Monthly Archives: June 2007

MySpace ready to open up?!

According to TechCrunch it looks as if MySpace are looking to follow Facebook down the route of an open platform for developers.

I can’t say I’m particularly surprised (given the success Facebook’s experienced) but I wonder if this is perhaps too little too late. At the moment MySpace still beats Facebook in the stats and they do have a greater critical mass but in the last few months many of it’s users have switched their allegiance to Facebook and with the networks growing every day I wonder how ready they’ll be to switch back.

For me Facebook offers so much more than MySpace. Aside from the obvious developer tools it has the stickiness that MySpace doesn’t. I can find out what my friends are up to alongside details of my colleagues and peers. Through Facebook I can find out about events I may be interested in, have discussions (in a relatively closed environment) about those events and strengthen my professional networks. Would I be as comfortable doing this on MySpace? I think not.

I think Facebook has a greater appeal for all ages. It has something for everyone. As a Web Developer many of the MySpace profiles make me cringe whereas I know what I’m getting with Facebook – it’s more about the information and the interaction than the layout.

It’s all down to individual preferences at the end of the day but I don’t think MySpace’s announcement will make much difference to Facebooks popularity and my money will still be on Facebook overtaking MySpace as the number one social networking in the not too distant future.

Don’t Panic!

MarvinThe countdown is on to the big move. Web Services have two brand new servers to host all the websites (GO, intranet, corporate website and more) and to use for development. Not content with just moving the sites over, we’re also implementing changes to the way we manage projects! And all this is happening on Monday and Tuesday!

One of the new servers will host the live versions of all our sites. This will be a staged process, moving the corporate website first, followed by sites like Hi and Jobs and finally moving the intranet. When you log onto the website on Wednesday there will be little obvious change but the new server will provide a more stable platform for hosting our websites. It’s running new versions of PHP and has more storage space available for multimedia content.

More exciting changes are happening on the second web services server! We’re running VMWare – a virtualisation system which splits a single physical server into lots of “virtual” servers. Each one runs completely separately as if they were physical machines but it’s much more efficient. We’re currently running six virtual servers for a number of different purposes. One runs our Subversion repository and projects wiki/ticket tracking system, another our development server, others are used for testing new versions of software and some exciting new services that are in the pipeline! From the sysadmin side, provisioning a new server goes from days to minutes.

New toys vital server infrastructure is great, but the changes in the way the web services team work are likely to have a much greater significance. All our sites will be stored in a Subversion repository allowing better management of the work we do. Our test servers will be virtually identical to the production server and everyone in the team (plus Contribute users – you know who you are!) will have their own area on the development server making conflicts between changes a thing of the past!

Sound like a lot of work? It is, so check back next week to see how it all went!

The Road to Somewhere

I appreciate that I risk sounding like a Google groupie, but they do keep coming out with cool new features for their products! Their latest announcement is for the directions feature of Google Maps. Now instead of typing in addresses, you can just right click to set start and finish points and to change the route it takes, just drag the blue line to a new road and it will reroute you. There’s a cheesy video introducing the service, but the best thing to do is just try it yourself!

Tracking the interweb

A comment on my last post from a journalist at the Essex Chronicle got me thinking. Obviously he’s using Google Alerts to track topics of interest, in that case possibly “World Scout Jamboree” or maybe “Chelmsford” or “Hylands Park” (hello if this triggers the alert again!). I know other journalists do this too – I wonder if the Ormskirk Advertiser[1] pick up on what we say online…?

Back to the point I was going to make! What tools do we use in Higher Education to help us better track what goes on online? I have a few Google Alerts of my own, but non for work use at the moment. I track interesting sites using RSS feeds and I monitor Technorati for people posting about Edge Hill – what do other people do? Is it part of our role in Web Services to track everything online, or should we be showing others some of the tools to monitor the internet for themselves?

I’ve just subscribed to an alert on “Edge Hill University”. Let’s see how much my inbox gets flooded!

Update: make sure you’re specific about alerts – I originally subscribed to Edge Hill University without the quotes and two out of three notifications weren’t anything to do with Edge Hill.

[1] icNetwork is currently broken – why is it always so slow?!

Busman’s Holiday

World Scout JamboreeWhile most people will be jetting off for their summer holiday to far flung places or visiting some of the beautiful countryside to be found around the UK, I’ll be doing something slightly different. I’ll be working, unpaid, for up to 12 hours a day, for three weeks with only a few days off. I’ll be sleeping in a tent; toilets and showers will be in portacabins. And I’ll be in Essex. What possible reason could I have for doing this? It’s the World Scout Jamboree, and it’s coming to the UK!

2007 marks 100 years of Scouting so the World Scout Jamboree – a gathering of Scouts from around the world which happens every four year – is returning home after 50 years. It’s set to be a massive event with 29,500 participants, 10,500 staff and up to 80,000 day visitors over 10 days. Up to 50,000 people on site at any one time, at Hylands Park just outside Chelmsford.

I’m involved in the ICT team who are responsible for checking people in when they arrive, network infrastructure across the site, the websites, databases, telephones and radios – pretty much everything technical! My role for the Jamboree is part of a team that will run five internet cafes containing 250 PCs and 125 telephones to allow people to phone and email home. Four will run 6am to 10:30pm with the one for adults available round the clock.

The size of the event is quite incredible. In the space of three weeks, the build team have to create a “village” to house twice the population of Ormskirk – it’s the largest construction project by volunteers in the UK ever. At a meeting last weekend they went through some of the statistics – 102,000kg of raw meat, 170,000 litres of fresh orange juice, 270,000 sandwiches.

That’s the stuff that makes sure no one goes hungry, but large events rely on technology too. The network guys have to install 35km of cable, 500 PCs, 150 switches, hundreds of VoIP phones and racks of servers.

Now this is where you lot can help out! TPTB in IT Services have agreed to set us loose for a day trip down to Hylands Park to help build some of the infrastructure and so I’m looking for volunteers! The day I’ve picked out is Friday 13th July and it will be an all day thing. No technical experience is required as you’ll be paired with someone who knows what they’re doing and jobs will mainly be things like running out cable into the correct places, crimping the ends and making sure it’s all ready for PCs and phones to be plugged in.

If you’re interested and are able to help, please let me know and I’ll give you more details.

Facebook Applications

I’ve been looking at Facebook Applications (and the Platform) since they launched and have been amazed by the massive growth of some of them. The Guardian summarises some issues that developers are facing in coping with the demand of millions of users in a short period of time. Also links to Marc Andreessen’s blog which gives some insightful comments. He seems like a bright chap that Marc Andreessen – he’ll do well for himself 😉

@media2007: Hannah Donovan: For Example… (Part one)

Hannah Donovan is Head Creative at London based Last.fm, the online music recommendation site. Last.fm has been in the headlines following its acquisition by CBS.

I thought Hannah was the most refreshing and to-the-point speaker at the event. The audience quickly warmed to her when she used a rude word to describe MySpace.

The presentation emphasised the need to act quickly if you have a good idea, to be the first, even if your site is a little rough around the edges. Hannah used the phrase “Put perfection behind you”, as a designer I know exactly what she means, designers generally need to get over themselves. She emphasised that you should use “Broad Brushstrokes” and work big.

She asserted that “Form follows function”, that features, forms, and functionality needed to be user tested before any style is applied, to do the hard stuff first. I was interested in her opinion that you should not “re-skin” a website, that the design should be intrinsically linked with the functionality and that a re-design should only be undertaken if new functionality is introduced.

She recommended that we read Victor Papanek’s book Design for the real world, I have a copy with a nice Any Warhol soup can on the cover but I haven’t read it.

There was a short Q & A session after the presentation. A question that stood out referred to Accessibility on Web 2.0 sites that use AJAX, the women who asked the question used the phrase “Disabled people get to hear when the bins are put out, but miss out on all the sexy stuff” which was my favourite quote of the conference.

@media2007: Nate Koechley: High Performance Web Pages

This was a presentation for developers rather than designers so I was expecting a lot of information to go over my head, it did, but enough has stuck to write a short post.

Nate Koechley is a Yahoo! frontend engineer and designer based in San Francisco. The bulk of his presentation was based around a twelve step programme to create quicker web pages.

  1. Make fewer HTTP requests: This refers to combining style sheets and scripts to reduce the amount of communication between your browser and the server. He also recommended using Image Maps, which I thought were considered old hat, but for icon driven navigation I can see how this could work in reducing the need for multiple images.
  2. Use a CDN: this stands for Content Delivery Network, a way of deploying content from multiple “CDN nodes”. This is important for increasing the page load times on sites with a lot of traffic such as MySpace, which uses Akamai.
  3. Add Expires Headers to cached content: This allows control of caching mechanisms in your browser and is important for dynamic content which has to be downloaded repeatedly because it is not cached correctly.
  4. gzip components: gzip is a software application used for file compression with 90% browser support. I use Photoshopto optimize images for the web, gzip can apparently compress them by a further 50%.
  5. CSS at the top of the document: Links to external style sheets should be placed high in the HTML document, and use link rel=”stylesheet” rather than @import for linking.
  6. Move Script Includes to the bottom of the document: Links to external JavaScript files should be put after the closing body tag. This recently adopted practice is a necessity because page downloads are paused until an externally linked script is fully loaded.
  7. Avoid CSS expressions: CSS expressions were introduced in Internet Explorer 5.0 and it allows you to to assign a JavaScript expression to a CSS property. CSS expressions aren’t generally used by designers who enjoy the clarity of basic CSS mark up.
  8. Always link to external CSS and JavaScript files
  9. Reduce DNS lookups: You can reduce Domain Name System (DNS) lookup traffic by using multiple hosts, therefore distributing content via parallel downloads.
  10. Minify Javascript: You can compress external CSS and JavaScript file sizes by eliminating white space. You can use a tool called ShrinkSafe to do this or you can do it safely by hand.
  11. Avoid page redirects
  12. Turn off ETags: ETags prevent pages from caching.