Creating OpenACS Packages

Reuven shows how to develop your own simple web/database application using APM.

Last month, we continued our exploration of OpenACS by looking at how individual applications are packaged together using APM (the ArsDigita Package Manager). Every OpenACS application normally combines database tables with server-side programs, which means that installing or upgrading a package is more complicated than copying some files. As we saw last month, the APM application makes it relatively easy to install a package and then instantiate it under one or more URLs.

This is great if you care only about using existing APMs. But most OpenACS installations will require new, custom packages that have their own data models and programs. While it's theoretically possible to develop OpenACS applications without APMs, doing so makes it hard to distribute your software, track versions or standardize your installation procedure.

This month, we cover how to develop our own simple web/database application using APM. The final result is an application that someone else can load into their OpenACS system.

Creating the Skeleton Package

The first step in creating a new OpenACS application is making a new skeleton package via the web-based APM program. By default, this program is available only to the user with administration rights to an OpenACS system, so you might need to ask the administrator to modify the permissions when you begin your development work.

On most OpenACS systems, you can launch the APM program via the /acs-admin/apm/ URL. This program displays all of the installed APMs, including each one's name, version and number of files it includes. The file count normally includes .sql files (for creating and removing database definitions), .tcl files (containing Tcl program code), .adp files (for web templates similar to ASP or JSP) and .xql files (containing SQL queries). However, an APM can contain other files, including images, text files or even something more unusual, such as Flash.

As we saw last month, we can use this screen as an entry point to install, inspect and modify the packages on our system. But if we go down to the bottom of this list and click the create a new package link, we can begin the process of creating our own application.

The initial “create a package” screen asks for a number of parameters that will help APM create a .info file that describes the package to the system. Assuming that we want to create a “hello, world” application with a minimum amount of work, we can fill in a small number of fields:

  • The package key should be atf-hello. There is no namespace hierarchy for APMs, but most developers put their name (or a similar identifying term) at the front of the package name to avoid conflicts.

  • The package name can be Hello or anything else you choose; it is used by developers to distinguish it from other packages.

  • We are developing an application, not a service.

  • Our version number is 0.1d, meaning that it's in early stages of development.

  • You can fill out or ignore the summary and description at your discretion. It's a good idea to fill these in for actual applications, however.

When finished, ensure that the “write a package” specifier box is checked, and click the “create package” button at the bottom of the page. You will be taken to the management screen for this particular package. If you look in the packages subdirectory on the filesystem where your OpenACS toolkit was installed, you'll see an atf-hello directory, containing an atf-hello.info file in the correct XML format.

Create a Data Model

Now that OpenACS recognizes our package, we can get to work designing the data model for our package. As all experienced web/database developers know, designing the tables is the hard part; once you know how they will work, creating the applications that add, delete and modify that data is pretty easy.

Our application will give us a simple guest book, in which visitors to the site can enter comments on our page. (OpenACS comes with a more general and powerful facility for doing this on any page on the site, but we will ignore this in the interest of learning how to create a package.) Our data model will look like this:

CREATE TABLE atf_hello_postings (
  posting_id    SERIAL   NOT NULL,
  user_id       INTEGER  NOT NULL  REFERENCES users
                ON DELETE CASCADE
                ON UPDATE CASCADE,
  entry_date    TIMESTAMP  NOT NULL  DEFAULT NOW(),
  posting       TEXT     NOT NULL
                CHECK (posting <> ''),
  PRIMARY KEY(posting_id)
);

On a purely technical level, the previous table definition probably looks reasonable to anyone who has worked with PostgreSQL before. We set up posting_id as an integer primary key, user_id as a foreign key, a timestamp field (containing date and time information) and then a text field to contain the actual posting. Notice how our table name begins with atf_hello, reflecting the fact that it is in the atf-hello APM. Keeping table names consistent with package names is a primitive form of namespace management, but it works well enough if everyone sticks with it.

The above works under PostgreSQL but isn't guaranteed to work with Oracle. Given that the OpenACS community prides itself on working transparently with both databases, what should we do to avoid alienating our high-end colleagues?

The answer is that when installing the atf-hello package, APM looks for a file named sql/atf-hello-create.sql. If such a file exists, it is assumed to work on all support databases. If not, APM looks for subdirectories named postgresql and oracle and executes atf-hello-create.sql in the appropriate directory. So if your system uses PostgreSQL, the above SQL would be saved in a file named sql/postgresql/atf-hello-create.sql. Official OpenACS packages are supposed to work with both Oracle and PostgreSQL out of the box, which means that it's rare to find a package that works with only one brand or the other. (The examples in this month's column are guaranteed to work only with PostgreSQL, although porting them to Oracle should not be too difficult.)

OpenACS also allows us to create a cleanup script, named sql/PACKAGE-drop.sql, that removes all the tables and stored procedures that the create script defined. We thus create a file named sql/postgresql/atf-hello-drop.sql.

APM knows how to create the data model when a package is first installed, but not when you're doing development work. So to install atf-hello into the database, you'll need to handle it manually:

psql -f atf-hello-create.sql openacs4

Of course, this assumes that openacs4 is the name of your OpenACS database, that the PostgreSQL server is running on the same machine as the psql client and that your current user name has access rights to that database.

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But in Ubuntu?

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