Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A Bit of a Waffle on TikiWiki,Elgg,Xoop,SMF,phpBB and Joomla

I took bit of a wander into the world of opensource on monday. I would like to say it was an eye-opener, but frustrating seems a far better choice of word. I started the day off, with a cup of coffee, a list of requirements and the world wide web. This is my story.

I was looking for a solution for a real world community society I am involved in. Cutting short the requirement's list, I was looking for something that would do the following;

Allow members to join
Set permission levels of access across the site.
A Discussion Forum
RSVP Calendar events
File Section (public/private)
Easy to support

Pretty much what did (8 years ago?), before it was slaughtered by Orange. I do not want to use Facebook, as they just steal our data, and (current service) does not represent value for money. Also, looking to brand our society and host it on our own domains.

I started off first of all with TikiWiki, a groupware CMS system. I was attracted by what it said on the side of the tin;

Wikis (like in Wikipedia)
Forums (like in phpBB)
Blogs (like in WordPress)
Articles (like in Yahoo News)
Image Gallery (like in Flickr)
Map Server (like in Google Maps)
Link Directory (like in DMOZ)
Multilingual (like in Babel Fish)
Bug Tracker (like in Bugzilla)
RSS Feeds (like in Digg)
Free Open Source software (LGPL)

Sounds good stuff, so I downloaded the files, went to the documentation and started through the initial set up, making sure my server met all the pre requirements. I then ftp'd the software onto my site, went to continue the installation and...  Started to run into permission problems. I should of really wrote down what the error was, but it was along the lines of not being able to access certain directories - chmod to 777. So I did, and then I got myself an internal server error 500.

It was young in the day, and I was full of coffee, so I decided to start again, paying extra attention to the instructions. Again, I ran into the 500 permission error. Now on the installation guide, under step 4. it says

"Too many permissions
If you are getting Internal Server Error 500, blank pages or similar, it could be that the permissions on the files are not appropriate for your webhost.

If you have shell access, you can run:

Great, I don't have shell access, what I am meant to do ? It doesn't tell me.  I did try a bit of googling for the answer, but after about 15 minutes, I was beginning to loose patience.  Having already tried two attempts, I was not in the mood for trying a third.  So it was in the Bin for Tikiwiki

Next up on the list was Elgg which describes itself as a powerful social engine which empowers individuals, groups and institutions to create their own fully-featured social environment.

I downloaded the software, went through the presteps, created a database and uploaded the software. I then started to go through the set up screens and got stuck on the entering in database information screen. Nothing seemed to happen. I entered in my details, re-entered my details and double checked. But for some reason, it was not letting me passed this screen. Again, onto the help, google and not much useful information to be found - except for checking credentials which I knew to be right. I did see people with similiar probems around the database screen, but they seemed to get error messages or a blank screen after this step. Either way, I had enough at this point and chucked elgg into the bin with Tikiwiki

Third up was XOOPs who bill themselves as an easy to use dynamic web content management system - sounds good, so I downloaded the files and got ready to install.

Having a quick look at the files I have downloaded, I see a htdocs folder. That looks familiar, I have a htdocs on my server with some files and folders, which cause problems if I delete them. There is no problem adding files (before someone says it, I know its the root), but before proceeding, I want to know exactly what xoop intends to do in my htdocs folder. I do not want it deleting anything.  Can I find an answer to this ? No, and that was the end of me trying out Xoop.

Moving away from CMS for a moment, I then decided to try Simple Machines which says

Simple Machines Forum — SMF in short — is a free, professional grade software package that allows you to set up your own online community within minutes.

I did have a false start with the installation, which was my fault (missed one of the mod 777's) but pleased to say, on the second attempt it worked - Hoorah! Success and just in time for lunch too. After some healthy rice and some oily fish, I was able to sit down and start evaluating the software against my requirements. One thing that did impress me, straight from the start, was the ease of being able to set up different discussion groups and set permission levels. It also handles files, so that was another tick.

I then started looking into the plugs in and customisation options. I am a bit confused about how you are meant to install them, but I think that will come from further reading - it does not seem to be straight forward. Missing also was the RSVP functionality, but from searching around, I did find a mod that seems to be in development for that.  I say development, as in the comments, I see that it works on previous versions of the board and you can manually install it on the current.  I do not understand why I can't automatically install it on the current version and why I have to go around such a long winded process to manually install it.

Nor, am I prepared to spend the time finding out. The author in the comments has stated quite recently that they are working on bringing it up to date, and upgrade it. By the sounds of it, the planned extra functionality is exactly what I'm after, so I eagerly await that version which hopefully I can install with ease.

After simple machines, I then decided to try phpBB which says of itself;

Since its creation in 2000, phpBB™ has become the most widely used Open Source forum solution. Like its predecessors, phpBB™ 3.0 “Olympus” has an easy to use administration panel and a user friendly installation process, which allows you to have a forum set up in minutes.

Out of everything, this had by far the most easiest installation and I was surprised how quick I had the site up and running. The administration side looks fiddly and from playing around, it was a few false starts before getting forums set up how I wanted. Nothing wrong with that, its a learning curve.  But, when I started looking at plug ins and customisation, this is where things started to get messy.

There seems to be a confusion about version numbers, compatiability and finding plugins. When I did eventually find two plugins which would provide me with what I wanted to do, both of them had a complex install instructions, with an estimated time of 45 minutes each. I was not prepared to spend an hour and half going through fiddly instructions, for something that may or may not work, just to see if it is the functionality I am after. So it was phpBB to the bin.

Finally, I tried Joomla and they say of themselves

Joomla is an award-winning content management system (CMS), which enables you to build Web sites and powerful online applications. Many aspects, including its ease-of-use and extensibility, have made Joomla the most popular Web site software available. Best of all, Joomla is an open source solution that is freely available to everyone.

Installation; firstly I don't like their online documentation, too clicky and all over the place. To be honest I'm being a little harsh as some effort has gone into it, but I feel it could do with an edit. After a couple of read throughs. I was pleased the installation itself went error free. Joomla looks like it can do a hell of alot, and again whilst the administration side looks like it needs a steep learning curve, there does seem to be method in the madness.

 One of the things I read, which was one of the reasons I tried it, was that in with keeping with "Software that is free, secure and of high-quality", that all official third party extensions should be under GPLv2 license for free distribution - sounds great, also the installation of extensions is straight forward.

So, its on to Joomla to look for plugins to cover the functionality I need ... Oh theres one...wait... I need to register to download it - fair enough, now a read through the reviews

This doesnt work yet and it will compromise your users data. There is a bug that doesn't seem to be fixed.

Very buggy and not well supported at this time.

Ok, I'll think Ill give it a miss and its back to the search... few alternatives later, that seems to do what I want... Ah, that is going to cost me $130 - mmm what happened to the GPLv2 ? A bit more searching and I find another one which seems to offer me all the functionality I want, plus it says its free. Great stuff! I download, install and... Wait a second, it says it can do this but where is the option. Oh wait, hidden in the small print, is I have to become a member of a club for that bit of functionalty. Fair enough - oh wait $129 dollars to join that 'club'


This is meant to be the point in the article where I say, I then found this excellent service and it does everything I want, but this is not the case. Instead I found frustration, annoyance and the want to throw something at my monitor. In the end, I am going with simple machines, as it does 70% of what I want to do, and I can fill in the gaps with a wordpress blog on the same domain.

A final rant, before getting to the conclusion. I spent a fair amount of time reading through forums of the developers of both the sofware and plugins for all of the above. This is a seperate waffle, but I would say;

"If you are not prepared to write clear documentation ...."
"If you are not prepared to keep your software/plugin up to date..."
"If you are not prepared to support your software/plugin..."
"If you are not prepared to fully test your code..."
"If you are not prepared to release robust code..."

Please do not bother at all.

Now, the conclusion. I know some people reading this may be thinking, well I should of done this, or spent more time reading the files here. I ask, what is a reasonable amount of time for someone to spend on an install ? how much technical knowledge should the user have before commencing installing the product or adding a plugin. I hate to break it to you geekboys, but normally people have been on, and using the internet for sometime now. Wordpress seems to manage it extremley well.

There is probably another set reading this, saying that I was expecting too much for free, and I would say; well i was expecting a fair bit more than what I did find. This waffle is not about paid for services (which down the line may be  my next move ). This is a waffle about looking at opensource as viable option for a real world requirement. I was expecting at the very least, to be excited about what was out there and have high hopes for the future.  All I have, is the opinion there is a lot of crap out there.

It seems to me, that if opensource is going to enter into the mainstream, then it must focus on the user more. Also, in the absence of any "figurehead', the community behind, not just the software, but any related service such as plugins. Must be aware, that their actions contribute to the image and reputation of the product. As I have mentioned in a previous post of mine, Reputation is not something that has been replaced with a profile, a tag line and a dynamic photo.


  1. Sounds like un-fun.

    Have you considered hosting via Google Apps? $10 per year domain registration and that's it.

    Or maybe Ning, but personally I find it too busy and incoherent

    I gave up hosting on my own servers yonks ago, it was too much like un-fun hard work.

  2. most un-fun indeed,

    google apps keeps popping up in suggestions, will take a look into that



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