Interview with Alistair Deneys, Sitecore MVP


We feel that there is a lot of activity around the Sitecore Shared Source library and would like to hear what modules people are using when they are building their solutions. We were lucky enough to get ourselves an interview with Alistair Deneys, Sitecore MVP and solution architect at Next Digital to hear what sites that he has used shared source modules on.

So who is Alistair Deneys and what does he do?

I am one of the Australian Sitecore MVP’s and I have been working for Next Digital for about six years and in that time I think that I have been working with Sitecore for about five years, starting off working on a 4.3.2 version all the way up to the latest version of 6.2. I started at Next Digital as a developer and worked my way up the ranks to a solution architect which is what I am now.

You have worked on a number of sites using Sitecore could you mention some of them where you have used shared source modules?

Ok, to start with and this is general for all at Next Digital when we are starting up a project in Sitecore, is to have a look at if the shared source library has something that we can use. Because we always want to deliver solutions quickly to our clients and we don’t want to develop everything from scratch.

Some of the shared source modules are of very high quality and I use them on almost every build, some of them not so much but you can still borrow code and ideas from them anyway.

So to mention some of the sites, one is the Rotary club of Werribee where I got special permission from Philipp Heltewig, Manager of Sitecore Australia to use a Sitecore Xpress version to build the site on sometime last year. Here I used the Quick Launch toolbar module that provides a nice little desktop tweak that I contributed to the Sitecore Shared Source library a while ago. I also used the Dynamic Flash for marketers which I think originated from the Nicam demo site. It was a very small site so I think that it was all the modules that I used on that site.

Another site that I worked on was Vic Health again I used the Quick Launch toolbar and the site was at the build a 6 build and we therefore didn’t have the integrated RSS feed that was introduced in 6.2, so we had to use the RSS module and as I recall I contributed one or two tweaks to that module.

An intranet site for a large media organisation that I also worked on, I again used the Quick Launch toolbar and the Sitecore Stager module because we had multiple server setup and we used it to clear the partial cache. We also had the EviBlog module, which is a very high quality module and we also used the YAF (Yet Another Forum) integration and found that the project rooms contained a lot of tips and tricks to integrate YAF with Sitecore.

I also worked on CSIRO’s intranet (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) and here we used the account selector field because users had a requirement to select users from the system. We also used the OMS Poll module and again the Sitecore stager.

We also have a couple of project kicking off in the near future where we will be looking at what the shared source library has to offer and a couple of interesting module there include the Advanced System Reporter and again the Account Selector field.

How do you find the shared source modules that you think could suit your sites, do you look at sites like the Nicam demo site and see all the shared source module in use there?

I think that the modules being used on the Nicam demo site is a separate entity and I know that some of the modules might not look as they would when you download them. I regularly look at the index page to look at the modules that has been released recently and from time to time I look at the modules that I know, to see if there have been any updates. The way that I found out about the EviBlog module was by just visiting the index page

What do you think of the idea of Sitecore having a shared source library?

I definitely think that it is a great idea, looking at the things that are out there they provide you with ways to extend your solution, so I think it is a great idea to have that.

Even if Sitecore didn’t run shared source there would still be Sitecore blogger’s out there putting their modules on to their sites but it is good to have a central location like Sitecore offers, because you can spend your time Googleling around for Sitecore blogs and modules looking for things to download. But at the end of the day it is much easier when you know that there is a central place that Sitecore backs to find all the shared source modules.

Wasn’t that also how you got started?

Yeah, that is how I original started when I contributed with the Quick Launch toolbar and the Editor line numbers module when I was approached by the Shared Source Coordinator and asked if I wanted to put it up there. When I first wrote them I didn’t really think that they offered enough to be put up on the shared source library but you convinced me otherwise.

And then of course there is the Integrated help module that I have been working on for quite some time. The module itself is pretty straight forward; it is more the import of the content that is the problem, because you are not using it for the interface but the content that has been put into it. I found it problematic to do it manually because when there are new versions of Sitecore the documentation needs to be updated and therefore I wanted to automate the process and import all the content so that we don’t need to do it manually every single time.

I have already written up some of the import code so that it can get out there, I think that it has been sitting in ‘dev’ for quite too long.

What benefits do you think having these modules that you can download and configure free of charge, do you use them ‘as is’ or are they just the base of what you use them for on a site?

As for how I use the module it varies from module to module as some are quite advanced like the Advanced System reporter, you don’t need to do anything with it so that generally goes ‘as is’.

However having said that one of my colleagues did find something that we thought we could tweak in order to make the reports look different. So if we find these things we fix them and contribute back. So a lot of the modules are ready as they come, like the EviBlog module. It was ready, so just drop it in and we are ready to go. YAF, is a bit different it takes a lot of configuration and even with that it still takes some styling to get it looking the way you want. So I find that I generally use the modules ‘as is’ and not really use them as a base but again that is the nature of shared source if you find something that needs to be fixed you push it back and contribute. That is the honest thing to do.

Do you have any ideas for how to improve the shared source library, perhaps if developers aren’t aware about it, how to get their attention?

I think the big one by contributing to the shared source library is having some sort of certification around the Sitecore shared source modules. Being that the modules are shared source does turn some people off a little; people can get a little concerned if they can’t get support from Sitecore. Some people want someone that they can ring up and help them with their problem. So if you could have modules that went into some sort of certification program and someone could do QA on the module, the documentation should be good. It should feel and play like a Sitecore module should, it shouldn’t feel foreign. And with this program have the ability to offer support to these modules through Sitecore support, I think that would be really good.

That would also mean that more people would use them and improve the quality of their module to get that certification. So I think that would really help improve it.

Another thing that I also think would improve it, is the ability to rate modules, but I don’t think this is all that important, if the rating is done by developer who downloaded the module and couldn’t figure it out in five minutes and rates it down. But it would give it that community feel and let them have their say. And if there is a good module and people have rated it high you will be able to see that and modules that are rated low are modules that aren’t doing so great. Hopefully that can make the original developer try to improve it and thereby making it better.

And if you have a certification program and it goes through support then these issues can also be send to the original developer, because I don’t think that there is any sort of mechanism to handle this at the moment.

Well some of the module contributor writes their email on the start wiki and there is of course the shared source forum.

The issue with the forum is that it is separate from the Trac pages where you download the stuff.

Another issue is also the structure of the wiki pages that are not all structured the same with download links and releases.

Could you please elaborate on this?

Every project is free to do whatever it want and that is good but it would be good if there were some sort of direction on the front page on what things you should have on the front page. Especially around the downloads page, some project rooms you need to go into the SVN and find the package there.

I also hear from some developers that they have never heard of the shared source library so there might be an issue in getting people from on to

Well there is still a Shared Source section on SDN that links to the index page

Oh ok, well I haven’t gone through SDN to get to the index page in a while.

But again with the structure you need to be careful because this is shared source and you allow people to do things the way that they want to do them. So you should try and have enough structure and letting people have enough freedom.

Also for the source control there could be some sort of structure, to let people know how the source relates to the site that they are installing it on. So are you putting all your stuff in the Sitecore modules folder or are you using the root folder as a starting place, so that developers expect that you download the source onto the website folder of your installation. The way that I usually work is downloading it someplace else with a folder called root and copy it over as I update files. I am not saying that everyone should do it that way and don’t worry about the structure but provide some instructions on how to use it.


~ by Jimmie Overby on July 19, 2010.

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