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Publishing Business Objects In Portals

A benchmark for the ideal solution

Current Web applications, especially portals, have become increasingly content driven. It led to development of a plethora of sophisticated and powerful Web Content Management Systems, or WCMS. They help to automate creation, management, reviewing, tagging, rendering, publication, maintenance, and deprecation of Web content. Usually, these systems support a wide variety of content types and formats; however, most of them stop short of supporting one crucial type - application data.

Using real-life examples, this article introduces the notion of business objects as a distinct category of highly structured publishable content. From this perspective, they have many of the same publishability requirements that call for use of a WCMS. Unfortunately, business objects also have a number of unique characteristics that prevent most WCMSs from being able to publish them out of the box. I'll establish a set of criteria as the benchmark for the ideal solution.

The article describes several approaches that can be used to facilitate the creation, management, and publication of business objects from existing WCMSs, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. It then describes the implementation of the replication approach, which leverages the power of BEA's XML Beans to offer a convenient, reliable, and scalable solution without relying on features unique to any particular WCMS. This approach is realized in the form of a Business Object Publishing Service that was originally developed for Documentum and WebLogic but can be easily extended to work with different WCMSs and Web application platforms.

Defining Highly Structured Content

Structured content is one of those concepts that is used every day but lacks a concise and universally accepted definition. Searching for such a definition on the Web does not produce any meaningful results; surprisingly neither does searching for it on the sites of four leading CMS vendors.

CMS View
Most CMS vendors try to define structured content by juxtaposing it against unstructured content, or plain files containing text, images, and so on, with no clearly defined and universally accessible metadata. In contrast, they see structured content as the very same files tagged with metadata, such as Author, Topic, Geography, Content Type, etc. Most enterprise-grade CMS packages allow information architects to define rich systems of content types, each with its own set of attributes, as well as workflows for capturing, maintaining, and managing this metadata.

Ultimately CMS publishes all the content along with available metadata to a portal, which for the purpose of this article I will define as a Web application that presents dynamically published content to the users. Portals use metadata to classify, link, find, personalize, and deliver tagged content at the right time to the right audience.

Not Structured Enough
From the portal's point of view the situation is somewhat different: the structured content differs greatly according to how it is represented and used when rendering pages. It makes sense to distinguish between semi-structured content, or files with certain associated, loosely typed metadata, and highly structured content, or business objects, such as Navigation Nodes, Products, Special Offers, etc., with a number of specific and strongly typed attributes. The former is in essence what is considered structured content in the CMS world.

The main difference between these types is that in the case of semi-structured content metadata simply adorns it - it might have an effect on when certain items are found or, perhaps, how they are rendered. If some or even all of the meta-attributes are missing, or have invalid values, the content is still valid, it just might not show up in all the right places. While business objects must have all of their attributes present and often have stringent constraints on their values (e.g., Coupon.Discount must be a positive number between 1 and 99, SpecialOffer.EndDate must be a valid date in the future, etc.). Also, business objects can relate to other business objects - e.g,. Coupon extends SpecialOffer, which in turn can feature Products, which belong to a Brand, etc. Some attributes can be complex types or dependent objects, e.g., Recipe includes a list of RecipeIngredients, which consists of Product, Quantity, and UnitOfMeasure. When presenting such objects through a portal it is essential to be able to traverse these relationships and maintain their integrity as dependents, and parents are published or unpublished.

In other words, highly structured content represents entities that will become objects in the application code and one or more tables in the database schema. It is important to stress that the business objects discussed in this article are strictly content - they can only be created and modified by the content providers and are read-only for all portal users. The metaphor of publishing does not apply to user-modifiable objects, such as User Profiles, Shopping Carts, Blogs, etc. These types of objects cannot be considered content and are outside of the scope of this article.

Examples of Business Objects
This section illustrates the concept of highly structured content and its role in the portal applications, with two examples based on recent implementations.

Food & Nutrition Portal
The portal is targeted to food enthusiasts. It features a wide range of content about food, various cuisines, and related matters. It receives content from a broad base of contributors as well as member food manufacturers, which use it to promote their products. It uses a sophisticated CMS implementation to manage all this content and coordinate distributed submission and publishing. In addition to semi-structured content, such as articles, ads, features, campaigns, etc., food manufacturers require capability to publish a number of business objects. This includes their products, brands, and packaging options, which can be added to the product catalog; recipes featuring these products, which go into the recipe box; special offers promoting these products, etc. A simplified domain object model is shown in Figure 1.

The system supports various modes of browsing and searching the product catalog, recipe box, and special offers section. It has rich navigation capabilities between recipes and featured products, and between offers and qualifying products. Business object display pages don't simply present the information, but process it in a number of ways, including:

  • Building and validating inter-object traversal links
  • Providing users with unit of measure conversion capability when displaying recipes
  • Allowing users to calculate yield and price for a recipe
  • Allowing users to calculate dollar savings on coupon pages
When publishing, updating, and retiring business objects, the system, in addition to following the required workflows, should validate and maintain complex referential integrity rules, such as:
  • Do not publish a Special Offer if it refers to unpublished Product.
  • Do not publish a Recipe if it refers to unpublished Retail Product.
  • Do not unpublish a Members Product if it has any published Retail Products.
  • Do not unpublish a Product if it is used as an ingredient in any Recipe.
  • When republishing any Business Object, preserve all relationships that target it.
The system should delegate to members complete control over their content, including business objects. In addition, it should be able to target relevant semi-structured content, such as ads, to the pages that display Business Objects.

Global Knowledge Repository
This repository is an information portal that presents systematized information in health and life sciences. It accumulates a broad range of content from diverse contributors, or information sources, and presents it to audiences ranging from the general public to researchers and health professionals. The accuracy and relevance of all content is of utmost importance. Information sources are administrative units within a number of organizations that are deemed authorities over certain information fields within the portal's information domain. They should be able to publish and manage content within that field, as well as determine the part of portal's taxonomy that covers the field. All information on the site should be attributed and traceable to a specific source. The administration over both content and navigation should support hierarchical delegation, e.g., if a Cancer Research Institute has authority over all cancer-related pages and content, it should be able to delegate authority over everything specific to lung cancer to its department, specializing in that area.

The portal is organized along the taxonomy, similar to the one found in Yahoo's Web Site Directory shown in Figure 2. This taxonomy was implemented as a multihierarchy of Navigation Nodes. To facilitate navigation, the nodes should be traversable to their immediate children and parents (breadcrumbs), and should be able to build indexes of all descendants. All information on the site was tied back to its source in the form of a link to the Info Source page. We maintained these pages by the respective administrative entities, and formed another traversable hierarchy.

All informational pages on the site, including navigation nodes, information sources, and stand-alone pages were publishable by the contributors without any involvement of developers or site administrators. These pages had featured content published in the form of various types of contentlets, and in the case of navigational nodes content criteria, allowing the portal to bind them at run time to the published semi-structured content based on its metadata (see Figure 3).

Publishing Challenges

If a portal uses highly structured content it requires a publishing mechanism that has the degree of sophistication that modern CMS packages provide to publishers of semi-structured content. In particular it should allow you to:
  • Define content states and publishing workflows
  • Provide versioning mechanism with rollback support
  • Provide a robust and flexible security model, with role-based ACLs and delegation capabilities
  • Validate publishable content and overall content integrity and provide publishers with accurate and timely feedback
  • Refresh the entire content if Portal's version gets corrupted
It is highly preferable that publishing solutions for highly structured and semi-structured content have a consistent look and feel, workflows, and security. The most obvious way to achieve this is to publish business objects through the same CMS package as the rest of the site's content.

This is not the only option; in fact the Food & Nutrition Portal described here was initially implemented with a custom Web-based business object publishing system. Implementation of the publishing part took more than half of the overall portal development time and resources and resulted in a system that had less flexibility in workflows and authorization than any CMS product on the market. In addition, the publishing system had to be changed every time there was a change to any of the business objects. And finally, the content providers had to use completely different mechanisms for publishing business objects and the rest of the content.

In the Global Knowledge Repository business object publishing was implemented through the same Documentum CMS as the rest of the portal's content. This allowed content publishers to leverage the full power of Documentum and enjoy a unified environment. Portal developers spent less than 10% of the overall development time on the business object publishing, despite the fact that the full domain object model was more complex than that of the Food & Nutrition Portal.

I believe this proves that the best way to publish highly structured content is through a CMS package. The remainder of this article will concentrate on this solution.

Requirements
Let's establish a set of core requirements for an optimal business object publishing solution. Naturally such requirements depend on the nature of the portal applications that will make use of the published objects; however, experience shows that many key requirements are applicable to the majority of cases.

  1. Fast access: Portal applications should be able to read published objects on the fly, while rendering pages for the end users.
  2. Transactionality: Objects should be published, updated, or unpublished in transactional manner maintaining consistency at all times.
  3. Referenceable: It should be possible to reference published objects from other entities.
  4. Verifiable: Publishing solution should be able to validate objects and maintain referential integrity as it publishes, updates, or unpublishes them.
  5. Reliable: There should be a mechanism to notify object publishers if an operation failed or was rejected.
CMS Capabilities
The solution was originally developed as a workaround for Documentum's inability to publish highly structured content in a way that satisfied the above requirements. However, we believe that the problem is universal and the approach outlined below can be utilized with most commercial CMS packages. Based on an analysis of a number of CMS packages, including Documentum, Open Text's Livelink, and Interwoven, we have identified the following assumptions about common CMS capabilities and limitations in the area of business object publishing.
  1. CMS packages support authoring of highly structured content, usually in the form of XML documents that conform to a specified DTD or XSD Schema. With minimal package-specific development a set of input forms and validation rules can be implemented for each business object class.
  2. CMS packages support creating and maintaining links between documents. Linking objects can take into account their state, i.e., rules can permit linking only to objects that are in a published state.
  3. CMS packages cannot publish highly structured content directly into a relational database. Of the products we have surveyed only Interwoven had a capability to map and deploy XML data directly into a database schema. However, according to their documentation this capability was intended for synchronizing the production database with content created during the development process. Thus it is unlikely to be suitable for ongoing management of highly structured content.
  4. CMS packages can publish metadata associated with structured content directly into a relational database. Usually the package dictates the schema for the metadata, which is often volatile, weakly typed, and highly denormalized.
Approaches
Facing the problem of publishing highly structured content from a CMS package, we considered a number of approaches. Each had strengths and weaknesses, and they differed widely in the amount of work required to implement them. In this section we will outline the four most viable approaches along with their pros and cons (see Table 1).

Relational Approach
The first thing to consider is publishing business objects directly into a database, where they would be immediately accessible by the portal application. This seems by far the most natural approach, satisfying all the requirements and requiring no custom development. Unfortunately, it did not work in Documentum, which as subsequent research has shown is a common case for most CMS packages.

Metadata Approach
Alternatively, business objects could be published in the same way as semi-structured content with all the attributes stored as metadata. Technically, it would mean that objects of all types would be stored in multiple rows in the same metadata tables. Although it might be possible to define some recursive views that would present the data in the desirable format, it might not work for more complex schemas and is likely to be resource intensive. In any case, reading business objects from name-value format requires additional computation, including attribute and constraint validation, especially when dealing with inter-object relationships. Additionally, a well-defined rejection mechanism would be required to deal with dangling links and malformed objects, since metadata representation would not allow you to enforce such constraints on the database level. To further complicate things, most standard object persistence mechanisms and tools (such as CMP, DAO generators, etc.) would not work with objects stored as metadata, and a custom solution would be required. Finally, adding new object types or changing existing ones would require changing the CMS meta-model. In most CMS packages this is a time-consuming and error-prone operation (e.g., in Documentum any change to the metadata schema causes flushing of Web Cache and republishing of the entire content). On the positive side this approach still allows transactional access, and if certain strict naming conventions are followed, it might be possible to develop a reflection-based universal DAO, to automate development of the persistence layer.

XML Approach
Each business object could also be published as an XML document, with the attribute values encoded as XML tags. This makes validation relatively easy, although a custom-built rejection mechanism would have to be implemented. However, parsing XML into objects would be much more resource intensive than reading from a database; and more importantly, this extra load would occur in the application server at the time of rendering client pages. This approach also lacks transactionality.

Replication Approach
This is a hybrid approach. First, business objects are published via either the Metadata or XML Approach; then a staging process reads them, performs the necessary validation, and places them into the appropriate object tables in the application-defined schema. The same process should monitor unpublishing activity and remove deleted records from object tables. This ensures that the data conversion overhead is incurred only once per lifetime of an object; however, it might result in some data consistency issues. The staging process would have to keep a transaction log to know which records have already been migrated, deleted, etc.

Business Object Publishing Service

Based on this analysis, the Replication Approach is the best solution for performance-sensitive applications and CMS that do not support publishing directly into relational databases. This section describes its implementation in the form of Business Object Publishing Service, which supported authoring of business objects in Documentum and their publication into a portal application running on WebLogic Application Server. This service was successfully used in the implementation of a knowledge portal similar to the one described previously.

Architecture
A number of application-specific business objects were identified during domain analysis and captured in the form of UML models. These models were used to derive the database schema for object persistence and XML schemas (XSD files), describing presentation of publishable objects in the form of XML documents. These XSD files were then imported into Documentum and used to define object input forms. They were also compiled into XML Beans using BEA's WebLogic Workshop 8.1.

A special content type, Business Object, was defined in Documentum, with subtypes for every specific object class. After a new instance of business object was authored in Documentum, and went through all the necessary steps defined in the associated workflow, it was published into Web Cache. There it was picked up by the Publishing Service, which determined the appropriate publisher and invoked the required action. Publisher then checked the integrity and other object-specific business constraints and updated the appropriate portal's database tables or rejected invalid objects back to Documentum. The publishing service used similar steps for publishing updates and unpublishing objects. All publishing transactions were recorded in a transaction log, which was used to reconcile published objects with XML documents. The same log was used by the portal's caching services to determine when to refresh objects from the database.

The publishing service was implemented as a J2EE application that could either be run manually by the content administrators via a Web interface, or deployed as a service to facilitate near real-time publishing.

Implementation
The service was developed as an active object, which implemented interface Runnable, and encapsulated a daemon thread. Since the rest of the project used Struts, it was configured as a plugin for automatic life cycle management, when run as a service. Service object had a number of control parameters, such as timeouts, priority, etc., which could be set from a configuration file or from the Publisher Console. Some object publishing operations are non-idempotent (i.e., they cannot be performed more than once without causing harm). The easiest way to prevent such problems is to ensure that only a single instance of the service runs at any time. If that is not feasible due to load balancing or high availability considerations, additional safeguards are required to ensure that every instance is able to detect duplicate operations, and each non-idempotent operation is performed only once. This could be achieved through mutual exclusion mechanisms, such as database locking, or through JNDI.

Every time the service runs it executes three queries against Web Cache and the transaction log to determine lists of new publications, updates, and deletions. The entries are then forwarded to the appropriate operations of corresponding publishers. Publishers are implemented as stateless session beans to provide automatic transaction handling during validation and database updates. Each publisher handles objects of a specific type. The publisher type is determined from the configuration file based on the content sub-type of the XML document published from Documentum. This mechanism allows you to extend the service to handle new object types without any modification to the service code itself. All that is required is to compile the XSD schema into a new XML Bean, write a new publisher, and register them with the service.

Integration with WebLogic and Documentum
Some additional steps were required to integrate the Object Publishing Service with Documentum.

  1. Documentum uses character strings as document IDs. These strings are not suitable as application Object IDs (OIDs), so Publishing Service was responsible for translating between the two types using data from the transaction log.
  2. Documentum's Web Cache schema is highly denormalized, can change frequently, and its keys are not unique. We found that defining filtering views and running the Publishing Service against them helps to insulate against many unnecessary complexities.
  3. Sometimes Documentum, rather than publishing a new version of a document, unpublishes it altogether and republishes the new version later. To preserve interobject relationships in such cases original OIDs for unpublished objects were kept in the transaction log so they could be recovered if the object was republished later.
  4. Out of the box Documentum does not have a mechanism to report publication failures back into the workflow, so all failed transactions were logged into the database and e-mailed to the object publisher.
WebLogic did not require many customizations; we just had to ensure that we always had just a single instance of the service running when deploying application in a clustered environment.

When the publishing service is used in a deployment architecture that includes multiple environments, e.g., QA, staging, production, etc., the best approach is to deploy a single service instance into each of the environments and then rely on the multi-environment publishing capabilities of the CMS package to ensure controlled propagation of published objects.

Conclusion

This article identified business objects, which encapsulate application data, as a distinct category of highly structured publishable content, which has enough similarities with other content types to warrant the use of a Web Content Management System, yet are different to such an extent that they are not supported by the majority of existing WCMSs. Having outlined several approaches to solving this problem, it describes the architecture and implementation of a Business Object Publishing Service that was successfully used on a project similar to the Global Knowledge Repository. That required less than 10% of the effort that went into development of the display capabilities of that portal. In contrast, on a project similar to the Food & Nutrition Portal a decision was made to implement a custom Object publishing solution. This required the same amount of effort that went into development of the portal's display capabilities, and still resulted in a solution which was less efficient and flexible then any commercial CMS package.

Although the Replication Approach and Object Publishing Service were initially developed for Documentum they do not depend on any features not commonly found in other WCMSs, so the same techniques can be used with any commercial CMS, allowing companies to leverage their investment while significantly reducing development of complex Web applications.

References

  • "Vitrage: a Framework for Compartment-Oriented Application Development." Whitepaper by Roundarch, Inc. describes a framework developed for rendering Business Objects in Portal Applications. www.roundarch.com/features/vitrage.html
  • Siemens, George. "Content Management: Our Organized Future." A good introduction to CMS concepts and features. www.elearnspace.org/Articles/contentmanagement.htm
  • "Automatic Content Categorization and Tagging with Content Intelligence Services." A whitepaper from Documentum provides an idea of how CMS vendors typically view structured content. www.documentum.com/products/collateral/platform/wp_tech_cis.pdf
  • Bau, David. "XMLBeans." BEA Senior Staff Engineer and XML Beans Architect. dev2dev.bea.com/technologies/xmlbeans/articles/Bau.jsp
  • More Stories By Alex Maclinovsky

    Alex works at Sun Microsystems as the Engineering Manager for Sun SOA Governance Solution. For nearly two decades he architected and built distributed systems on enterprise, national and global scale. Alex specializes in SOA Infrastructure, Security and Composite Applications. He blogs at http://blogs.sun.com/RealSOA/ and can be contacted at [email protected]

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