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Book Reviews

Book Review: Drupal Intranets With Open Atrium 25

New submitter nuvoleweb writes "Drupal Intranets with Open Atrium, by Tracy Charles Smith is a comprehensive guide to Open Atrium, the popular open source Intranet system. Open Atrium is a derivative (distribution) of Drupal specifically meant for group collaboration, and the author works in the Open Atrium core team at Phase2 Technology." Read below for the rest of Andrea's review.
Drupal Intranets with Open Atrium
author Tracy Charles Smith
pages 284
publisher Packt Publishing
rating 8/10
reviewer Andrea Pescetti
ISBN 978-1-84951-112-4
summary A good manual for (prospective) end users of Open Atrium
The book has a clear focus. It's tailored to people that have no experience with Drupal: it is ideal for organizations or companies that are considering to deploy Open Atrium internally and need an end-user manual, and it suits this task perfectly. On the other hand, this book won't be useful to developers and site builders who want to extend or customize Open Atrium. While the book was written based on Open Atrium 1.0, it still applies perfectly to the current version, Open Atrium 1.3.

Decision-makers who just need to assess whether Open Atrium can be the right solution for them will probably find answers already in Chapter 1, which gives a very good overview on the features and possibilities offered by the tool. After explaining the fundamental concept of groups (Open Atrium is meant for teamwork and it supports multiple teams, with independent work spaces), the author presents each feature available in Open Atrium with a sample screenshot and a summary. The only drawback is due to an inherent shortcoming: the Open Atrium features have deceptive names (for example, the Blog is actually meant for Discussions, while the Notebook is rather a Wiki), so the author cleverly renames them to clarify their meaning; but in doing so he is at times slightly inconsistent (the Notebook feature is called Wiki, Documents, Notebook and Handbook) with the potential to actually confuse a newcomer.

The target public will likely want to skip Chapters 2 and 3, that deal with system administration and installation. The installation instructions for Mac and Windows users (for Linux-based systems it would be enough to recommend to install the standard LAMP stack) are very detailed and comprehensive, and include important tips such as how to downgrade PHP in case of compatibility problems. A section explains how to use PHPMyAdmin to create the needed MySQL database, and it could be slightly simplified by proposing to create the database directly at the account creation. The book explains how to install Drupal, but this is only useful for troubleshooting, and not required for Open Atrium; then it proceeds with clear, illustrated, step-by-step instructions for Windows and Mac. Some Mac users might be put off by the lengthy command-line instructions proposed to perform operations that are easily done through the GUI, like copying files. The browser-based installation instructions are very clear, and they only miss a couple warnings: first, that the installation will automatically send a welcome e-mail; second, that the "Check for updates" checkbox will be discussed later, in Chapter 12. The final section is a great introduction to the administration panel, perfect for newcomers to know what they should and what they shouldn't do with it.

The "missing Open Atrium manual" is in Chapters 4 to 10. Anyone wanting to understand how Open Atrium works will find clear instructions here, and, whether you are evaluating Open Atrium or you are already using it and want proper documentation, your needs will be fulfilled by the time you finish Chapter 10. Everything is explained very clearly, with plenty of screenshots and examples.

The manual begins (Chapters 4-6) with two transversal topics to the Open Atrium administration, i.e., users and dashboard management. An alternative approach would probably be more effective for people new to Open Atrium, i.e., they should first become familiar with the key concept of Groups in Open Atrium and learn user and dashboard management only after Groups have been understood; this would allow to avoid several forward-references in Chapters 4 and 5 and to avoid explaining group creation twice, both in Chapter 5 and 6. However, Groups are properly covered in Chapter 6, even providing a sample mapping of an organization into Open Atrium groups. Some usability quirks of Open Atrium are also explained and workarounds are provided. Upon finishing this section, you will understand how to structure your Intranet in groups, what features you should enable in each group and how you can provide different front pages ("dashboards") for different groups or even different users.

The rest of the manual (Chapters 7-10) is a comprehensive guide to the four most important features in Open Atrium: Document Library, Blogs, Case Tracker and Calendar. About 100 pages with screenshots explain all details about the core features, ranging from the rather obvious functionality to advanced tips to make the most out of your Open Atrium installation. For example, there are valuable suggestions on the benefits of tagging content, hiding unwanted options in content creation, referencing content and other built-in functionality that is not immediately understandable, especially for users without prior experience in Drupal systems. The chapters are easily readable, with the only issue, again, that confusing synonyms are needed to cater for the awkward Open Atrium terminology (using case, bug, ticket, issue to mean the same concept).

The book then moves on to topics that will only be useful to the site administrator. For example, it explains how the site administrator can define new priority values and set default assignees in the Case Tracker. Then it moves on to more advanced tasks, like handling Views, but people wanting to configure the Open Atrium views will need a level of experience beyond the simple guided example shown in the book. On one side, this information is good since it explains basic customizations that most companies will want to apply; on the other side, the examples shown in the book are quite specific and cannot be generalized, i.e., you won't be able to configure the Blog based on how customizing the Case Tracker works. A long section is dedicated to running cron.php in order to keep the search index up-to-date, even though it would have been nice to mention poormanscron as an alternative and user-friendly solution. A good explanation of Drupal caching follows, with appropriate remarks explaining why block cache is unsuitable for Open Atrium. The book recommends the "all-in-one" upgrade strategy, i.e., waiting for distribution updates instead of upgrading individual modules as they are available, and this is fine, since indeed the Open Atrium maintainers are making a good job with a regular release schedule for security updates. A major shortcoming is a discussion on where the additional modules should be placed in the Open Atrium tree; at least, it should be mentioned that placing them in the Open Atrium profile may cause upgrade problems, and that the cleanest solution is to place them under sites/all. The book is completed by an Appendix listing Drupal resources and discussing briefly the concept of Drupal Features and Drupal theming, namely tips for Open Atrium subtheming.

In the end, this is a great book if you are an end user, or prospective user, of Open Atrium, especially in a corporate environment. If you already have some experience with building Drupal sites, you won't find anything new or interesting here, but you should definitely recommend it to your clients to save a lot of time to you and them.

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Book Review: Drupal Intranets With Open Atrium

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  • I develop in OpenAtrium nearly 100% and it is good to know about this book, and to read such a good review. Based on this review, I'm comfortable recommending it to the non-technical stakeholders I develop the intranets for. We need a book like this.

    Front-end Drupal [] serves a similar purpose for these same non-technical stakeholders managing their content using Drupal. This book discusses only general drupal content, and not how to work with OpenAtrium at all.

  • >> Drupal With Open Atrium

    That's not going to work so well without Viagra.

  • I built a site a few months back using Drupal. I honestly cannot understand the momentum behind it. It was by far the most horrific framework I have ever dealt with.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Just because you don't understand how to use it doesn't mean it's "horrific." There are thousands of people doing quite well with Drupal. And it's not a "framework" -- if you're building web-apps with it, you can't just expect for it to fall in your lap. There are things that Drupal makes incredibly easy, and other things that would be more straightforward with a more explicit framework. I'd love to hear what frameworks were so superior to your Drupal experience that you had to dump on it, because frankly m

  • Sadly there isn't a good DMS for drupal availible, and OpenAtrium doesn't seem to fix this either.
    It would be nice to have a Document Management System that supports configuration management principles like "baselining", "tagging" and maybe even "branching". The system should understand documents (filetypes), support conversions, support collaboration (multi-user edit), support meta-tags etc and at the same time support Subversion-like operations to manage baselines.

    Perhaps I was looking at the wrong produc

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I wonder how much profit Packt Publishing makes from having Indians reprint a mish mash of online stuff for every IT subject in existence? Anybody has any estimates?

  • The only really big missing piece from my Drupal installation at work is a ticket system. Right now we use Tracker on eGroupware for IT tickets and Drupal for everything else. I wish I had time to covert Tracker to a Drupal module. The current offerings of ticket systems for Drupal is rather pathetic.

Thufir's a Harkonnen now.