Every journey is simply a series of steps

… but the first step is not always simple.

Welcome to the ATDP Commons.  This section of our website is the potential successor to The Virtual ATDP (TVA) as an online portal for students, instructors, and the greater ATDP community. My long term goal is to integrate all of our online resources: news, research, online application, account management, class resources, persistent community—all in one place. I hope this will evolve into the ATDP website.

But one step at a time.

This year, I also had the herculean task of recompiling and redesigning the database which holds all of the research and application information the program has amassed over the last 20 years. That did not leave much time to finding a solution to our “TVA problem.” We were even prepared to take a year off from providing the program with its own online platform; Google Groups and Facebook have grown similar capabilities that would surely have been workable, if not ideal. But I am both relieved and excited that I am at least able to present a candidate for ATDP’s e-future.

What was wrong with The Virtual ATDP?

I personally feel that referring to online activity as “virtual” has become outmoded. (And let me tell you, there is nothing “virtual” about—for example—connecting with a loved one from across the world, or about having one’s financial security threatened by identity theft.) But semantics alone are not a defensible reason to scrub a web server and disrupt a potentially continuous online community.

The short explanation: the software that ran TVA was untrustworthy, if not completely broken.

The longer explanation: I have a good friend who once decided to write his own programming language. Then he wrote a web server in that language. And then he wrote a content management system for the web server that just happened to be a perfect fit for ATDP. We both knew one of Lloyd Nebres’ students, the connection was made, and lo! TVA became an Evlan-powered web community.

Then problems started cropping up when ATDP’s Macintosh machine and its Evlan server grew a mutual dislike for one another. The server would eventually quit after running for a time, so a stopgap measure was put in place: the server would automatically backup and restart every hour on the hour.

When I taught The Internet Classroom last year, we were forced to put up with this downtime, but it was never more than a few minutes. Later, the server would chew its state file for around five minutes. When I came on board as an ATDP staff member, the server sometimes took thirty minutes to come back up—meaning this web server was offline for nearly half the time, by design. This was not a viable option.

There might be a solution to fixing the Evlan server, but there is no guarantee how long it would work. The bottom line is there was only one person capable of effectively troubleshooting and maintaining our proprietary software (the guy who wrote it!), and he now works at Google, with much larger things to worry about. If I wanted to continue the legacy of hosting a web-based community for ATDP, it would need to be far more sustainable.

A Goldilocks Approach to CMS Deployment

In my ample spare time, I began a search for a more well-supported CMS so we could be assured it would play nice with our new Mac Mini servers. My search criteria:

  • Popular enough to provide an active user community for support
  • Versatile enough to be able to approximate the functionality of our last CMS
  • Must be free, open-source

The first serious contender was Drupal. I’d heard of UC IT staff meeting to discuss its application to other campus departments, so I figured I would start there. What a mess! One of Drupal’s selling points is that its backend isn’t really a backend; it’s integrated with the site itself and implements a good deal of WYSIWYG methodology. It may remain the most flexible of the candidates, but I couldn’t spend enough attention to learn its nuances to get it configured and designed before the program.

I looked at the next-most-popular open-source CMS, Joomla. (I eschew the pretentious exclamation point. I’ll get excited about your CMS when I please, tyvm.) What a relief when I discovered it had a stable, intuitive backend! Configuration was much easier, but now the problem was finding a way to add the features ATDP classes would actually need. In this, I was a victim of bad timing or bad luck or both. Joomla had recently rolled out a new version, and there were only a fraction of compatible extensions relative to its old version. But even amongst the older plugins, most of the really useful-looking ones were provided by commercial parties, meaning we would have to pay for the functionality we needed.

When I got fed up of poring over Joomla extensions, I turned back to one of the more venerable CMS potentialities that I had dismissed out of hand earlier: WordPress. “That’s just for basic blogs,” I had told myself. In taking a second look, however, I realized that there was nearly as much extendability here as in the previous two candidates. I gave the install a try and found some promising plugins…

Enter the Commons

Instead of spending hours and days searching for the right combination of CMS and third-party software, this installation of WordPress was up and running with much of the desired functionality inside thirty minutes (perhaps while the old TVA server was restarting). While the straightforward configuration was encouraging, the truth is that I just didn’t have any more time or brainpower to devote to finding a suitable piece of software that would serve ATDP reliably for this summer.

To invoke the immortal words:  it’s Ockham’s razor time.

So this summer, our instructors and our students, and my own class, will give the ATDP Commons a trial by fire, a stress test, an on-the-fly shakedown. With luck, it will still be here at the end.