Digital Marketing & Communications

We've seen 1s and 0s you wouldn't believe

Topic: Development

First of many...

  

📥  Development, New website

After months of developing, beta testing, feedback and more developing we have launched our research website!

Research is the first of the core sites to be launched as part of the external website project and will be closely followed by study (due for launch in December).

Despite having a research presence before, the site did little to promote the world class research undertaken here at Bath. Unless you drilled down to departments and individual centres and groups our research was difficult to find from our central website. We've also invested a huge amount in a publications repository in recent years but this was invisible to our users.

The new site focusses on exposing this information and promoting it. Led by Web Services we have worked with a number of key stakeholders across the University including our Pro-Vice-Chancellor Research, Jane Millar.

It is the first in a long line of developments and it will evolve over the coming months (and years!) but I am incredibly proud of the team here and what we've achieved.

One down... many, many more to go!

University wiki - Confluence 3.0

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📥  Development

Update: Due to a number of complexities the wiki upgrade has been postponed to Tuesday 29 September between 8am and 9am. Web Services apologise for any convenience this may cause.

Original message below:

The University wiki is due to be upgraded on Friday 25 September 2009. The upgrade will take us to Confluence 3.0 the latest version of the software which has substantially improved performance and a range of new features.

For more information watch the Confluence 3.0 overview video or read the release notes.

Please note the wiki will be unavailable between 8am and 9am on Friday to allow for this upgrade.

The benefits of open formats

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📥  Communication, Development, Team

As of this time last year, the University Academic Year Charts have been generated in HTML, PDF and iCalendar formats from Excel spreadsheets. Previously there were only PDFs for download but we thought that providing versions to view live on the web and a version people could add to their own calendar software would be useful.

To take the burden out of maintaining all these different formats by hand we used some short Ruby scripts to do this (using libraries such as roo, pdf-writer, and icalendar).

Within Web Services we use the calendar plugin of our wiki to schedule who handles our frontline support on a daily basis (and then get it deliverd to us over instant messenger, as we've blogged about before) but it didn't show the University holidays, meaning that the support was somtimes unfairly balanced.

A screenshot of our support schedule plus University holidays

A screenshot of our support schedule plus University holidays

Yesterday we remembered that one of the year charts we generate just contains dates relevant to staff, without all the teaching days and student holidays marked in, and like all the others, we generate an iCalendar file for it, which the calendar plugin can read. So, a few clicks later and now our support schedule contains the University holiday dates as well as our custom-added events.

This means our calendar has an iCalendar input (the holidays) for human usage when we're updating the schedule as well as an iCalendar output (our support schedule) for robot usage when delivering our schedule directly to us! We've had to do comparatively little to enable this, neither of them have to be maintained by hand, and this is only a tiny fraction of the things that are possible, and all enabled because we use software which generates and consumes standard, open formats (and thanks to Tom Natt for making sure we did it!).

Making the news...

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📥  Communication, Development

Yesterday was a good day for Web Services as we not only launched the first of our 'new external website' projects but we've released the first application built using Scrum.

The publishing system for our news articles/press releases has been replaced with a new application built with WordPress.  The decision as to why we chose WordPress has been well documented on our blog and wiki as has our adoption of Scrum but yesterday our users got to see what we've been working on and our colleagues in Corporate Communications got a new system to manage news articles.

We've had an internal article published (on the new system) which explains some of the background to the project and we plan to launch a video (showing the inside of the app within the next few days).

* Thanks to @lovelychaos for the title!

Plug it in, plug it in (with WordPress)

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📥  Development

With apologies to Bassment Jaxx... Anyway. So we've been doing lots of WordPress development in preparation for the relaunch of our news system. One of the big reasons we picked WordPress was the plugin API and it's turned out to be a really good decision on that front.

From my perspective this has gone really well, especially if you bear in mind that I'm not a PHP developer (and, also relevant, I suck at JavaScript).

Once I understood the basics of a plugin (thanks to Savin's 10 minute tutorial) - the architecture, how hooks work, how to render widgets - and accepting that it'd be easier to write code in plain old functions to get going initially instead of writing classes (gasp!) it took me a couple of days to write my first plugin.

It was great chance for me to write code that wasn't purely back-end Java, but I was slowed down by my lack of experience in writing code for user interactions. Especially the interface manipulation in JavaScript. Luckily WordPress already uses jQuery (but you call jQuery() instead of $()) and I'd been tinkering a little bit with that recently so had some idea of how to use it.

After my first plugin, it took me a day to write my next plugin's first iteration. Working code in a day. All I had to do the next day was add one more feature. Then it took me another day to make it all jQuery-tastic.

Frankly, for me, that's astonishing. WordPress has an impressive API for plugin development and I've been surprised how comfortable I am writing PHP (Eclipse PDT has helped). Combined with jQuery (I'd been put off JavaScript until it came along) it's a good, robust, well-documented platform to work on.

Roll on writing more plugins in our next sprint!

Being a SCRUM Member

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📥  Communication, Design, Development, Project management, Team, Tools, Web Sessions

In SCRUM there's an essential role that has to be fulfilled by someone who can't partake in the work tasks from a project. They are called the SCRUM Master.

That isn't to say that the SCRUM Master doesn't have tons of work to do. In fact, if they don't do their job properly, the "sprint" of tasks the team are to undertake isn't properly organised and hence affects their productivity.

So if you're not the SCRUM Master, surely you'd think that it's unfair as you're doing "actual" work rather than "mere" project management? Well no, in fact. The SCRUM Members (it's not an official term I don't think - I made it up. I'm imaginative like that) actually have it easier. Your entire focus is on your task at hand, nothing else, and that task should have been broken down into a working day-sized chunk but no more. You have nothing else to worry about, even when you get to a point that you can't do your work - that's for your SCRUM Master to do! They deal with impediments on your behalf you see :)

A recent example was when Phil had a pile of support queries to deal with which were stopping him from getting on with his project work. His SCRUM Master Andy Male took those tickets away from Phil and dealt with them, allowing Phil to get on with his tasks.

Essentially, it's the SCRUM Master's role to make it as easy as possible for you to get on with your work and from my observation that takes a lot of effort. With all that hassle taken out, working becomes much easier for the members.

A truly fair management style! The rest of Web Services seem to agree.

Fun with Scrum

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📥  Development, Team

In the last couple of months we have started to use Scrum to manage our development projects. If you are within earshot of our office you will hear people using words like 'Sprint', 'Backlog', 'Velocity' and 'Impediment'. People have new titles, our clients are 'Product Owners', Phil and I have been 'Scrum Masters'. It's all quite exciting.

I've always felt uncomfortable with traditional project management but using an Agile project management methodology like Scrum eases all my concerns. It's fair to say that even if the waterfall method ever worked it's unlikely to be seen on the other side of this economic crisis, everyone needs to be more agile.

It's very easy to talk about our experience of Scrum as the process includes the 'sprint retrospective'. This has allowed us to look at how the last iteration of the project went and how effectively we are using Scrum to manage it. The Scrum Master takes responsibility for making improvements so that the next iteration is more productive.

The benefits we are seeing already are:

  • The progress of the sprint is clearly shown through the use of a burndown chart
  • The Product Owner has to tell us the priority of all the required features
  • The team are committed to the sprint goal because they plan the work that is included in the sprint
  • Any impediments to tasks are identified quickly at the Daily Meeting
  • We are starting to understand how quickly we work (our velocity) and can therefore commit to realistic deadlines

We have started Scrum with relatively little pain, this is largely because of the enthusiasm everyone has shown. That being said it's interesting to see that often the reason cited for the failure of Scrum is that the team weren't rigorously following the process. We realise we haven't got this nailed yet so our expectations have been modified accordingly.

We need to learn more about things like estimation and how to start Scrum with clients who have never been closely involved with a development project. I'm looking forward to this as I think we are already more focused, productive and working more closely as a team.

I would be interested to know how other people are project managing or their experience of Scrum.

Deploying Struts2

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📥  Development

Hello and Happy New Year to you all!

As a followup to Kelvin's post on the topic, I thought I'd expand on some of the trials and tribulations we had adopting a new Java framework.

We've been developing all our most recent Java applications in Struts2. This has brought both tears and laughter but among the biggest problems we faced was that once we'd deployed a few of our apps to our live Tomcat server we realised that we couldn't deploy new a version without shutting down the entire instance, and therefore making all our other apps unavailable at the same time. Yikes!

It turned out that Spring, which we use for dependency injection, was holding onto a couple of our jar files even when we were undeploying the application. We'd seen this on some Windows development machines before but not on Linux or our Solaris deployment machines. This time however, the problem didn't occur at all under Windows, about half the time on Linux and 100% of the time on Solaris.

The way we'd dealt with this previously was to get the Windows-based developers to add antiJARLocking="true" to a hard-coded Context in their server.xml which keeps the problem nice and localised.

That wouldn't work for our live servers since, as the documentation says, "applications that are outside the appBase for the Host will cause the application to be deleted on Tomcat shutdown." which means that for our configuration each time we stopped Tomcat would result in a number of applications being completely deleted!

We eventually solved the problem by writing application-specific META-INF/context.xml files that specified "antiResourceLocking=true". This means that we can now deploy new versions of our applications and shut down our server without it deleting everything.

This was a reasonably pesky bug to track down since of course I couldn't use my local machine (where the bug didn't appear) or any of our standard development Tomcat instances since I could very easily be deleting people's applications every time I restarted the server. Lesson learnt though and we'll be paying more attention to the deployment configurations we use in future!

A year in Bath...

📥  CMS, Communication, Development, Team, Tools, Web Sessions

As colleagues are packing up and leaving to start the Christmas break I thought I would reflect on my first year with Web Services at Bath...

In many ways 2008 feels like the year we got our house in order. Two teams merged, one new head, continuing cycle of maintenance and support but plenty of new initiatives and plans.

We've evaluated how we work together, looked at what we can do better, where we have gaps and where we do really well.

Next year will be huge for us as we embark on the development of a new external website for the University. Plans are already underway and we're looking at significant changes with plenty of new initiatives coming to fruition. Alongside this we'll be working in a different way - using agile development methodologies to 'release early and often' - we have ambitious plans in store.

For now though I wanted to focus on 2008, to look at our achievements and reflect on our highs (and lows):

The highs

  • Development of an e-Prospectus; due for launch in January 09 - connecting with our Student Record System and allowing data to be output to create the print prospectus providing a much richer experience for the end user but also improve business processes for the University
  • Moved the majority of our Academic sites into the CMS
  • Brought in a new Web Designer - good to have you on board Liam!
  • Get Creative - it was fun, it brought the team together and it introduced us to FIKA
  • Put together (and had accepted) proposals for a new external website
  • Delivered Web Sessions to the University community
  • Moved from dSpace repository to ePrints (with the Library)
  • (Soft) launched a blogging platform
  • Developed a tinyurl and QR code generating service (with e-Learning)

The lows

  • Sadly one of our colleagues retired in April. Jacki played a key role in the website for many years and it is regrettable she is no longer in the team
  • As a new team we still have some way to go to establish ourselves and our position within the University. We believe the development of the new site will help us strengthen our profile
  • Maintenance and support of the current site has prevented us from moving on as quickly as we'd have hoped but we have new arrangements in place for 2009 to allievate this

From a personal perspective it has been a challenging yet rewarding year. I have great admiration for the team and am confident we can meet and exceed our own expectations in 2009.

To all readers of this blog, best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.