FAQ for Universities Interested in WPMu

This morning I had a fun conversation with David Grogan, Ilene Chen, Stephen McDonald, and Hannah Reeves from the academic technology group at Tufts University. They had some questions about running a large scale WPMu installation at Tufts University, and below are some of their questions followed by my working answers. Figured I’d republish it here from Google Docs in the event anyone finds it useful, and special thanks to Hannah Reeves for organizing the session, it was a lot of fun, and it’s apparent Tufts has an excellent group that has much to bring to the experimentation with WPMu in education.

Set up and Performance

How long have you been running WPMu and what version are you currently running?


We have been running WPMu for almost three years now.  We started with a smaller pilot for one department (English Linguistics and Speech) at http://elsblogs.org in January of 2007, and based on its success decided to offer a university-wide publishing platform for all departments, students, and staff at UMW Blogs (http://umwblogs.org), which launched in August of 2007. 

What plug-ins are you using?

Oh wow, this is a big one, we have alomost 100 regular plugins installed, and then another 20 or 30mu-plugins. I won’t list them all here, but I will highlight the ones I think are essential, as well as point to Tom Woodward’s recent post about the plugins you should have (there is a little overlap here).



Can your users create their own themes from scratch? If so, how?

They sure could, themes are based on the open source code of WordPress, so anyone can create one who has working knowledge of PHP and CSS. We really haven’t had too many people design their own from scratch, but if they did we would need to test it before it went live. What we do a lot of, however, is use the Userthemes plugin listed above to get access to the theme files and hack existing themes. We have found this feature to be invaluable for the work we do.

Is your instance designed to be self-service? (e.g. can anyone at UMW log in and create new blogs or is there are request mechanism?)

Absolutely, anyone with a UMW email can get an account, and use it for whatever reason they like.  I think this model has been the ral key to opur success. Because at it’s root UMW Blogs is an open, and easy-to-use publishing platform for all kinds of things.  And we have allowed people to use it that way, and the results have been amazing in terms of realizing new uses and possibilities for the system. When you prescribe or define a technology too specifically, you often take out any innovative and re-imaginative teeth it might have had.

What does your hardware configuration look like?

UMW Blogs is externally hosted by Cast Iron Coding, which rules by the way, and we recently updated our server to the following specs (which work perfectly for more than 3600+ users and 3200 blogs).

Hardware specs:
SuperMicro H8SMU AMD Opteron QuadCore SingleProc Sata [1Proc]
AMD Opteron 1216HE [2.4GHz]
2 GB RAM
250 GB Hard Drive
100 MBPS network cards

Also, we give users about 150 MB of storage space, but rarely do they use that because we push external services like YouTube, blip.tv, Flickr, etc.

Have you noticed any system limitations regarding number of user accounts, # of blogs? Is so, what?

Not yet, as the numbers suggest above, we have a healthy community, but have not had real issues.  We are currently using Multi-DB from WPMuDev, but are currently working on switching to Hyper-DB (which is what wordpress.com is run on) because we no longer have a premium account at WPMuDev.


Have you noticed any system performance issues? If so, what?

Well, we had a system performance with traffic at the beginning of the semester, after which we upgraded to the server specs laid out above. Right now it is running smoothly, but the real issues with performance is plugin related, so I would watch that far more closely than we do 🙂

Security and Upgrades

Have you encountered any security issues that you have had to patch yourself? If so, what?

We actually upgrade to latest version very regularly. And so far so good, we have been pretty secure as things go.  With that said, we do not have UMW Blogs linked into any other  system, and the login and password is not connected through a single sign-on solution.

Support

How many staff/partial FTEs are needed to support your instance?


As of right now, I do the majority of user support with the actuall system.  But our division 5 and 1/2 FTEs, though I think most of the support has been relegated to me, and it has not burned all my time, but as UMW Blogs becomes bigger and bigger, and more “Systemic,”  the time devoted to it becomes greater. But, in anticipation of the next question. WordPress has made any barriers to new users very easy because the interface is so slick and user-friendly. And the fact that it is open source, and has an insane community behind it makes our jobs as instructional technologists so much easier, cause we can integrate new features on the fly.

What do you see as the biggest barriers that new users have to overcome in using WP?

Well, I think that is WP’s strength, and why we used it, because it’s interface is so user-friendly we haven;t had to invest too much time at all in user training.


Misc

What do you wish you could do with the system that you haven’t been able to do?

I wish it dealt with pages better than it currently does, but this is an issue I have with WP more generally.  I think pages and the actual transformation of the blog into a website could be a bit more seamless in terms of child/parent pages, page order, and static frontpage.  It does it all right now, but I think if it were all managedin one place, and a bit more obvious, that would be a huge help.


I also wish aggregation and syndication was built into the core in a more sophisticated manner, but this can be accomplished relatiely well with FeedWordPress.


Are you automatically categorizing blogs by people, clubs, courses, etc.? If so how?

No, we aren’t categorizing blogs out of the box, we actually allow clubs and courses  to add themselves to these aggregation blogs.  For example, a new club can include the URL of their webspace (as long as it has a feed it can be hosted anywhere) on the clubs blog here: http://clubs.umwblogs.org
A model which is very similar to how we are using aggregating sites for various courses.


Have you attempted to integrate BuddyPress? If so, what’s your experience been?


We have integrated BuddyPress with UMW Blogs, and you can see the evidence of this in the blogs, members, and groups pages off the main UMW Blogs site. We haven;t pushed it at all, and we are still thinking about the profile pages, but for right now we are just seeing what faculty and students do with it, if anything.  Over th next several months we will be experimenting more, but for right now it is acting more like a directory/profile sapce with limited activity. That said, we have been watching the work of Boone Gorges closely as he works on integrating forums and groups, and eventually thinking about groups as the organizing principle of a course blog, which is intriguing.

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27 Responses to FAQ for Universities Interested in WPMu

  1. Jim Doran says:

    Thanks for posting this, Rev.

    I’m running individual WP blogs at Johns Hopkins, and I have MU installed on a dev server. Haven’t yet switched everything to MU – I was waiting to see what happens when MU is part of the “regular” wp.

  2. Reverend says:

    Jim,

    Yeah, that is a good question, and the merger has some folks concerned, but the way I see it is that we are all going to be in this together during the merge, and part of my job over the next year will be seeing what that is all about, how to make UMW Blogs work on the new code, and then share it back. So join us, gabba gabba hey, cause you are one of us1

  3. Jim Doran says:

    Right on!

    I’ll talk with you at WordCamp NYC if you are there (I’m guessing you will be).

  4. pete naegele says:

    Thanks, Jim! Someone on the NITLE list was looking for just this information!

    Pete

  5. Hi Jim,

    Thank you for sharing this; I found it very interesting. From an instructional technologist’s standpoint I too have found it pretty easy to get people up and running with WP, which is a huge plus. I would love to see pages incorporated at the core, so that each user could choose whether to organize their space like a blog or a website.

    Also, how different is the Whitman project from the WPMu at UMW?

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  7. Boone Gorges says:

    Thanks for the great writeup Jim. I’m starting to think you’ve got the hots for my hacks.

    Claire, the Whitman setup runs an integrated combination of WPMU, Buddypress, bbPress and MediaWiki. (You may have noticed that I’ve been spiffing up the styling of the individual components over the last few days.) Jim, do you have an integrated version of MW on UMW? How do you see the wiki platform as working alongside or even in lieu of some of the functionality of WP?

  8. Reverend says:

    @Claire,

    UMW Blogs is a bit different from Looking for Whitman in that it is geared more towards one institution, and we haven’t integrated BuddyPress as impressively yet. I’ve been marveling at Boone’s work this afternoon, Looking for Whitman really looks solid, and the way the groups, member directors, and theme integrate is really nice. We just have to make the frontpage of Looking for Whitman a bit more dynamic to feature work from each of the schools and we will be set. But the two systems are quite similar, and in many ways Looking for Whitman is modeled on UMW Blogs and the CUNY academic commons, and encapsulates the best of both those sites. I really like the class groups, and the ability for email communication, DMing, and forums built into Looking for Whitman.

    @Boone,

    I have the hots for you, not your hacks, I thought you knew that. We do have an integrated MediaWiki installation, and all our support is written in MediaWiki, and them pulled into UMW Blogs through the Wiki Append plugin. Anyone on UWM Blogs can edit the wiki, but we haven’t had much of that yet. I am still looking for time to integrate the Wiki farm code the UBC folks showed us at OpenEd, that is the next step, and with that we can really start pushing the MediaWiki. The other hack I did, that I kinda liked, and it is a couple of years old now, is take a simple Wikipedia link plugin thank links any word wrapped in double square brackets
    like Batman, and automatically links the word or phrase to the appropriate article in Wikipedia. I reworked that (one line of code) to have any word wrapped in double brackets within a UMW Blogs blog create a new page in the UWM Wiki. It seemed cool, and a way to integrate the blog and the wiki with no overhead, but I haven’t experimented with it more. I still think a Wiki Farm would have some real possibilities here, given we still run a number of wikis independently for profs and classess.

    Our course list here (http://umwblogs.org/courses) is taken in from a wiki page that faculty can add their course to as well.

  9. Reverend says:

    @Jim,

    All things being equal, I will be at Wordcamp NYC, and look forward to meeting up finally, although we did meet at WordCampEd in DC, right? NYC is always fun

    @Peter,
    My pleasure, the bava abides 🙂

  10. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for this great post. My university (RMIT University, Melbourne, Asutralia) currently have about 2000 individual wordpress blogs that have been created on an ad hoc basis over a number of years. We are looking at moving to a WPMU solution in the new year. I’ve got a couple of extra questions:

    1. How do you handle backups and restores so that if a user wants to restore the state of their blog to some point in the past? we can do this at the moment with individual WP blogs.

    2. What sort of user education/terms and conditions do make your users sign up to before they get a blog?

    The last question is important for us because there is a lot of concern about being sued for blog content on a university blog post or comment.

    Cheers

    Mark

    (@marksmithers)

  11. @Shopper

    Unfortunately there is some concern at my institution and I believe there have been some issues in the past. Students who are asked to blog as part of their course are given classes in their roles and responsibilities as publishers. This would be harder to manage if we were to implement WPMU and a much more streamlined process for blog creation (which is what we want to do).

    I actually think the non technical aspects of rolling out WPMU at my university are more challenging than the technical issues.

    @marksmithers

  12. Reverend says:

    Hey Mark,

    Wow, 2,000 one-off WP blogs, you definitely need WPMu 🙂

    In terms of backups, we have daily, weekly, and monthly backups working in the cloud. we are using the Seaquest backup system, via the studs at castironcoing.com, and we are lucky to have a pretty solid backup solution for UMW Blogs that goes back at least a month, and provides dailies throughout that time. We also have this at a separate data center to ensure disaster recovery. So backing up individual blogs should there be the need won;t be a problem.

    As for the policy, we have a terms of service agreement when users sign-on that matches the universities Network Policy Use, we didn’t try to re-invent the wheel here, we basically said everything that applies to responsible use of the university network is applicable to UMW Blogs, and that’s it. In fact, we have had no issues in regards to content, copyright, and abuse on UMW Blogs thus far (knock on virtual wood) and so many of those issues were more about hypothetical concerns than real issues.

    Now obviously mileage may vary with regards to this, but we have found our staff, faculty, and students use the system for what it was intended for, academic related publishing, which is at once personal and professional.

  13. markschafer says:

    Feedwordpress has been referenced in the last 3 posts (and rightly so)… so I thought I’d jump in here. Feedwordpress is an important part of wonder-fudge you’ve created at umwblogs and it’s use is important to the vision of my project. I’ve posted this specific issue at the developer’s site and wordpress.org but the great minds are at the bava… so I ask the Reverend’s forgiveness for making this a support forum…

    Beyond the specifics of my issue below is the challenge of creating a system dependent on developers maintaining plugins as conflicts occur over time with other plugins or the core wp. The benefits of opensource out weigh the cons but the cons are still real. It’s completely any developer’s right to support continued plugin development or not. But this does have real implications for institutions maintaining their WP services. Regarding Feedwordpress, I’m wonder what the status is of it’s development? A new version was expected in August.

    Since upgrading to Buddypress 1.1 I’ve been getting the errors below on blogs using feedwordpress. The first error is not on every page visit. It will appear on the frontend (under buddypress bar) and it generates a lot of entries in my php error_log. The second error is related and occurs less often. I didn’t have this error with BP 1.0.3 and I don’t have the issue when Buddypress is disabled. Are others using BP 1.1 and feedwordpress seeing this error? Jim, if you don’t have this error I wonder if you are using BP 1.1. UMWBlogs doesn’t use the Buddypress Bar. Could that cause a conflict with feedwordpress?

    PHP Warning: Illegal offset type in /public_html/wp-includes/rss.php on line 1459
    PHP Warning: Cannot modify header information – headers already sent by (output started at /wp-includes/rss.php:1459) in /wp-includes/feed-rss2-com

    WPMU 2.8.4, BP 1.1.1, PHP 5.2.5 – using current rss files from the Magpie folder in feedwordpress (2009.0707).

    Enjoy the error here: http://ed445410f.ttacconnect.org/

  14. Jess Planck says:

    I noticed you gave some good information about the hardware and configurations for your WPMU web setup, so I was wondering if you could give some info about your database hardware and software setup? I’ve just recently started playing with Hyper-DB and I’d love to hear about your hardware because It could help with research for equipment planning for me.

  15. Excellent information – good questions and wrap up. Very informative.

  16. Reverend says:

    @markschafer,

    Hey, I hear you about plugin development, that is always a risk, but I have had real luck with the development cycle of FeedWordPress thus far. We are not using BuddyPress 1.1 just yet because we hacked 1.0.3 so significantly in terms of the themes, so that we have to wait until January. I may be coming a bit late to this comment, but I didn’t see the error for FeedWP, can you send it to me. More importantly, compliments on T-TAc, it looks like an amazing community you have creating, and I love the way you are using BuddyPress and the blogs together, good stuff.

    @Jess,

    We are currently still on Multi-DB with 18 databases, but are in the process of investigating and switching to hyper-db. Our hardware is as described, let me know what specifics you need from me and I’ll be sure to get it to you.

    @Harish,

    Why thank you, and good luck with the San Jose blogs project, it looks very cool.

  17. Jeff Perr0 says:

    This really was an excellent post.

    We are currently running 2 instances of WPMU at our college: One for students and one for instructors.

    About security and the Userthemes plugin:

    We have installed Userthemes on the instructors’ blog, there is no self-registration and once they have an account we bascially let them do anything.

    However, on our student blog, we allow self-registration and I did not install Userthemes. Wouldn’t you be worried about what a student could write in PHP, with access to a database connection? If it becomes popular, we could have thousands of accounts and it would be impossible to keep track of who was writing their own scripts.

    Anyways, I enjoyed this article and am always interested to find out how other Colleges and Universities are using WordPress.

  18. What about analytics software? Is there any analytics software that will allow you to analyze web traffic as a whole as well as to each particular site/blog?

  19. Haider says:

    Hi,
    Could you give some help regarding how could i include each new blog in some category? I should also be able to click on some categories list and when select a particular category it should list all blogs of that category?

  20. MarkS says:

    Update on Feedwordpress – One of the recent wpmu upgrades corrected the Feedwordpress header errors I was getting. Feedwordpress has also been updated since my last comment. Now if I can only find a solution to the duplication of posts (from feedwordpress) that appear in buddypress sitewide activity widget 🙂 I’m not sure if, or how, the hack for the mu sitwide-mulit-widget would work with bp but hope to keep the bp activity widget as it’s part of the core.

    Jim- Good to ‘see’ you at Wordcamp NYC. Didn’t get a chance to talk as our paths didn’t cross other than from a distance.

  21. Reverend says:

    @Haider,
    The only plugin I know that does this is Blog Types, and unfortunately it is locked behind a paywall at wpmudev premium: http://premium.wpmudev.org/project/blog-types

    Tragedy of the commons indeed.

    @MarkS,
    I’m sorry I missed you at WordCamp NYC, I was kind of an Ed Track snob, didn;t see much else which is my fault, and something I I would have liked to change, but I guess my heart remains very much within this app as a teaching and learning tool—I Love my ed peoples 🙂

    As for the sitewide feed from BuddyPress, I am going to let Boone B. Gorgs know about this via Twitter, and see if he doesn;t have some ideas. He is pretty much shredding up the BuddyPress development, and this is something the CUNY Academic Commons will need eventually when they start syndicating post to group/class blogs (if they indeed go that route)with FeedWordPress. So stay tuned. Also, Boone blogs at http://teleogistic.net\\

    Stay tuned 🙂

  22. Andrea_R says:

    http://wpmudev.org/project/blog-topics

    This will categorize your blogs into groups, for free. 🙂 Hey, has an admin menu too.

  23. MarkS says:

    Thanks Andrea. Just need to Cap the B & T.
    http://wpmudev.org/project/Blog-Topics

  24. Andrea_R says:

    Doh, that’s the one…

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