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CommonSpot Content Server v2.5 from PaperThin, Inc.

CommonSpot Content Server v2.5 from PaperThin, Inc.

Content management is fast becoming the latest buzzword for mid- to large-scale sites. If you've worked on such a site, you can understand why.

Just as Web-wide search engines have evolved to match the needs of an ever-expanding user and content base, so have the tools used to create and manage the sites a user can access.

Enter CommonSpot
The latest v2.5 release of CommonSpot Content Server from PaperThin, Inc., brings all of the content creation and management tools from v2.0, but adds several features to keep pace with the demands of site content managers eager to enhance the offerings of their site. Some new features also lighten the burden on ColdFusion developers by allowing page authors to tackle certain tasks on their own that were previously assigned to programmers, such as forms that submit their results to an e-mail address.

Figure 1
Figure  1:

This product has far too many features to outline here. (See the Resource section for additional information.) Suffice it to say that it has features that any content-heavy site desires: multiple contributors, workflow and multilevel approval process, version history with rollback, personalization, roles-based security, and a host of others. For this review, I'll focus on the new features that not only make this release an improvement over the previous, but also put it head and shoulders above others in its class.

Test Environments
First off: yes, it does run on ColdFusion v5 - quite well, in fact! Further, being a CF application, the product supports all platforms CF does. At the time of this writing, it supports Microsoft Access, Microsoft SQL, and Oracle as the back-end databases.

I have used it on single processor, 128MB RAM systems up to a dual CPU 800MHz 1GB memory system. Due to the product's page caching mechanism, the real processing horsepower is required for the page authoring processes and full-text indexing, not for normal page views. If you're going to spec a server for this product, I would recommend at least a single 600MHz CPU with 256MB RAM, more if you plan on integrating many custom ColdFusion apps.

Regarding ColdFusion 5.0, although it runs well on CF5, it doesn't yet take advantage of many of the new features, such as CFGRAPH and the new integrated Verity K2 engine. CommonSpot does make extensive use of memory, hence running on CF5 can make a big difference in performance and memory utilization.

Base Features
Many existing features have been enhanced directly or indirectly through the improvements in this release. Here are a few.

Custom CF Integration
Where the canned CommonSpot elements don't fit our needs, we've been able to create our own using the Custom ColdFusion Element control. This allows a page designer to place a CF placeholder on a page where an application or CF module should be. The developer can then go and point the Custom ColdFusion element to the code it should run; the resultant HTML output is then placed on the page.

Through this element developers have access to many structures of data related to the current state of the system, user, current page, and page elements. Using this element not only lets you create small functions to display "Welcome Dave" personalization on a page, but also lets you incorporate an entire application. Note to Fusebox developers: CommonSpot is Fusebox-friendly in this regard.

Customization Options
Many additional "hooks" have been provided in v2.5 that allow the developer to alter the look, feel, or behavior of key site elements. For example, by including a single override text file, the site login dialog can be customized to display or hide certain buttons or to alter the field label text. Other hooks and configuration options can control things such as search forms, content authoring menus, and page BODY tag "onload" handlers.

With its user/groups-based security system, CommonSpot makes personalization easy. Scheduled page elements (those that change based on time/context/user conditions) can be tied to specific users or groups and allow the site to be personalized based on the fact that the user is a member of a specific group. Also available to developers through session variable structures and programmatic hooks are the current user information and current page information. This includes values for admin-defined page metadata fields as described in the next section.

The entire system works in an almost exclusively browser-based fashion. All administration, template creation, page creation, and content editing can be done via a browser. At this time, administration and editing must be done from IE 4.x+. In practice, however, much of the template creation required the use of an HTML editor, such as CFStudio, to insert required code.

Template Inheritance
The template inheritance functionality allows for a "tree" of templates to be created, with each template tracing its ancestry back to a single ColdFusion template. If a change is made in the parent template and the site page cache is cleared, the child pages will reflect the change. Although this feature hasn't changed from earlier versions, v2.5 does allow you to alter the parent of an existing page. No more recreating pages!

Integrated Content Security
If you've had any experience with standard users/groups-based, operating system security schemes, then you'll have an easy time adjusting to the CommonSpot system. The content security provides you with fairly granular control over who has access to what functions on a given subsite, page, or element. It's a flexible system with the potential for an equal measure of complexity.

New Features in Version 2.5
There are many brand-new features in this version; here are some of interest to developers.

Custom Authentication
One extremely powerful feature of v2.5 is custom authentication. In most cases you'll be given a data source with users, passwords, etc., to use for authentication purposes. CommonSpot allows you to authenticate against this outside database, and, with some simple queries, pull user data for use in site personalization.

Simple Forms Support
This function allows the content contributor to design and implement simple data-entry forms. You have little control over the layout and complex programmatic field validation isn't supported; however, it does validate some simple types such as e-mail address and phone. This great control lets users create form-to-e-mail and form-to-data table pages (e.g., guest book) with ease - and you don't have to code them!

Datasheet Elements
This new feature seems to be one of the most underutilized functions of the new release. It allows for the tabular display of data collected from user-defined simple forms or from custom queries. It can also be customized and extended to function as a simple drill- down application against your own database. With developers in mind, authors can define their own SQL statements to run against almost any data source on the system. The exception to this is the CommonSpot users or sites' data sources; these are reserved for internal system use only. Note: These data sources can be accessed using custom ColdFusion elements.

Task Management
As sites become larger and the teams managing those sites become equally large, the job of managing the work involved can be overwhelming. To help keep everyone's sanity, CommonSpot includes a new task-management feature. This allows administrators to define roles, tasks, and users to create a small project management system. Yes, I said project management. Before the managers reading this get all excited, this is not a full-fledged PM system. Rather this is more of a peer-to-peer request tracking system. It simply allows team members to make work requests for things out of their realm of responsibility and provides a simple way to track the progress of these requests.

This feature is separate from the Work Request feature of pre-2.5 releases. This can be a bit confusing. PaperThin is working to combine these functions in future releases to make it a more cohesive and streamlined tool.

Advanced Metadata Handling
Another extremely powerful feature in v2.5 is the addition of page-level metadata. Metadata can be captured based on the template a page is based on, the subsite the page resides in, and so on. These admin-defined metadata forms are defined via the browser and can include standard form elements as well as predefined menu tree controls. Data entered in these forms can be accessed programmatically or through certain page elements. For instance, an article page can store the article abstract in the metadata while the page itself contains the article content. This abstract can be included in an article index page, but still associated with the main page.

Figure 2
Figure  2:

Custom Rendering Handlers
From a developer perspective, one of the greatest enhancements to the product is the addition of page element, custom-rendering handlers. At a minimum, these allow you to control the look and feel of a "canned" CommonSpot element. When used in a page, rather than displaying the predefined HTML for an element, the system passes your handler several structures of data containing the content for the element. This allows you to redefine the element as you see fit, passing your presentation of the data to the system for rendering.

Page Sets
This new page set feature is a fantastic addition, especially for sites with articles that span multiple pages. The page set control lets you manage a set of pages under one name and easily add navigation controls between the members of the set.

Warrants a Second Look or Upgrade
CommonSpot v2.5 provides enough new features and improved documentation to warrant an upgrade if you're a current user or a second look at the product if you discounted it before. With clustered server support and back-end database support for Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle, the system can certainly scale to meet your needs.


  1. www.paperthin.com
  2. www.content-wire.com/Home/Index.cfm?ccs=86&cs=380

More Stories By Dave Horan

Dave Horan is the senior Web developer and Web technical lead for Fusion Productions, LLC. Fusion specializes in Web services for professional associations and meeting productions.

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