Re: Simultaneous Author Access to files

Subject: Re: Simultaneous Author Access to files
From: puff -at- guild -dot- net
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 23 Oct 100 00:26:29 -0400 (EDT)

> John Garison asked, "Are there ANY tools and/or Document Management Systems
> that will let us have free rein to open and edit whatever needs editing,
> regardless of whether someone else is using it or not? Or am I asking for
> the Holy Grail here?"
> I don't know about Holy Grail, but I would be very wary of any tool which
> allowed more than one person to simultaneously edit the same bit of text.

Well, yes and no. On the one hand, that's half the problem, but
on the other, that's a human problem. Technology is not good at
solving human problems.

> Probably the solution you should consider is to use a structured authoring
> system in conjunction with an XML/SGML content manager that allows authors
> to check out selected elements of text within the document (as defined by
> your DTD or schema). In these systems only the element actually checked out
> is locked, which means several people can be working on different parts of
> the document at the same time. Depending on your business rules, authors may
> also be allowed to view any file, whether it is being worked on or not.

This would be interesting, but very large and complex. Depends
on what scale John's needs are. From the sound of it, you're dealing
with a pathological case, with respect to document management. For
John's needs, something a bit simpler, like CVS, might do the trick.
Particularly if he's checking in and out XML documents.

CVS, for those unfamiliar with it, is short for "Concurrent
Versioning System". It's a fairly simple revision control system
that's usually used in a programming environment, where the documents
are files containing plain text source code, although CVS can handle
binary data to a certain degree. CVS lets each developer maintain a
complete copy of the entire set of documents, and copy changes
into/out of the repository. If changes don't conflict, CVS merges
them together. If changes conflict, CVS yells for a human to make
the judgement call. CVS doesn't replace communication and teamwork,
it just makes life a lot easier.

Let's say there's a project going on, with a bunch of files in
the CVS repository. A developer joins the project. First thing he or
she does is check out a copy of the source tree. Then the developer
makes some changes, compiles, does a little testing. Having made sure
the changes haven't broken anything (it's considered very bad form to
commit broken code to the repository), the developer does a "commit",
which copies the changes into the repository. CVS keeps track of each
layer of changes, so the worst that can happen is that you have to
back out some changes and straighten things out. At worst, you lose a
little time because two people were working on the same thing.

The situation gets a little more complex as life goes on and more
than one developer is working on things. First thing each morning,
the developer does a "cvs update" to copy any changes to the files
since the last update. That way the developer is relatively sure he
or she isn't wasting time working on code that's already changed. Of
course, CVS doesn't replace communication with your teammates, it just
makes it easier to work together. You still have to talk about what
you're doing.

Also, before doing any commits, the developer does a "cvs update"
to make sure that the versions of the rest of the system - the parts
not worked on - are the most update. If the update causes changes to
be saved to the developer's copy of the source tree, the developer has
to make sure that the code compiles and runs properly before
committing. The main reason for the update, however, is to make sure
that you aren't committing an old version of the code over top of
somebody else's new version (I've had this happen to me - repeatedly,
with one guy who just didn't get it). However, again, there isn't a
horrible problem if this happens; nothing is irrevocably lost, it's
just a bit annoying to straighten things out.

As you can see, CVS would be handy for tech writing as well,
although it would be a lot handier if used with a publishing system
that used many separate text-based files for the different parts of
the document (maybe XML-based?).

> In any event, content (=knowledge) management has been my Holy Grail. I and
> my colleagues at the documentation management coal-face have chipping away
> for more than 7 years to get a proper content management application in to
> our organisation. Now that we have achieved it, I am prepared to say that we
> are actually now doing the kinds of things with text we always believed
> should be possible. However, because organisations are slow to change, it
> will probably take us at least another year before we have managed to extend
> the system's scope to the several other areas of the company that will
> benefit from better knowledge management.

Sounds like you folks are doing some really nifty projects.
Here's a question:

I'm working as a programmer for a company which is looking at
producing a large, complex, web-based software system (using java on
the server side - JSP, servlets, EJB, etc) to automate some business
processes (can't say more until they unstaple this NDA from my chest).
One of the problems on the checklist is contract management. My
off-the-cuff thought is some sort of basic CVS--ish revision control
system, although it'd be nifty to move them towards some sort of
structured document model for the contracts. Any comments?

Steven J. Owens
puff -at- guild -dot- net

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