7 min read

Professional Plone 4 Development

Professional Plone 4 Development

Build robust, content-centric web applications with Plone 4.       

Keeping control with workflow

As we have alluded to before, managing permissions directly anywhere other than the site root is usually a bad idea. Every content object in a Plone site is subject to security, and will in most cases inherit permission settings from its parent. If we start making special settings in particular folders, we will quickly lose control.

However, if settings are always acquired, how can we restrict access to particular folders or prevent authors from editing published content whilst still giving them rights to work on items in a draft state? The answer to both of these problems is workflow.

Workflows are managed by the portal_workflow tool. This controls a mapping of content types to workflows definitions, and sets a default workflow for types not explicitly mapped.

The workflow tool allows a workflow chain of multiple workflows to be assigned to a content type. Each workflow is given its own state variable. Multiple workflows can manage permissions concurrently. Plone’s user interface does not explicitly support more than one workflow, but can be used in combination with custom user interface elements to address complex security and workflow requirements.

The workflow definitions themselves are objects found inside the portal_workflow tool, under the Contents tab. Each definition consists of states, such as private or published, and transitions between them.

Transitions can be protected by permissions or restricted to particular roles.

Although it is fairly common to protect workflow transitions by role, this is not actually a very good use of the security system. It would be much more sensible to use an appropriate permission. The exception is when custom roles are used solely for the purpose of defining roles in a workflow.

Some transitions are automatic, which means that they will be invoked as soon as an object enters a state that has this transition as a possible exit (that is, provided the relevant guard conditions are met). More commonly, transitions are invoked following some user action, normally through the State drop-down menu in Plone’s user interface. It is possible to execute code immediately before or after a transition is executed.

States may be used simply for information purposes. For example, it is useful to be able to mark a content object as “published” and be able to search for all published content.

More commonly, states are also used to control content item security. When an object enters a particular state, either its initial state, when it is first created, or a state that is the result of a workflow transition, the workflow tool can set a number of permissions according to a predefined permissions map associated with the target state.

The permissions that are managed by a particular workflow are listed under the Permissions tab on the workflow definition:

Plone 4 Development: Creating a Custom Workflow

These permissions are used in a permission map for each state:

Plone 4 Development: Creating a Custom Workflow

If you change workflow security settings, your changes will not take effect immediately, since permissions are only modified upon workflow transitions. To synchronize permissions with the current workflow definitions, use the Update security settings button at the bottom of the Workflows tab of the portal_workflow tool. Note that this can take a long time on large sites, because it needs to find all content items using the old settings and update their permissions. If you use the Types control panel in Plone’s Site Setup to change workflows, this reindexing happens automatically.

Workflows can also be used to manage role-to-group assignments in the same way they can be used to manage role-to-permission assignments. This feature is rarely used in Plone, however.

All workflows manage a number of workflow variables, whose values can change with transitions and be queried through the workflow tool. These are rarely changed, however, and Plone relies on a number of the default ones. These include the previous transition (action), the user ID of the person who performed that transition (actor), any associated comments (comments), the date/time of the last transition (time), and the full transition history (review_history).

Finally, workflows can define work lists, which are used by Plone’s Review list portlet to show pending tasks for the current user. A work list in effect performs a catalog search using the workflow’s state variable. In Plone, the state variable is always called review_state.

The workflow system is very powerful, and can be used to solve many kinds of problems where objects of the same type need to be in different states. Learning to use it effectively can pay off greatly in the long run.

Interacting with workflow in code

Interacting with workflow from our own code is usually straightforward. To get the workflow state of a particular object, we can do:

from Products.CMFCore.utils import getToolByName

wftool = getToolByName(context, ‘portal_workflow’)
review_state = wftool.getInfoFor(context, ‘review_state’)


However, if we are doing a search using the portal_catalog tool, the results it returns has the review state as metadata already:

from Products.CMFCore.utils import getToolByName

catalog = getToolByName(context, ‘portal_catalog’)
for result in catalog(dict(
portal_type=(‘Document’, ‘News Item’,),
review_state=(‘published’, ‘public’, ‘visible’,),
)):
review_state = result.review_state
# do something with the review_state


To change the workflow state of an object, we can use the following line of code:

wftool.doActionFor(context, action=’publish’)


The action here is the name of a transition, which must be available to the current user, from current state of context. There is no (easy) way to directly specify the target state. This is by design: recall that transitions form the paths between states, and may involve additional security restrictions or the triggering of scripts.

Again, the Doc tab for the portal_workflow tool and its sub-objects (the workflow definitions and their states and transitions) should be your first point of call if you need more detail. The workflow code can be found in Products.CMFCore.WorkflowTool and Products.DCWorkflow.

Installing a custom workflow

It is fairly common to create custom workflows when building a Plone website. Plone ships with several useful workflows, but security and approvals processes tend to differ from site to site, so we will often find ourselves creating our own workflows.

Workflows are a form of customization. We should ensure they are installable using GenericSetup. However, the workflow XML syntax is quite verbose, so it is often easier to start from the ZMI and export the workflow definition to the filesystem.

Designing a workflow for Optilux Cinemas

It is important to get the design of a workflow policy right, considering the different roles that need to interact with the objects, and the permissions they should have in the various states. Draft content should be visible to cinema staff, but not customers, and should go through review before being published.

The following diagram illustrates this workflow:

Plone 4 Development: Creating a Custom Workflow

This workflow will be made the default, and should therefore apply to most content. However, we will keep the standard Plone policy of omitting workflow for the File and Image types. This means that permissions for content items of these types will be acquired from the Folder in which they are contained, making them simpler to manage. In particular, this means it is not necessary to separately publish linked files and embedded images when publishing a Page.

Because we need to distinguish between logged-in customers and staff members, we will introduce a new role called StaffMember. This role will be granted View permission by default for all items in the site, much like a Manager or Site Administrator user is by default (although workflow may override this). We will let the Site Administrator role represent site administrators, and the Reviewer role represent content reviewers, as they do in a default Plone installation. We will also create a new group, Staff, which is given the StaffMember role. Among other things, this will allow us to easily grant the Reader, Editor and Contributor role in particular folders to all staff from the Sharing screen.

The preceding workflow is designed for content production and review. This is probably the most common use for workflow in Plone, but it is by no means the only use case. For example, the author once used workflows to control the payment status on an Invoice content type. As you become more proficient with the workflow engine, you will find that it is useful in a number of scenarios.


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