Remember last week’s E-letter and podcast, when I mentioned that the number one priority here at Handihams would be to fix the website? That time has come, and here is the reason why:
Typically on Fridays I concentrate on producing new audio lectures for our licensing classes. Fridays are also a good time to catch up on loose ends that have collected during the week. Doing website updates is generally a little bit easier on Fridays because I know that I will be logging into FTP in order to put the audio I have produced onto the website anyway, so why not do other web updates while I am at it?
Well, last Friday proved to be a bit unnerving. As I had mentioned before, we had been having serious issues with the performance of the website Handiham.org that had caused pages to either be unavailable or load so slowly that many web browsers would simply timeout. Many of you could not reach our files or would only be able to download a partial file. Needless to say, this situation simply cannot go on. Not only is it bad service for our members, but it can eat up a lot of my time as I try to work my way through the many tech support complaints. Sometimes I have a way to work around it and help the person get the files they need and other times I don’t. In any case, Friday was not a good day for Handiham.org because it went down early in the morning and was off-line most of the day. I contacted the hosting service and they began to work on the problem which was on one particular machine in Utah.
Late on Friday the website did return to service. During the outage, it was difficult for me to work since I had to do everything that I could off-line and only later on plan to FTP the files to the website. Of course any members who needed files during the day were out of luck. Since we have had issues extending over months (though nothing quite this bad), we had already procured server space with Network Solutions, a respected company with which we already had a long-term relationship as our domain name registrar. I decided to start putting some serious effort into building a new beta website that would be the eventual replacement for the current one, but I had to step this effort up several notches over this past weekend.
When something like this happens, you really have two choices. You can either whine or complain about how awful things are and make excuses or you can look on circumstances as an opportunity to make something better. It is sort of like having your old fishing boat sink to the bottom of the lake. Yes, you miss your old fishing boat with all its dents and barnacles. On the other hand, you have an opportunity to get a new fishing boat and it can be exactly the kind of boat you have always wanted. A website is like that. We have had the old website for quite a few years now, and it has served us pretty well. However, over the years it has become cluttered with barnacles – too many links and just too much confusing stuff. It has become a little bit too dated and clunky to be useful, especially to newcomers who may be happening on it for the very first time.
Our opportunity is to build a new website that is easier to administer using Drupal 7, and to incorporate some much-needed changes. One new feature is the addition of a “Skip to Content” link near the top of the page so that blind users who are reading the page with screen reading software can skip listening to all of the menu links and go straight to the main page content. Another feature is a more pleasing view for sighted users without making the website inaccessible to blind users. And, of course, we are simplifying the menu structure to make the site less cluttered.
Our choice of Drupal for a content management system goes back quite a number of years when it was originally suggested by long-time Handiham volunteer Phil Temples, K9HI. We have been using Drupal 5.X and for the past few years 6.X. Drupal 7 has been under development for a couple of years and I have been testing it on my private website for quite a long time, watching as it matured. I feel that the time has come to make the change as long as we are redoing the website anyway. The new version of Drupal incorporates many features that had to be manually added to the old versions. Many administrative tasks are easier. We will eventually need to redirect Handiham.org to the new site, and, because of what we experienced last Friday, are going to try to do this as soon as possible.
As you might expect, there are going to be some problems. Any time you make a big website migration like this, coupled with a major redesign, there are going to be some things that might not work correctly or perhaps will be missing or not work at all. This will all take time to iron out. One thing that will have to be done is that we will have to re–register all of our users. I know this will be a major inconvenience for everyone, but it is really the only way to update the database on the new server with a clean installation. I think the strategy needs to be developed on exactly how we will do this, and I welcome user suggestions. I do have a data dump with e-mail addresses and usernames, so we could send out a blanket e-mail when the new site is ready. However, one concern I have about that strategy is that we may get an overwhelming number of hits on the new website as users try to create their new accounts. It may be better to use a targeted strategy of mailing perhaps 25 users at a time to even out the load. Anyone who has Drupal experience or who has administered a website is welcome to contact me directly with their comments.
The old website will still sit on the old server in Utah, but once the name Handiham.org is redirected, it will become unreachable. I will then take steps to reactivate our other Handiham domain name, Handiham.net. The old site would be available there for some period of time.
One problem that I anticipate is that the Handiham mailing lists with the Handiham.org domain name will cease to function. These two lists are the Handiham Radio Club list and the Handiham Volunteer Instructors list. The Wednesday E-letter list and the Friday New Audio Notification list will not be affected because they are hosted at Freelists. I may be able to reconfigure the club and volunteer lists with the.net address, but I would also welcome suggestions on how we should proceed with these lists.
Some of our users may be concerned about how this will affect the two Handiham Internet remote base stations. Neither station is connected in any way with the web hosting service and both are separately hosted on their own dedicated computers on Courage Center properties. Therefore, neither station will be affected in any way. We do update the remote base station status daily on the website, and this update will be continued on the new website as well.
Another change that will be implemented is the availability of more materials in DAISY format. This new format will replace some of the older MP3 audio for our blind members. This advancement will allow for easier navigation through the material for our blind Handiham members. This does not mean that we are moving away from human readers, so please don’t worry that you will never hear a human voice again on Handiham.org! Some materials, if they are available in computer text in the first place, are most easily converted to DAISY format that incorporates a voice produced by the computer software. Other materials are more properly and efficiently read by a human reader and can be imported into DAISY by special software. Our original production will still be done by Audacity so that we can more easily edit the audio and still produce four track cassette recordings for the Handiham members who need them during 2012. Of course Audacity remains our editor of choice for the Friday audio lectures and for the Wednesday podcast. As before, the free podcast will remain available to the general public in the iTunes store.
We are hoping that the transition will go smoothly, but you know as well as I do that a project like this is pretty complicated and there will always be some unforeseen problems. In fact, to me it sort of feels like planning for and setting up for Field Day. You always anticipate how much fun it is going to be and you have participated in the planning process for past years and like to think that you know you are not going to forget anything this year. Naturally, when you arrive at the Field Day site and start getting everything set up that is when you find out that no one packed Styrofoam cups for the coffee and the power supply cables are still sitting in one of the club member’s basement. That is how it will be for any new project and I am not going to be surprised when things don’t work on the website. What we can do is to work together to make the new website project successful by helpful suggestions that include specific recommendations on how to fix a problem whenever possible.
So, even though this is going to be a real roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work couple of weeks, I know that we are doing the right thing. I am encouraged by the American Council of the Blind website, which also uses Drupal 7 and the Bartik theme as its public portal. I also want to thank Handiham Radio Club members and Handiham volunteers who have visited the new beta website and given me suggestions and feedback. I really appreciate your help!