Background and highlevel overview

Plomino is an interesting extension of Plone.

In a time when Plone is narrowing its focus on document-based CMS, Plomino offers in-Plone application-building.

In a time when through-the-web, ZODB-resident scripting has fallen out of favour, Plomino does everything through the web.

It has an interesting ancestry too: the name and some core ideas hark back to Lotus Domino (, which besides a lot of other things was a form-based application builder backed by an object database, from the early 90’s. As such, in some respects it’s a conceptual forerunner of Zope.

Plomino trades a number of core Plone concepts for flexibility and simplicity. In the first place, it offers only one type of content: a generic Document type. Secondly, it eschews containment for documents, using Plone’s containment system only for its own simple application structure. Consequently, Plone’s cut/copy/paste operations don’t make sense for Plomino documents.

A Plomino application or database is a single container which holds Forms, Views, and Agents. It also has a catalog, a documents container for all documents, and a resources container for script libraries. That’s it.


Plomino is a through-the-web application builder, hence:

  • It is not a through-the-web content-type builder like Dexterity, which is perfect for creating custom content types that stick to the standard content management scenario. Plomino allows to implement any custom scenarios.
  • It is not just a form generator like PloneFormGen, as Plomino provides all the services (data storage, search, automation, import/export, etc.) to build an entire application. Regarding form generation itself, a major difference with PloneFormGen is that Plomino allows to edit the form layout entirely, while PloneFormGen uses a fixed pre-defined form layout.

A closer look

Forms contain Fields and Actions, and Views contain Columns and Actions.

When you start to build a Plomino application, you normally start by adding Forms. When you add a form, the creation page resembles a normal Plone Page, with a large richtext edit field. Here, you simply type out the layout of the form. Add tables, images, explanatory text, whatever you need. The one departure: you also create fields, actions, hide-whens, subforms, accordions, and cache-zones on the layout using Plomino-specific TinyMCE buttons.

This allows very quick prototyping of forms, and it broadens participation in form design. This is not equally valuable for all applications, or for all stages of an application’s lifecycle, but it can be very useful.

As you add fields and so on, Field and Action instances are added to the Form. These are matched with layout elements according to id: the ids match elements on the layout, and the widget of the field or action is substituted for the placeholder on the layout when the form is viewed.

When viewing the form, a user can fill in the field widgets and submit the form using the default Save action. At this point, a Document is created containing Items that correspond to the Fields on the Form.

Follow me closely here: if you create a Book form with Title and Author fields, this will create documents with Title and Author items. Another form, say Trip, may create documents with items like Departure, Destination and Passenger. Documents are simply generic bags of items. They are both created and viewed using forms, that render the items found on the document using the corresponding fields on the form. (Note that a given form may not have fields for all the items on the document, and there may be fields that do not correspond to items but that render values based on other items or other documents.)

With Plomino, you have to build the additional structures you need using documents and items as building blocks.

While creating documents, it may be useful to think of a Form in terms of a rubber stamp. When you use it to create a document, it stamps its items on that document, at that moment. If you change the Form afterwards, the items on the documents created previously will still be the same: you may need to re-save documents with the latest version of the form if you need their items to be updated.

While viewing documents, you are also using forms. At this point it’s more useful to think of a Form in terms of a template or mask: the form will render those items that correspond to its fields (there may be more items than fields; these may be ignored, or the formula of one field may look at multiple items).

When you use a Form to create or edit a document, it stores its name in a Form item on the document, so you could grab all books by looking for the documents where the Form item is Book. However, Plomino doesn’t require that you always use the Book form for editing those documents. If you added a CatalogBook form with fields like Dewey and ISBN number, for the use of users doing cataloging, and go over the book documents using this form, their Form items will change to CatalogBook. Therefore one common pattern is to include a doctype field on forms used to create documents (if, indeed, your Plomino application requires the concept of different types of documents).

Similarly you could include an item referencing a parent document if you wanted to mimic containment, but this is only one possible way of structuring your data.

Grouping documents

Forms are built around individual Documents. For dealing with Documents in aggregate, Plomino offers Views. The documents in a view are all the documents for which the selection formula (Python Script) on the View evaluates as ``True``. Views contain Columns, that are calculated for each matching document. They often correspond to items on documents, but can be any value returned by a formula. That is, each record in a view corresponds to a Document, but the values of columns in the record need not come from that Document.

Views are updated as documents are created or edited, but depending on the formula and the number of documents, views can be expensive to refresh from scratch.

Besides grouping documents, views are also useful for browsing purposes. They allow paging and filtering, and can evaluate a formula to determine which Form should be used for viewing documents opened from the view (that is, a view that lists books for lending could show documents using a Checkout form, while a view that lists books with incomplete metadata could use the CatalogBook form).


  • All the normal Plone roles and permissions pertain to Plomino.
  • In addition, Plomino offers a hierarchy of roles that govern management of the application, creation and editing of Forms and other design aspects, creating and editing documents using the supplied forms, and accessing the database.
  • Finally, Plomino allows creation of user-defined roles that can be assigned to Plone principals, and need to be checked for at application-level in the Plomino application.

As such, security is to some extent leaky, depending on application authors to remember the appropriate checks in all relevant forms. Also, the form to be used for rendering a document can be passed as an URL parameter, so someone could sneak a look at a document using a form that you didn’t intend, as can form values, and various other API games. This can be mitigated by factoring out certain checks to a common script library and including them in all forms, but I think you get the point — Plomino does not chase the grail of a bulletproof environment. You need to think about what is enough security, and not deploy Plomino applications with data inappropriate to the context (i.e. deploy applications with sensitive data to closed groups).

Barely-repeatable processes, workflow

There are countless cases of people, businesses or projects switching bug tracking systems to find one that fits their way of working. And a bug tracking system is a relatively simple domain! Most processes are much more complicated. Does this really make sense? A bug tracking system includes implementation choices and policies regarding database backend, templating mechanism, authentication sources, and so forth and so on, in addition to the business rules of bug tracking. It’s a shame that everything else has to change if you all you really want to change are the business rules.

Any application deployed in a real-world environment ends up having to deal with local variations, transient changes, emerging requirements, and having the business change in response to the application being implemented.

Of the various ways in which to confront this reality, one method is to use an architecture that provides simple building blocks. The architecture can remain stable across deployments and evolve in a controlled fashion, while the various deployments of the application can be tweaked in place, branching and diverging if needed.

This is especially true for Plomino, which is meant for quickly creating solutions where exhaustively analysing and modeling the domain is not justified; or indeed, where a Plomino solution is instrumental in building up the business knowledge necessary to realistically model a good solution, while incidentally getting work done.

This is a powerful motivation of the “dirty” mixing of content and code in the database.


One way of addressing workflow needs in Plomino is to create a script library which computes the form which should be used based on the context (what is being viewed by whom). However Plomino itself doesn’t offer building blocks to make building workflows easy and consistent.

This makes associating security with workflow states more arduous than ideal.

Use cases

Use cases:

  • simple form-based data capture.
  • mini-apps that manipulate Plone content.
  • selfcontained apps.
  • replicate forms/data to other instances.
  • pull/integrate data from other sources.

Plomino has different sweet spots. One of the quickest is simple form-based data capture. On this level, it is PloneFormGen‘s more free-spirited cousin.

It can also be used to manipulate Plone content, similarly to Content Rules, but again, it’s easier to script case-by-case variations from Plomino than using Rules. This is a good case for Plomino micro-apps consisting only of a couple of forms with some scripts to drive Plone, e.g. pre-populating an event folder with Event, NewsItem, and PR announcements.

Once the bug has bitten, it’s also very tempting to build entire self-contained applications in Plomino. In some cases this makes sense (for example, Plomino data and applications can be synced between Plone instances, so if you need (parts of) your application to be synced, it has to stay in Plomino), but the goal should always be to build as little as possible. For example, it would be a pity to build a bug tracker in Plomino.

Regarding the replication use cases: imagine a library environment. The forms for browsing books are synced to the public servers, but the forms for editing the catalog are kept on the librarians’ servers. Or imagine a business with different branches. The data from each branch is synced to the head office to be aggregated, and pricelists are synced to branches.

Plomino can also function as a very easy integration point with legacy or third-party systems. Just arrange to push CSV to the URL of a Plomino view, or for another service to pull CSV from a Plomino view (or form or agent, depending on your needs), and complete the integration using Plomino Forms.

Digging deeper

Plomino looks nice and simple at first glance, but it allows you to get yourself into as much trouble as you like ;-)

It is conceptually quite simple, and applications are fully defined by the XML export. The core Plomino concepts could be re-implemented on Dexterity or Pyramid or Django without too much trouble. Living in a CMS has its advantages, however. The Zope and Plone APIs make a lot of power available.

Building pages

It is easy to think of Plomino in terms of simple forms-based data capture. However forms can have conditional sections, and can contain sub-forms. In addition, fields can return the rendered HTML of other forms; for example, in the Milestones field on a Project document you could look up and iterate over all the associated Milestone documents, get each one to render itself using an appropriate form, and include the HTML in the Project view. You could even return arbitrary javascript to be executed upon rendering of a form. So though you can write forms simply as richtext documents, you are also free to compute any HTML you need. For this, you have a number of mechanisms: render documents using forms or fields, override the template used for fields or views with a template of your own, or compute exactly what you need in Python.

It is a matter of judgment at which point this becomes unmanageable. It can allow a quicker turnaround than a Python-product-based approach, but without discipline it can result in a hard-to-understand mess.

Application export and versioning

Some of the drawbacks of old-style through-the-web coding in Zope include:

  • it’s hard to distinguish between application and data;
  • it’s easy to lose track of application elements among nested folders with acquisition in play;
  • it’s hard to version the application.

These are mitigated in Plomino in various ways:

  • A Plomino application consists of a single container with design elements (forms, views, agents), and a resources subfolder with scripts, templates, images, and other collateral.
  • The application can be exported to XML files. The ordering and formatting of the XML is consistent and can be usefully versioned. The XML files can be imported to update an instance to a particular version of an application.

Data migration

As mentioned before, forms and documents are not tightly coupled. It’s quite easy to end up with a mix of documents from the time before books had a Translator item and later documents that do have that item and others.

In order to deal with this, sometimes all that is needed is to code defensively. Instead of assuming that all documents will have a Translator item, show a default value if they don’t. However if it is necessary for the item to exist, the documents need to be updated. Various approaches are possible: in the simplest case, just call the save() method on all documents. In more complicated scenarios, documents may need to be saved using specific forms or by a user with a specific role. This can be dealt with by creating a Plomino Agent which does the required migration.

Once there are a lot of documents, re-saving all necessary documents can take a long time. For this reason, as with all long-running Zope tasks, it’s best to kick off the migration on a ZEO client set aside for jobs like this.


A quick list of ways to make life difficult for yourself:

  • Change the field type after you already have documents with items of the original type (e.g. you used to be creating strings, but now you’re creating dates).
  • Store complex values as items (like arrays with inconsistent formats including CSV strings).
  • Store derived fields that are not computed for display (once you do this, you have to worry about keeping derived fields current when editing the reference documents).
  • Have a field called “Amount” in both forms “B” & “C”, both used to show doc “D”, but the definition of the field on “B” is incompatible with the field on “C” (e.g. in the one case it’s an integer value, and in the other it’s a currency-formatted string. (This could happen if you forget to update both forms and migrate existing documents.)

Ideas for improvement

Plomino has been conservative, preferring to remain open-ended and conceptually simple. While it could be made more sophisticated in many ways, it’s easy to lose some good properties in the process, such as the ability to export and version the application in its entirety, or to easily sync design elements and documents among Plomino instances.


That said, the current weak areas of Plomino are security, workflow, and references, as they must be implemented manually using formulas.

Regarding workflow, perhaps AlphaFlow could be resurrected, or zope.wfmc or hurry.workflow could be used. A DCWorkflow-based approach would not work, as all Plomino documents share the same type, and live in the same folder.

Currently references between documents in Plomino tend to be simplistic, consisting of storing document paths or ids as items. This makes transitive relationships or keeping track of constraints on relationships error-prone and cumbersome. On the other hand, it is robust in its simplicity. If a reference engine such as zc.relationship were used, there would be the potential for the documents to get out of sync with the relationship index due to import or sync operations.

Another wrinkle regarding relations is that Plomino documents are identified by their id, which should normally not change. By default, the id is a random key. It is possible to compute something more readable, but be careful of doing so prematurely, as it makes you worry about id collisions and the continued suitability of ids chosen at the outset. Since Plomino documents can be synced among Plomino applications, relations cannot depend on object identity.


It’s easy to make a big Plomino database crawl. The code being executed is Restricted Python, and rendering a form which pulls content from many related documents can pull lots of big fat Archetypes-based objects into memory. The contents of a view is anything that evaluates True for the view’s selection formula, which may be expensive. Not bad when done incrementally, but it can be pretty bad when refreshing the view for thousands of documents.

Plomino does provide an extension mechanism, so you can move aspects of your application to filesystem-based Python code if they are mature enough and prove to be bottlenecks.