umw.edu and WP 3.0: some initial architectural thoughts

While nothing is in stone yet, it looks pretty certain UMW will be moving its entire website to WordPress over the next year. This is really exciting for me, and it goes a long way to illustrate the impact UMW Blogs has had on the online environment at UMW more globally. What’s more, if we do this right, I really believe it will have the potential to seamlessly integrate the amazing community of teaching, learning, and discovery happening on UMW Blogs into the umw.edu domain on a department by department basis, if not an individual by individual basis. But to do this right, I think we need to focus on the architecture first, and huge kudos to Cathy Derecki for getting this conversation started out in the open on her blog The Transparent University. Her latest post focuses on whether our install should be using subdomains or subdirectories, and I recommend you reading it  before going on, because it will contextualize my ideas below (which are also in her comments in a more specific form).

Subdomains? Subdirectories? Or mapped multi-networks?
In her post, Cathy is looking for a means to do subdomains for larger departmental/college entities like the College of Education within the umw.edu domain. Something like http://education.umw.edu, and the sites on top of it would be something like http://education.umw.edu/advising. But that’s not really a subdomain setup, because if it were it would be http://advising.education.umw.edu when you created an advising blog—or any other blog under that subdomain. The hierarchical point for architecture Cathy raises is a good one, and I can see the value of subdirectories following a more familiar logic within particular department or administrative sites, even though but the “3 dimensional logic of subdomains” (as Cathy puts it) has its attraction.  Though, to be honest, the real value and distinction of subdomains really has to do with mapping domains on top of a site/blog. As far as I know, and this may have changed, you can’t map a domain on top of a blog using subdirectories. Now this may not be at all important because domain mapping is really for an individual’s site, like http://warrenrochelle.com (a mapped domain on umwblogs). If we were thinking about using the umw.edu space to give faculty, staff, and admin their own sites, while also providing them the option to map their own domain, then subdomains would be essential (am i right in this?). And it would be pretty radical for a university to provide such a slick and cool service on their main domain, and one can ultimately see some value in it. All that said though, UMW Blogs can do that for a faculty, staff or student just as easily, so it may not be key. And if faculty want a professional site on umw.edu, nothing prevents them from creating umw.edu/professorx and using a provided theme for creating an integrated web presence on the umw.edu domain.

Now, the plugin Cathy points to in her post is Donncha’s original domain mapping plugin for WPMu, and we are using this on UMW Blogs. It works beautifully, but all it does is lay a site like sacs.umw.edu on top of sacs.umwblogs.org. It simply masks the domain with a new one, it doesn’t provide subdomains on top of a subdirectory structure.

That said, I was thinking about this a bit, and there may be a way to get at the structure Cathy describes—namely education.umw.edu/advising or business.umw.edu/advising, etc.—that would require not domain mapping, but multi-network domain mapping (or subdomain mapping). In other words, mapping entire networks on top of the existing umw.edu, but still using the same database and installation (no separate installs, hence no extra maintenance).

Here’s how, on umwblogs.org we have several entire networks mapped on the same install. For example, http://greenwoodlibrary.org is one network that enables its own subdomains, and facultyacademy.org is another providing its own subdomains. And whereas http://warrenrochelle.com is simply one site mapped onto http://rochelle.umwblogs.org, these other networks can have innumerable sites within them, like this: http://civilrights.greenwoodlibrary.org

So, in theory (and I believe practice), if we keep the WP 3.0 setup as subdirectories, and we create a series of mapped networks (when a WP 3.0 site has enabled multi-sites it is called a network, many networks are called multi-network—all new terminology for me, so forgive the slippage).  And given that mapped networks (versus mapped sites) would be mapped to various subdomains like education.umw.edu, business.umw.edu, etc., we can actually start thinking of the hierarchical structure along the lines of subdomains for the most important networks—maybe colleges, departments, major administrative offices, etc. So, we can install the whole site as subdirectories, then use the various subdomains we decide upon http://education.umw.edu, etc. as separate networks which will actually create sites within them like http://education.umw.edu/advising

Now, how will this be done? Well, there are a ton of plugins for this, we are using an old one on UMW Blogs, but this one may work just as well: http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/yet-another-multi-site-manager/

And I’m sure there are some others we can look at. So, to reiterate, this wouldn’t require a subdomain setup for the multi-site option, we’d use subdirectories, and use select subdomains off umw.edu to map on new networks, like education.umw.edu (which is not actually a subdomain install, but a subdirectory install within a subdomain, i.e. education.umw.edu). The beauty of which is it’s all the same database, user management, directories, etc. And makes me think if we want to play with BuddyPress for directory and exploration purposes, it will still provide all the user profile and blogs/sites from the various networks off of umw.edu—am I right in this?

And as I was looking around at the plugins I realized something else kind of cool,  you can control the themes being used on a network by network basis, so each of those multi-networks can have a unique set of theme options for that network. So a particular tweak to education, business, etc. See this plugin for an example: http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/multisite-themes/

Which, in turn, suggests the important place of theming some kind of uber navigation to bring this hierarchy back together in some easily navigable form. Wondering if the top admin bar in BudyPress may actually provide some of that, or at least the basis for that.

So, those are some of my ideas, I’d love to get feedback, as I’m sure Cathy would too, about this approach, and how others might attack it differently. Anyone see issues in this idea (if you even understand it 🙂 ), or something I am simply overlooking in my abstract naivete? I’d love to know, but remember this is the Summer of Love, so go easy on me.

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10 Responses to umw.edu and WP 3.0: some initial architectural thoughts

  1. Andrea_R says:

    “As far as I know, and this may have changed, you can’t map a domain on top of a blog using subdirectories.”

    This changed a while ago. Like, last year?

    “Now, the plugin Cathy points to in her post is Donncha’s original domain mapping plugin for WPMu, and we are using this on UMW Blogs. It works beautifully, but all it does is lay a site like sacs.umw.edu on top of sacs.umwblogs.org. It simply masks the domain with a new one, it doesn’t provide subdomains on top of a subdirectory structure.”

    I’ve mapped subdomains before. You need to do some CNAME work though.

    So yeah – she wants a subfolder install, a multi-network plugin with each one being a mapped subdomain.

    also, BuddyPress isn’t multi-network aware now, so if you toss that in the mix, it’ll find everyone in the whole install. great if that’s what you’re looking for.

    JJJ did a Network plugin here, cuz I know you like the free stuff.
    http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/wp-multi-network/

    • Reverend says:

      Andrea,
      Did i ever tell you I love you? Well now I did, just don;t tell Ron 🙂 This is awesome info, and nice to know the subdirectories can now also map individual domains—I guess I have been under a rock for a while. Also, Buddypress picking up all the networks would be exactly what we want, so that works for us as of now. And let me ask you, mapping multi-networks as subdomains, like the education.umw.edu can be done not unlike how the mutli-sites worked in WPMU, right? If so, what do you think about this architecture—any holes that jump out at you?

      As for the JJJ Network plugin, I’ll check that out shortly on my local install, cause you know me too well—I do love me some free GPL licensed goodies 🙂

      Thanks for the clarification and advice, you rule.

  2. Andrea_R says:

    *mwah* Free hugs for the bava anytime. 😉

    Had a client who used multiple networks to map state.domain.com, so then he’d wind up with city.state.domain.com.

    The only hole we ever found was with sitewide tags, which was network-specific. So each state would aggregate, but not the whole install.

    But otherwise, I am a fan of a multi-network setup. 😀

  3. Jerry says:

    So, just cause I don’t know this stuff as well as I would like, what happens if (when) things change in the future? For example, 5 years down the line we rename the College of Business to the Groom College of Business. Now we need to change the address to groomcollege.umw.edu.

    What havoc does that cause to this solution?

  4. Reverend says:

    Jerry,

    not sure it’s any more havoc than if you changed umw.edu/business to umw.edu/groomcollege. Fact is, if you were creating the site hierarchically in either case, you’d still inherit that url name change. And a simple redirect of everything on the site within the subdomian business.umw.edu would point all the sites to groomcollege.umw.edu —could be even more efficient in that regard.

  5. Jon says:

    Jim,

    The funny thing is I had hoped Wooster would do this a couple of years ago when we were planning our site redesign. At the time I think doing what I was thinking (almost identical to what you propose above) would have been too fragile and shoestring for our Administration’s taste.

    I would love to see Wooster move to WPMS. My conception of how we would organize this would be like Cathy is thinking: umw.edu and then department.umw.edu with department.umw.edu/site. As Andrea indicates this should now be possible with domain mapping and a subdirectory install. Since I like to play with these things I had been bugging Andrea about doing this with the many personal blogs and domains I have. I hope you are able to push forward with this.

    I also hope we get a chance to connect while I’m in DC in a few days.

  6. Jon says:

    Bah, your comment form is eating the slash whatever after a domain. Did it with your and my examples.

  7. Reverend says:

    Jon,

    I think you’re right, and now that I think about your comment, and based on an idea I was wrestling with earlier. If we ever wanted to bring umwblogs.org within umw.edu, it would be as simple as http://blogs.umw.edu/sites. Once again a straight redirect, and given it is its own networks, you can open up new registration for people to create a blog and userid only on that network, but still have it running on the same install. It may be too database intensive, and keeping them separate may be smarter, but still doesn’t rule out the use of the subdomain blogs.umw.edu on its own dedicated servers.

    I think this architcture with WordPress is what I have always loved about it, and it’s baked in enough to Wp 3.0 to test it larger scale, it’s exciting.

    As for meeting up, call me at work tomorrow and let’s make a plan: 540 654 1997

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