Friday, January 26, 2007

An Intranet Point of View


We are living in a society where information overload is increasingly becoming a problem. With the advent of the web and e-mail, the amount of information exploded, and this has serious consequences for the workplace.

In this article, we will look at some of the benefits Plone can give you in the intranet area. Plone is not restricted to intranet use, but it is a useful example of how to use Plone to leverage the strengths of your company and give you a competetive advantage. This is not aimed to be a very technical article, but rather to try to explain why Plone has gained a such a large following, and what its main strengths are. It's mainly targeted towards decision makers and managers.

Recent developments in business processes have shown that company intranets aren't just for big companies anymore. Most companies, big and small, have the need to set up intranets and internet pages, and organize the available information. Good intranet design is essential, and becomes increasingly important as the company grows. To have all the information available at your fingertips from a standard web browser brings great power to management and employees alike.

Plone is a generic platform for web applications, as well as being a stand-alone Content Management System in itself, and has quickly become one of the biggest and most successful projects in the history of Zope. It builds on the well-proven design of the CMF framework for Content Management, and extends this with a lot of useful features. It also integrates well with existing solutions, and complements them instead of replacing them.

Low threshold solutions like Plone enable any company, big or small, to gather all their information and resources in one central, web-accessible area. It helps foster ownership of information and documents, which is of crucial importance to keep content up-to-date.

A very important advantage is that you achieve significant synergies through one common web platform, with unified content management and publishing for the intranet, Internet, and extranet. You can publish between the different parts of your net, and retain the individual differences in look and feel for the different parts, even though the content is the same.

Allowing users to post content is a good way of ensuring individuality and fresh news. Teams create their own home pages, while still adhering to the intranet design standards. This ensures a consistent design across the intranet, but lets groups highlight people, services, and events. Users own the content, and a central unit controls the design; this facilitates consistency and enables powerful communication.

Process benefits

Plone encourages and enforces best practices from a variety of projects, and helps you work in the most effective way possible. It has a low threshold and is easily understood by people from widely different backgrounds and with very different skills, and exposes a rich feature set without becoming intimidating or confusing. Here are some of the benefits it brings to the process of content management:

Manage your content from anywhere
You can access all your information from a normal web browser - Plone is viewable in all kinds of browsers, even mobile phone browsers. This means that you can manage your intranet and public web site from a web browser anywhere in the world.
Live editing
The web site is updated from within the site itself - no specialised tools are needed, just a web browser. It even works with older browsers, so even if your organization do not use the latest in web technology, Plone is still usable.
Designed by usability professionals
Because much care and thought has gone into the user interface, employees will be able to utilize it with minimal training. Plone aims to be self-documenting, so even new add-ons to Plone use the standard paradigms for working with and controlling content.
Limited use of graphics
A main goal is minimal use of graphics - adding to the content instead of detracting from it, focusing on the information - not irrelevant elements.
Facilitates collaboration
When editing and publishing content, you can assign other participants local roles within projects, and Plone also supports versioning and staging of content.
Easy management and configuration
The administration and configuration of Plone is done through the web, and no access to the file system is needed after the system is set up. This makes for a very secure system - even in the worst case scenario where somebody gains access to the Zope instance, they can't access anything outside the sandbox Zope and Plone runs inside.
Single sign-on
Plone has a centralized sign-on mechanism, which prevents users from having to log on to each area separately. Security is controlled centrally. This is also easily integrated with the existing user authentication mechanisms in the company - be it LDAP, Active Directory, Novell, Windows, UNIX/Linux or other database-based authentication systems.
Special care has been taken to let the web design adjust flexibly to users with impaired eyesight and/or motor skill challenges.
Encourages ownership
Users add content, managers manage. Letting users edit and add content lets them feel ownership towards the intranet, and encourages content production. This in turn leads more people to use the intranet actively.

Technical benefits

In addition to the ways Plone helps you perform your work, it gets a lot of benefits from its architecture. Plone is built on the award-winning application server Zope, and gets all the benefits of the underlying platform, as well as adding extra features not present in any other system in the Zope world.

Here are just some of the reasons why Plone is being widely deployed throughout the world:

Powerful pluggable workflow system
Plone has built-in support for administrative workflow and approval mechanisms. It supports both action-based and entity-based workflow paradigms, and has a pluggable architecture to allow you to plug in your own workflow systems, if required.
Modular, easy to expand, reusable components
Both the programmatic logic and the user interface construction can be reused extensively in your custom project, which means that you both get code reuse and a consistent look across different parts of the application.
SQL connectivity
Since Plone is based on Zope, you can connect to any relational database that Zope supports. All the major databases are supported - both commercial (Oracle, Sybase, DB2, MS SQL, SAP, Interbase, etc) and open source (PostgreSQL, MySQL, etc).
Easy to create new content types
By repurposing existing content types, you can easily generate your own custom content types without any programming skills, and if you want to write richer content types with advanced behaviours, you can do this with the Archetypes add-on.
Lightweight XHTML
The XHTML interface of Plone is very lightweight, which is a feature you will appreciate if you are ever using it from a mobile phone connection or directly from a mobile phone browser. It's also a big advantage if you want to build on and extend the interface later on.
Fully indexed, powerful search engine
All content in Plone is indexed and searchable. It also supports pluggable stemming and splitter options, which enables useful searching in languages like Japanese, Chinese and Korean.
Activation date and expiration dates
Every content item has attributes that control its lifespan, and ensures that the content is posted and retired on time.
Topics and Topic Map technologies
To enable efficient aggregation of content, you can use using hierarchical topic systems to help you grow the knowledge in the system while maintaining structure and control.
Powerful template system
Plone utilizes the industry's first XML standards-compliant templating language, ZPT. This templating system works well with a wide range of editors, including visual web editors like Dreamweaver.

Intranet Relevance

With these features, Plone makes it easy to keep content updated, which again assures the value of the intranet. It also has a quite a few of the so-called intranet "killer apps" built-in - the functionality that makes people use the intranet every day. One of them is the ability to quickly and easily locate other employees, with associated portraits.

Another interesting point about Plone is the consistent quality of the design and solutions used, especially in combination with the aforemetioned killer app:

Because they will be using the killer app just as much as everyone else, these designers will internalize the good usability guidelines embedded in its design, and will be reluctant to launch contributions with significantly lower quality. - Nielsen Norman Group, Intranet Design Annual 2002

This study also highlights several other important considerations that are core strengths of Plone, namely:

  • Single sign-on.
  • Limited use of graphics. (intranets should use graphics minimally, and to add to content, not detract from it)
  • International focus.
  • Templates based on predetermined styles.

Business Relevance

In a business perspective, Plone distinguishes itself from the other open source Content Management Systems with its focus on business and professional use. From the very start, Plone has been focused on solving business problems by making processes more effective. It has not grown from a community web site project like so many other systems in the same area, but rather as a result of a clear business focus and tangible goals.

Plone has professional support services and consulting available in Europe and the USA via the Plone Network, and is currently working on expanding these partnerships to cover Asia and Australia.

In addition, one of the competetive advantages of Plone is its large active community that supports development of additional add-ons and products based on Plone. It is a very diverse environment, with users from a lot of different backgrounds, from government agencies via research institutions and universities to multi-national companies.

Plone also has a uniquely strong international focus - with well-tested multi-lingual support and localization, it is ideal for multinational companies. It is currently available in over 20 languages, including most major European languages, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. It is fully Unicode-aware, and has a multi-lingual interface enabled out-of-the-box. The Plone Team currently has core developers in 14 countries worldwide.

Users of Plone include NASA, Lufthansa, Government of Hawaii and University College London.

Plone is available under both open source (GPL) and commercial licenses, for more information, please contact the Plone Network.