to get people to use the system or add any content. Even document control had a difficult time with the web interface and WebDAV. They got in the habit of calling the latter interface, the “back door” to the system. We skipped the 2003 version and recently upgraded the entire site to SharePoint2007. We found a tool called Tzunami Deployer that made the transition much easier than we thought possible. The new 2010 version is coming out and already people are making their wish lists.
With the 2007 version, came the first attempts by Microsoft for Web 2.0 support including blogs and wikis. A number of groups have been asking for IT support of these items so we just pointed at SharePoint and said, “have at it.” Then it occurred to us that we should be doing the same thing and decided to dive in. That’s when the trouble began. First of all, the editors for Wikis is absolutely dreadful. Very difficult to get formatted text into them and adding raw HTML is almost impossible. Laying out pages and images is also fraught with danger and future edits are dangerous because you never know if previous tricks are going to be lost.
We started looking around for enhancements to the product and quickly learned that the SharePoint model is just very costly. Any add-on or feature enhancement costs lots of money and you can quickly run up a large bill for an installation. Attempting to extendthis to the Internet is cost prohibitive for all but the largest enterprises. Even then, I am not sure they want to put that kind of money into something when the free alternatives are not just as good, they are better.
Enter Liferay. While I was at Arizona State University some years ago, I saw that their Intranet was a very clean and usable environment with all of the students building and defining their own portal interface to the various services of the school. Digging into the site a bit, I discovered that it was build on ePortal, which I can no longer find, but the idea stuck. Checking into CMS systems, we found Liferay. I was immediately impressed with the ease of installation, the amount of portlets and themes available andthe community around it. Once it was installed, I immediately began to investigate some of the possibilities of moving my entire IT support Intranet site to the technology. Over the summer, I had an intern build the site and the templates for our users. They have integration with LDAP, which we hooked into our Active Directory environment. There is also support for NTLM for single-sign-on, but we have never been able to get that to work and questions in the forums are still unanswered. It seems others have it working, so perhaps we are missing something. While not critical, it does require our users to log into the site.
The first feature that I came across was the ability of each person to have their own portal interface to the environment. We can offer them all kinds of tools (called “Applications” in Liferay) to use on their pages and control over who can see them. That’s right — each user can have as many pages (public and private) that they care to create. Users can build their own Wiki, Blog or discussion pages just by dragging and dropping the particular portlet on the page. If they don’t like the page layout, we offer them a variety to choose from. Want to keep it personal and share amongst only friends/colleagues — not a problem. Try doing that in SharePoint without IT.
The editors inside Liferay are the standard ones everyone has become accustomed to if you write on the Internet. FCKedit, TinyMCE are both available. Yes, there are still a few bugs in them, but they continue to grow over time and are orders of magnitude better than anything in the default option of SharePoint. While we did find a freeware option to enhance SharePoint, the full feature set is only available for payment. That just flies in the face of today’s world of the GPL and MIT licenses that have built systems like Liferay, WordPress, MediaWiki and the like.
Liferay is built in Java and made up of portlets that follow the JSR 168 and 286 Specifications. This makes it easy for 3rd party developers to create portlets or applications to participate within the Liferay portal environment. They also offer the product bundled for installation with a number of different infrastructure to meet the needs of almost any environment. This includes Tomcat, GlassFish and JBoss to name a few.
Users can add workflow based on the jBPM andintegrate legacy systems as needed. If you have in-house developers, they have all the tools needed to customize the system without expensive environments, training or steep learning curves. Granted, they must be Java developers where other environments are using PHP, but I have yet to find an equivalent system with such a simple to use paradigm. Simple drag-and-drop with pick-and-choose security. And I would argue that almost everything you need comes with the system or can be downloaded from Liferay’s site.
In moving our site to Liferay, I have experienced some issues and I have used the forums on their website to pose questions and learn more from other users. Their site is well maintained andclearlybuilt on their own technology. I have found some excellent books on the topic
- Liferay Portal 5.2 Systems Development
- Practical Liferay: Java–based Portal Applications Development (Pro)
- Liferay Portal Enterprise Intranets: A practical guide to building a complete corporate intranet with Liferay
- Liferay Administrator’s Guide, 2nd Edition
The model of Liferay is truly built on the model of Web 2.0 where power is given to the people and users who need it. The environment is policed by the visitors and users of the site and not some high-tech IT group that has absolute control over everything. Microsoft is stuck in the dark ages of IT absolute control and managed environments. There may be areas for this, but not here. Intranets, communication, knowledge systems and CMS are areas where the users need to decide their own processes, procedures and tools. They also need IT to be willing to learn and adopt technologies to meet those needs. Don’t get me wrong. I am an IT guy and we continue to play a vital role in helping our users be successful. It is not our role to be the bottleneck from things getting done and helping the company move forward. Rogue installations of various systems is not what I am proposing and is not what Liferay represents. They have met the challenge of security, distributed management and embodiment of process and procedure and built an environment that everyone should be content with.
And lets get back to the cost model. This software is free to anyone who wants it. Reading the books and documentation is very helpful and any real IT person should be able to install it and get it running in a single day. After that, you just need to spend some time on your deployment model and how it will be used. Again, the books I mentioned above are both for the administrators of the site as well as any developers should you need to customize the environment.
We have looked at our environments and it is clear that Liferay has a future both as an Intranet site, extranet sites and even possibly our company website. It allows our users to control the content and publish however and whenever they see fit. It does not require HTML programmers, web developers, marketing personnel and a support staff to get information to our customers, vendors and partners.
For content management, the web publishing can be as simle as enter the content and publish now, or you can build workflow and have it in draft until approved by your legal, marketing, sales or other people within your organization. Custom security models can be built for any portion of the content and version history is maintained so that you can remove changes/updates as needed.
If you want or need commercial support, Liferay offers the Enterprise Edition of the system which includes services and support. I have not checked into this option in detail, but it is nice to know that it is available if needed.
I am looking forward to moving my entire IT Intranet site over to Liferay this summer and I expect a lot of the company will follow suit once they see the ease of use and power it gives them to build a successful environment for sharing information. Check it out — you won’t be disappointed.