Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Open Source vs. Proprietary Solutions

I haven't posted in a while because we've been working on a new portal that will use Shibboleth as the authentication provider.

Once it's up and running I plan to share the details here in this blog, but for now I can tell you that if ever there was a perfect example of the stark contrast between building websites in the open source world and building them in the proprietary software world, this is it.

I used to be a Microsoft .NET developer. I loved C# and hated having to code in VB.NET or J#. In any case, web development and associated activities in the .NET world are much, much easier than in the Java world. This is both good and bad.

It's good, in that it allows for people of a relatively lower skill level to contribute and fill a niche where you need decent websites built but don't really need for every one of them to be a web guru. It's also bad, in that it really hides a lot of what's going on from the developer, and that can be a real disadvantage if the scope of their responsibilities change to the point where they need to know it.

The Java world is a world of open source, of a thousand solutions to any given problem and a world of completely unshackled creativity. Good stuff, but you'd better know what you're doing or it's amazing how fast you can get in over your head. A thousand solutions to any problem may sound great, except that there's really no way to know which solution is best for you without a thorough understanding of what's going on and what to do with it.

So it has been with this portal project.

My initial plan was to build the portal and have it accessible by Shibboleth using the casshib extension. You see, Liferay doesn't come with out-of-the-box compatibility with Shibboleth (at least, not explicitly) but it does come with explicit support for CAS. Casshib sort of acts as an adapter so you can use Shibboleth to provide the authentication and then pass it to Liferay as if it were coming in the format for CAS.

Making casshib work in a case like this is a configuration nightmare of epic proportions if you've never worked with these things before.

If you're a Liferay developer, and you aren't afraid to open up the Liferay source code and tinker with it a little, there is absolutely no earthly reason to use casshib. No offense to you casshib guys. Your tool would be very useful in cases where an app absolutely had to use CAS but all that's available is Shibboleth. With Liferay however, it does NOT absolutely have to use CAS over Shibboleth.

Converting Liferay to play nice with Shibboleth is surprisingly easy, and once I've had the opportunity to test the code and procedure I'll post the details here. In short, my approach at this point has been to create a Liferay Hook Plugin (to modify the Authentication configuration page) and an Extension Plugin (to add the code to handle Shibboleth) and make the appropriate configuration changes in

The hard part has been getting Shibboleth, Apache and Tomcat to work together with SSL. This too is a problem with a thousand solutions and I expect to have locked ours down in the next couple of days.

If this had been a SiteMinder authentication setup using IIS and a SharePoint portal or something, this all would probably be very easy and quick. The downside is that I'd have learned very little about how these things work, and it would have cost us a whole LOT of money to get there. I don't mean that as a criticism of Microsoft, only that for me personally, I feel like a stronger developer for having had this experience, and I'm glad of it.

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