June 9, 2011

Perforce Chronicle Takes on the Web

MERGE User Conference
Perforce Chronicle CMS
Content authors can use a WYSIWYG editor or directly edit HTML.

Web content management is a moving target, but Perforce as a platform might be suited to where it’s headed. “Web content management has evolved from a pure publishing activity, to one where you manage social networking campaigns, your email threads and blogs, where you need analytics to measure the effectiveness of certain content, where you deal with compliance – it’s gotten a lot more complicated,” said Lou Leporace, Perforce Senior Market Strategist based in Alameda, CA.

That opens up an opportunity for a company skilled in versioning and also open to partnering. “There’s no clear leader in the web content management space,” he said.

Chronicle is Perforce’s about-to-be-beta web content management system, demonstrated at the User Conference by Jason Novecosky, Director of British Columbia Operations and Stewart Lord, Technical Lead for Chronicle. Everything about the WCMS is new – the name isn’t even a done deal – but “it’s valuable to show Chronicle to this audience because we’re demonstrating the concept of Perforce as a platform.”

Chronicle came out of an effort begun in 2007. “Stewart and I were involved in writing the Perforce knowledge base. That’s a type of web content. We presented that at the user conference that year. There was a lot of interest from user base, so we wrote a proposal and took it to the VPs and they said go with it.”

The idea of bringing the strengths of Perforce to web CMS makes a lot of sense. Looking at how people build for the web, the team decided to use existing open source solutions rather than rolling their own, choosing the Zend Framework for PHP web applications and the Dojo Toolkit for JavaScript. Both are popular, comprehensive, well supported and business-friendly, with extremely IP-clean code. Chronicle, too, will be released as open source that can be freely modified or extended.

Where things get interesting is with the Perforce versioning engine, which replaces a conventional relational database. True concurrent editing, for example, is something not often seen in current CMS solutions. In Chronicle you get collision detection, no blocking, and you can merge and resolve work. In the future, lossless cloning will let you branch your site in Perforce, make sweeping changes, and then merge it back with the live site content. And the possibility of rolling back to a previous working version – or one without an incriminating photo or egregious marketing error – is ever-present.

Perforce Chronicle content management
Content management with Chronicle CMS

“From a tech perspective, where other products fall down is that their versioning capabilities are just bolted on,” said Lord. “Perforce remembers everything and provides incredible tools for managing and evolving data. It’s a document-oriented database. There’s no schema or SQL, just keys and values on files, similar to Apache CouchDB or MongoDB.”

The release is pre-beta at this point; its champions are hoping they’ll round up beta testers here at the conference. Next steps include moving the corporate intranet into Chronicle, then the extranet, with the goal of a release in the fourth quarter of this year.

Meanwhile, the Perforce philosophy of focused elegance and attention to detail prevails. “A lot of web apps are non-trivial to install. We’ve made the number of system requirements quite low. We’ve also heard that other systems are too difficult to use and don’t have features they want out of the box,” said Novecosky. Features like in-place editing and content templates make authoring easy, while customizable workflow lets you define how you’ll approve content in the publishing pipeline. Customer interest in Chronicle at the conference proves that Perforce admins and developers have broad interests – or maybe they’re just die-hard Perforce enthusiasts?

“I need to tell you how excited I am about this product,” said CEO Christopher Seiwald in last week’s keynote. “If you’re anything like me, as the ‘software guy’ you’re often co-opted to be webmaster for every organization you’re part of.  When you use Perforce to manage everything from your photos to your Christmas letters, it’s really hard to go back to managing a web site with FTP.  We believe our customers, who use Perforce for so much else, might have the same feeling I do.”