March 29, 2007

PengYou document collaboration software shows promise

Author: Dmitri Popov

PengYou is a promising Java-based client/server document management solution and versioning tool for individual users and small workgroups of up to 10 users. In its current version -- a very early stage of development -- PengYou offers only bare-bones functionality, but the developers have all the basics right.

PengYou consists of several modules, including a server, a Web front end, and client software for Writer and Microsoft Word. The PengYou Server is relatively easy to install. The only prerequisite is the Java Development Kit, which must be installed on your machine. You also have to make sure that the JAVA_HOME environment variable is added to the system (the PengYou Server manual describes in detail how this is done on both Windows and Linux). To "install" the PengYou Server, simply download the package and unzip it into the desired location. To launch the server, run either the startup.bat (Windows) or (Linux) script. No special hardware is required for running the PengYou software, although the developers recommend using at least 1GB of RAM for better performance.

The default PengYou installation allows everyone to access and manage documents. The current version of PengYou doesn't include the ability to authenticate users. Both the Web front end and the client software for the word processors require you to log in using any user name and password you want, but, for now, authentication and access control haven't been implemented in the rest of the system. PengYou can use a LDAP server to authenticate users, but, at the moment, there is no documentation on how this can be done. User management and access control features are expected to appear in the next version of PengYou.

Click to enlarge

The PengYou Web Web-based client (see figure) allows you to manage documents and folders via a browser. This is an optional install, but it adds some important functionality. To install PengYou Web, download the PengYouWeb.war package and copy it to the webapps directory inside your PengYou Server installation. The server then takes care of the rest. To access the installed front end, point your browser to http://localhost:8080/PengYouWeb (replace localhost with the actual server address) and log in using whatever user name and password you like (since there is no authentication mechanism).

With the Web front end, you can create folders and upload documents using the New folder and New document links, and download documents that have already been published on the server. Using the Clipboard pane to the right, you can also move, delete, and download the currently selected documents or folders; to add a document or folder to the Clipboard, simply click on it. The Web interface is still bare-bones and it lacks a few important features, such as the ability to view document/folder info and perform searches.

The PengYou extension and the Microsoft Office add-in are the third and most important pieces of the PengYou solution. The extension and the add-in integrate seamlessly with their respective office suites and allow users to easily publish documents (upload to a PengYou repository), access them, and keep tabs on their versions.

When installed in, the extension adds a Remote documents toolbar menu, and the first thing you have to do is to configure the extension's settings so you can connect to the PengYou server. To do this, choose Remote documents -> Settings, and fill out the host, path, and username fields. If you've already added documents to PengYou via its Web front end, you can provide the same user name and password you used to log in into PengYou Web.

To take advantage of PengYou's features, you have to publish your documents. Open the document you want to publish, choose Remote documents -> Publish as, enter the name of the published document at the end of the path in the Path field (e.g. /pengyou/repository/default/Loremipsum.odt), and Press OK. This is somewhat counter-intuitive, as you'd expect the software would automatically grab the name of the current document, and the fact that the Publish as dialog window is entitled "Open a remote document" makes things even more confusing. However, these are just minor kinks, which hopefully will be fixed in an upcoming release of the software.

There is, however, another more important thing missing from the current version of PengYou. At the moment, the software does not include any mechanism for checking documents in and out, and it has no means of preventing multiple users from concurrently editing the same version of the document. According to PengYou's developers, this functionality is on the roadmap.

Once a document is published, you can use the Publish command every time you want to create a separate version of the document. The Open a previous version command displays a list of all document versions, and you can open the version you want by selecting it and pressing Open. Finally, to open a published document, use the Open command.

Final word

PengYou is being developed by five students at the European Institute of Technology with support from several companies. It's easy to install and deploy, and provides seamless integration with major office suites. Once the bugs are ironed out and the user management and conflict resolution features are in place, PengYou has a good chance of becoming a useful document collaboration solution for workgroups.

Dmitri Popov is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Russian, British, US, German, and Danish computer magazines.


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