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Sat, 19 Feb 2005

Content Management

— SjG @ 6:56 pm

Content Management. Seems like that’s what everyone wants for their web sites these days, and it’s no wonder. You can keep your site up to date. You can change things in response to your users, your boss, or that fellow with all the crazy ideas over in marketing. You can change things according to the season, or according to your mood. And lastly, at least in theory, you don’t get “locked in” to a specific vendor for maintenance.

So Content Management’s a good thing. But people mean different things when they use these words.

  • If you’re a gamer and want a portal site for your gaming group, you mean one thing: a place where you can post news and images, list members, hook in a discussion board, and maybe post game rankings; this is also probably what you want if you have a web site for your cooking club, your neighborhood, or perhaps your local political organization.
  • In the other extreme, you’ll mean something else entirely. If you’re, say, the marketing director for a publicly-traded company, you want each department head to be able to edit the section of the company web site that pertains to their work, but you want work-flow management so that the marketing and legal departments can have final say on what goes live. You’d probably like revision control, fine-grained access control (who gets to upload or edit what, and who can reject or approve it), and other similar features. You may well want the site to be able to get content from other back-end business systems.
  • Then there’s the middle ground, which includes some of the features from each of the former. If you run a small agency, you’ll want to be able to post comps and scripts to your clients, you want to update your awards page each time you win something, and you probably want to put those award-winning ads online for people to view. You might want some access control, but you don’t need revision control or interfacing with back-end systems.

For the first case, the community site, there are dozens of PHP-based Open Source solutions. There’s PHP-Nuke, Post-Nuke, Drupal, Mambo, Xoops, Typo3, Xaraya, and countless others. All of them are well adapted for this specific niche, and most of them are pretty horrible if you want to extend them or use in a way that’s not part of the original design. Call me an elitist, but the bar to entry here is very low; there are a lot of programmers who don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re doing it very publicly. There’s a strong emphasis on cool and futuristic visuals, and something of a shortage of solid architecture. Few of them create HTML that will validate, and even fewer make proper use of cascading style sheets (CSS). Fortunately, you can road test them all at OpenSourceCMS.com, and see if any work for you.

For the second case, the corporate solution, there are a multitude of commercial packages which vary in price from the low 5-figures on up to as far as you want to go. We use Enonic VerticalSite for this kind of corporate site. It’s Java/EJB based, and uses widely-accepted standards like LDAP, XML, and XSLT, so it can integrate into a vast array of other back-end systems. XSLT allows the developer total freedom in the templating so, page sizes can be reduced through the use of CSS. It’s a solid solution, and affordable for its class.

I’m pleased to say that there is finally a reasonable contender for the last case, the middle option. In the past, we’d tried to adapt projects from the PHP Portal group to serve in this capacity, and, frankly it was not a very good experience. Now, however, there is CMS Made Simple. It’s a straightforward framework, that provides a developer with a lot of basic functionality: group-based permission system, hierarchical content management, and support for XHTML templates and CSS. But what’s best about CMSMS is that it’s a lightweight framework that doesn’t come with a lot of unnecessary extras, yet it supports an object-oriented API for adding modules, so you can add in any functions you find lacking.

I’ve been madly developing menuing systems and a flexible Feedback Form submission system for CMSMS (you can find ’em on the Project Wiki). The new API seems pretty solid, and it’s certainly easy to develop for. I’ve found the developers to be personable, helpful, and very positive when I’ve communicated with them on IRC.

My next project, which I plan to implement using CMSMS, is a portfolio tool for artists. The tool should enable artists to create web sites to showcase their work.


Wed, 2 Feb 2005

Today’s Vision of the Future

— SjG @ 3:44 pm

Today’s installment:

  • everything will have a camera on it.
  • everything will be connected to the internet.
  • everything will have gigs of memory or more.
  • everything will have a GPS receiver in it.
  • everything will serve up targeted advertising based on location, personal history, and other gathered demographic data.
  • everything will play your music and movies to you.
  • everything will spontaneously reboot at least once a week.
  • the job title “Systems/Gadget Immunologist” will be more prestigious than “Doctor.”
  • nobody will brush their teeth or floss; instead they’ll squeeze another tube of plaque-scrubbing nanobots into their mouths once a month.
  • people will network their home theaters, so they can recreate the experience of seeing a movie with other people.
  • houses will be equipped with special systems to play your personal theme music for various activities. Only old folks will use the same theme song for activity_01.01 (getting up in the morning) and activity_07.47 (returning to the house).

Mon, 31 Jan 2005

Backups, Backups, Backups

— SjG @ 10:22 pm

Well, on Friday, a directory on the Snap Drive fileshare suddenly had no files in it. Then the directory itself vanished. Peculiar. Then in the Snap Drive’s system log, it started complaining about “broken spans.”

This was not good. But hey, it was a RAID drive, so I wasn’t that worried. Until I realized that the drive had been configured in so-called RAID-0, which is not really RAID at all, it’s just striping. Hence the reference to “spans.” Of course, in my confidence in the safety of RAID, I’d never bothered to back up the drive. Stupid, stupid. Now I’ll be spending upwards of $2-3k to try to recover some of the data, which could have been $50 worth of time and $100 worth of storage.

Lessons: Know the configuration before trusting the hardware. Make backups anyway. Don’t be stupid. sigh

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Tue, 18 Jan 2005

Slow POP connections

— SjG @ 12:29 pm

OK, this is an esoteric one, but I’m happy to report there is a simple solution.

We migrated Stacy over to using Thunderbird (from Outlook Express) on her Mac to cut down on the spam. In the process, we upgraded her to OS X.
Strangely, while POP connections to our local QMail server are nearly instantaneous on the Windows machines, there would be a 30-40 second delay for her. It wasn’t a Thunderbird problem — we could replicate the problem by telnetting to port 110 — and only from the Mac OS X machines.

Karl finally succeeded in diagnosing the problem. QMail uses tcpserver to wrap connections. tcpserver, in turn, checks back via ident. The Mac OS machines don’t have identd running by default. By running tcpserver with the “-R” option (disabling the ident lookup), everything works brilliantly as it should.


Sat, 15 Jan 2005

WordPress Publish by Email

— SjG @ 5:09 pm

So I was playing with the cool wp-mail mod by John Blade, and trying to moblog from my Treo 650 and Versamail. It works impressively.

But I’m never quite satisfied with any software — I wanted a few new features, and I wanted a fix for a weird VersaMail bug. So I added some features, and tweaked some code.

This version adds the following:

  • Allow uploaded articles to specify status (e.g., draft, publish, static, private).
  • Fixes a weird encoding issue introduced by VersaMail, which sends encoded images with a MIME type of “application/octet-stream”. Huh?
  • Creates thumbnails of the uploaded images, and includes them as links to the actual images

Status Code
To specify status for an article, you use John’s subject syntax to specify a category, then follow it up with the code for the status:

  • d – draft
  • p – publish
  • s – static
  • P – private

So, for example, to upload an article as a draft into category 6 with a title “My Article”, you would use the subject:

[6d]My Article

If you’d wanted that to be immediately published instead of posted as a draft, you could just omit the “d” in the category specifier, or explicitly add a “p”.

If you don’t know which category you want, you can still use this status hack; assign the posting to category 1, and change it later from your admin console.

Thumbnails
This functionality depends on Thomas Boetell’s popular GD lib being installed. Many PHP installations come with it prebuilt; otherwise you’ll need to bug your ISP to add it (or rebuild your PHP if you run your own server).

By default, thumbnails are created with the maximum dimension of 100 pixels; that means the longest side of the thumbnail will be 100 pixels, regardless of the aspect ratio (if your original image is 640 x 480, the thumbnail will be 100 x 75, but if your original image was 480 x 640, your thumbnail will be 75 x 100). You can change this maximum dimension; simply edit line 49, and change
$thumb_max = 100;
to the value you prefer.

Download
I’m sending my changes to John, so he can incorporate them into whatever he’s doing with wp-mail. In the meantime, you can download ’em here. Simply expand the archive, and replace your wp-mail.php with the file from the archive.

wp-mail.tgz Oooooh! A single file in a tar archive!
wp-mail.zip For those of you who prefer zip format.

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