Tuesday, October 23, 2012

My struggles with closed source CMS

I produce a content migration tool for the Plone CMS, called ilrt.contentmigrator. It wraps up zope's generic setup as an easily configurable tool to export content from zope's bespoke object database, the ZODB, to a standard folder hierarchy of content with binary files and associated metadata in XML.

Some time ago I added a converter to push content to Google Sites, and I have recently been tasked with pushing it to a commercial CMS. Unfortunately rather than a few days work as before this has turned into a marathon task, which I am still unsure as to whether it is achievable, due to political and commercial constraints.

So I thought I should at least document my progress, or lack of, as a lesson for other naive open source habituated developers, to consider their estimates carefully when dealing with a small closed source code base, of which they have no experience.

Plan A - Use the API

So the first approach I assumed would be the simplest was to directly code a solution using "the API".

API is in quotes here, since in common with many small commercial software suppliers, the name API was in fact referring to an automated JavaDoc dump of all their code, there was no API abstraction layer, or external RESTful / SOAP API, to call. Its basically the equivalent of read the source for open source projects - but with the huge disadvantage of only legally having access to read the bare - largely uncommented - class and method names, not look at the source to see how they worked - or why they didn't.

Also no other customers had previously attempted to write code against the content creation part of the code base.

Anyhow back to the project, content import code was written and run, but nothing changed via the web front end.

It turns out that without a cache refresh the Admin interface does not display anything done via the API, hence it is essential to be able to determine if changes have occurred.

Similarly if content is not cleared from the waste-basket then it cannot be recreated in the same location, along the lines of a test import scenario.

Having written the code to set up the cache and other API managers and clear it. I discover that
cache refresh doesn't work via the API, neither does clearing the waste basket.

The only suggested solution was turn the CMS off and on again.

Plan B - Use the API and a Robot

Rather than resort to such a primitive approach, I decided to develop a Selenium, web driver based robot client. This could log into the CMS and run all the sequences of screen clicks that it takes to clear the waste-basket and cache after an API delete has been called.

Eventually all this was in place, now content could be created via the API, and media loaded via the robot (since again anything that may use local file system caches or file storage, is inoperable via the API).

The next stage was to create the folder hierarchy and populate it with content.

Unfortunately at this point a difficult to trace API bug reared its head. If a subfolder is created in a folder via the API, then it gets created in a corrupted manner, and block subsequent attempts to access content in that folder, because the subsection incorrectly registers itself as content - but is then found to be missing. After much time spent tracing this bug, the realisation dawned that, it would therefore not be viable to create anything but a subset of content objects via the API, and everything else would need the robot being mixed in to work.

This seemed like a much less maintainable solution. Especially since most pages of the CMS had 50 or more javascript files linked to them, so only a current browser WebDriver client robot would function at all with it. Even then, often the only way to get the robot clicks and submits to work was to grab the javascript calls out from the source and call the jQuery functions directly with the WebDriver javascript engine.

Plan C - Use the import tool and a Robot

So having wasted 3 days tracing that a bug was in the (closed source) API, it was time to take a step back and think about whether there was realistically a means by which an import tool could be created, by a developer outside of the company supplying the CMS, ie. me.

Fortunately the CMS already had an XML export / import tool. So all we need to do is convert our XML format to the one used by the company, and the rest of the code was their responsibility to maintain.

At first their salesman seemed fine with this solution. So I went away and started on that route. Having left the existing code at the point where the sub-folder creation API bug, blocks it working.

However on trying out the CMS tool, it also failed to work in a number of ways. The problems that it currently has are listed below, and my focus is presently writing a selenium based test suite, that will perform a simple folder, content and media export and import with it.

Once the tool passes, then we have confirmation that the API works (at least within the limited confines of its use within the tool). We can then write a converter for the XML format and driver for the tool / or even revisit the API + robot route, if its fixed.

Below are the issues, that need to work, and that the test suite is designed to confirm are functional ...

Content Exporter Issues (status in brackets)

  1. The folder hierarchy has to be exported separately from the content. If you select both at once - it throws an error (minor - run separately)
  2. The hierarchy export appends its data when exported to the same folder, so creating an invalid hierarchy.xml after the first run (minor - could delete on the file system in between) 
  3. Hierarchy export doesn't work. It just creates XML with the top level folder title wrapped in tags containing the default configuration, attributes - but no hierarchy of folders. (blocker - need the hierarchy especially to work, since the sub-folder creation was the blocking bug issue with using the API directly)
  4. Content export only does one part of one page at a time, ie. a single content item (minor - this means that it is not a very useful export tool for humans - however via a robot - it could be run hundreds of times to get a folder done)
  5. The embedded media export doesn't work, no media is created (blocker - we need to be able to do images and files)
  6. Content import - A single content item works - and if the media already exists with the right id, that works. Cant judge about media import - since media export fails so have not got a format to follow. (blocker - we need media to work as well as a minimum. Ideally we could import all the parts of a page in one go - or even more than one page, at once!)
  7. Hierarchy import - Creating a single section works. Cannot judge for subsections - since the export doesn't work. (pass?)
  8. Configuration changes can break the tool (blocker - the whole point of the project is to provide a working tool for a phased transition of content, it should work for a period of at least two years)
  9. Not sure if the tool can cope with anything but default T4 metadata (minor - A pain but the metadata changes to existing content are part of the API that should function OK directly, so could be done separately to the tools import of content.)
Once we have a consistently passing CMS tool, we can assess the best next steps.

The testing tool, has proved quite complex to create too, because of the javascript issues mentioned above, but this now successfully tests the run of an export of a section and a piece of content, checking the exported XML file, also running the import for these to confirm the functionality is currently at the level listed above.

Having been burnt by my experience so far, my intention is to convert the Plone export XML and files to the new CMS native XML format - push it to the live server and run the robot web browser to trigger its import, so that eventually we will have a viable migration route - as long as the suppliers ensure that their tool (and underlying API) are in working order.

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Site code, Google Apps integration and design - Ed Crewe 2011