Web Content Management with Perforce

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Summary:

Perforce is recognized as the fast, low-overhead, high-throughput solution in software configuration management (SCM). What's not as obvious is how Perforce solves the problem of Web content management (WCM). Perforce is used in a wide range of WCM applications by: organizations using an intranet for internal documentation; companies whose product is Web content, not software; and individuals, companies, and organizations with external Web sites. This paper surveys the Perforce deployment models currently in use for web content management, and identifies the features that make Perforce a suitable WCM solution.

1. How Perforce Works
Perforce uses a client/server architecture. The Perforce server maintains a repository of versioned files (the depot) and a database of SCM information (the metadata). A Perforce client is any user or application that communicates with the server. A single Perforce server can support a large number of local and geographically distributed clients. Perforce clients get files from the depot, open files to work on them, and submit changed files back to the depot. The files are stored locally in the client workspaces.

2. A Simple WCM Approach
Web servers read files from a filesystem, and Perforce client workspaces can be mapped to any filesystem. The simplest implementation of Perforce as a web content manager is to establish a dedicated client workspace that is the web site. Web authors work in their own workspaces and submit web pages to the depot. A service or daemon can be set up to synchronize the dedicated web site workspace from the depot every few minutes.

This allows web authors concurrent yet controlled access to web pages, while insulating the web site itself from any agent other than either the service that gets files from the depot or the web server that reads and/or executes the files. Because Perforce is managing the web site files, these benefits automatically accrue:

  • Files submitted by a web author as one unit of work (a changelist) appear on the web site all at once. There is no possibility that only half of a web author's intended changes make it to the web site.
  • Web authors can use Perforce reporting features to tell exactly which file versions are on the web site, which versions are in their own workspaces, and which versions are in each others' workspaces. Complete file histories are also readily available.
  • Perforce provides a straightforward merge tool that is invoked if the same file has been modified by more than one web author. This obviates the need to lock files, because it's faster and easier for Author B to merge in Author A's submitted changes in the course of his or her work than it is for Author B to wait until Author A is finished before starting work on the file.
  • Perforce passwords and depot protections can be used to fine-tune access permissions authors have on files.
  • Web authors can work entirely inside a firewall. Aside from the web server, the only agent that needs extramural access to the web site filesystem is the service that synchronizes the files.

3. Reviewing Before Publishing
In the simple model described above, an author's changes are visible to web browsers nearly as soon as his files are submitted, depending on how frequently the web site is synchronized from the depot. This leaves little time for anyone else to review his changes before they are "published." While acceptable for an intranet, this model would be unsatisfactory for an external web site. Either of two Perforce mechanisms can be used to assure pages do not get published until they are reviewed.

3.1 Publishing with A Label
The first is by labelling the revisions suitable for publication. The web site is synchronized to the labelled revisions instead of to the head revisions. Reviewers synchronize their workspaces to head revisions, and after they approve files, the web master can apply the web site label to the newly approved files. The next web site synchronization then gets the approved files.

In order to preview how the behavior of web content is handled by a web server, two web site workspaces can be established, one synchronized to head

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