Geeks With Blogs
Łukasz Olbromski

Introduction

In this post I would like to share my experiences about creating and maintaining a web site for a Wroclaw .NET User Group and platforms that can use to create such web site. Hope that some of my thoughts will be useful for someone who is active member of any community group. I am a leader of Wroclaw .NET User Group since November last year. Since then Wroclaw .NET User Group grows quite quickly and we have more and more needs and expectations how our web site should look like. Currently our needs look like:

  • Quick, efficient and easy to use registration mechanism.
  • nformation about meetings and events.
  • Information about our partners and friends.
  • Forum.
  • Blogs.
  • Notification mechanism – about meetings, events, web site updates.
  • Managing documents, tasks and other things related to managing group
  • Place for adverts published by our partners like events, job opportunities.
  • Group members also would like to put an advert about jobs they are looking for.
  • Gallery to publish photos from our meetings, events etc.
  • File storage to put materials (slides, code etc.) from our meetings.
  • Calendar.
  • Nice layout that group mates will like.

Simple start, simple solution - Groups Google
Let's go back few months to our beginnings. When you have to set up a group the most important thing is simple and efficient communication channel. I do not want to say that later is not needed, however at the beginning this is most important thing. This is a list of things we need as a group at the beginning:

  • Simple registration mechanism.
  • Information about meetings and events.
  • Information about our partners and friends.
  • Forums or other way of communication.
  • Notification mechanism. 

Analyzing our capabilities nothing was simpler and faster than creating a group on Groups Google. Next task was adding friends to it and we were able to start work. This solution works well for month, however after this time was not enough for us. I don't want to judge this solution that is bad or not. I would like to highlight the lacks of functionality of Groups Google which were and still are important for us:

  • Registration mechanism was not proper. We use a simple web page that our group members were editing and put her or his name. Unfortunately quite often we lost one or two names before of editing problems.
  • Permissions management was not good as we need. Groups Google hasn't advanced permissions mechanism. User can be member of a group or not, and only members can have access to group or anyone. That's all. We not more things, like private forums for given group of users.
  • The design of web you can do in this area with Groups Google. Site on Groups Google wasn't t that what we need. After month of our work we were unable to create a layout of our web site.
  • We have a lot of problems with managing content: disappearing pages, problems with editing or adding logos on main web page etc.

However, Groups Google was very easy to use as a discussion forum. It was quick, easy to personalize. However, many people weren’t able to subscribe to specific kind of content like: forum, blogs, events, meetings, because of that they were receiving a lot of mails and don’t read them.

More needs, new solution - Community Server 

After a month spent on Groups Google I was looking for another platform that we can use. I spoke with Michal Jagiela - a leader of a Slaska Regionalna Grupa Microsoft - about different solutions that can be used a community platform. He offers a Community Server Professional Edition for Wroclaw .NET User Group with a lot of interesting features like:

  • Full community platform with CMS.
  • Themes support. Now we can create a theme for our web site and user can choose one.
  • Blogs.
  • Gallery.
  • Place where we can put files to further downloading.
  • Mail Gateway. This enables user to use NNTP in our forums.

Moreover, Michal offers a hosting for our web site as well. On one of our meeting we make long discussion that we would like to move on Community Server. Nobody had doubt about this decision. Few weeks later we have a new web site. Community Server give us all stuff we need, but a lot of work have to be done, before we customize Community Server to our needs. We needed to add following things to Community Server we received:

  • Registration module. As a temporary solution we are using mail registration. It is simple and works.
  • Events module containing information about event we are organizing, take part or just attend. We decide to create a blog with information about events we organizing or taking part.
  • Meeting module. Here we would like to publish invitations and reports. We decide to use a blog for this purpose.
  • Calendar. We find a control for Community Server and we are using it. Works pretty nice.

Looking forward - SiteFinity 3.2, Community Server 2008 or ITCore

Currently we had new opportunities and we would like to make a step forward and we have new needs. The most important things we need are:

  • Multilanguage support for all content we are creating.
  • Possibility to create our own controls.
  • Creating polls, gathering responses and presenting results.
  • Managing a group: managing and assigning tasks to the group mates, publishing a lot of documents related to the events we are organizing.

Now we are in very comfortable situation and we can choose one of the following solutions: SiteFinity CMS created by Telerik - our partner – ITCore project that should be released soon, the last but not least is a new version of a Community Server which also should be released soon by Telligent. I would like to describe all this solutions and my point of view of possible benefits of using one of them.

SiteFinity

SiteFinity is fantastic CMS and community platform and few days ago was released a new version 3.2 with offers nice features that are important for User Group point of view. 
  •  Full featured version preferred by design studios, web development.
  • Advanced CMS capabilities - versioning, permissions, multilingual support, etc.
  • Extensible architecture, fully-exposed API.
  • Integration of ASP.NET controls and Custom modules.
  • Unlimited layout freedom to create.
  • Website templates, using various.
  • Completely customizable through.
  • Visual Studio .NET.
  • Support for multiple databases.
  • Support for multiple membership services.
  • Telerik RadControls UI suite.
  • Word-identical content editing environment.
  • Various ready-to-use modules (Blogs, Forms, News, Polls, etc).
  • Drag-and-Drop Page Editing.
  • Advanced highly customizable.
  • Search service.
  • Search engine optimization capabilities.
  • Interactive online demonstration site.
  • Ready-to-use website templates.

Other very important thing is that Telerik is working on templates that will fit User Groups needs and special features for SiteFinity that should make web site better. A lot of user group members know SiteFinity, because we are realizing two projects using this CMS.

ITCore

ITCore project has a long story and a lot of bad things have been said. I was taking part in this project – version 1 – and at the beginning of version 2, however because of moving to Denmark I was unable to continue my work on this project. I don’t want to write about version 1 of this project. Why? The answer is simple this is not topic of this post. But, I had a great time, gain a lot of experience and learn a lot. Now Artur Zarski is responsible for this project and I am sure that after some time people like it. As far as I know on ITCore project each group will receive Site which group will be able to customize and storage quota equal 10GB with option to extend. Here is a list of functionality we need:

  • Documents libraries for storing documents we are creating
  • Discussion forum with simple functionality. The forum is one of worst comparing to SiteFinity and Community Server.
  • Polls. In MOSS creating a new polls is very simple, few mouse clicks and done. Gathering data and presenting results is also very nice.
  • Creating new pages is also very simple and templates can be used here.
  • Calendar.
  • Place for files and movies.
  • Blogs. I am not sure how blogs will be look in ITCore, however the standard one are not so nice.
  • Wiki pages.
  • Powerful search service.

The other good things related to ITCore project are that we don’t have to care about hosting, backups and other related stuff, Microsoft will be promoting this portal, more users will be able to find our web site, materials and blogs, and last but not least I am a member of Editors group.

Community Server 2008

Community Server in a new version 2008 will be released soon, however I cannot say a lot about this version. I know CS 2007 functionality well and it is almost perfect. However we need following things:

  • Simple CMS and creating pages functionality and more flexible way to creating new controls and boxes that we would like to use like: latest polls, most popular threads, most popular blogs and so on.
  • Multilanguage features.
  • Polls module.
  • News module.

I am not sure that next release of Community Server will have all this stuff we need, but I would like. The other thing that Community Server lacks is very difficult way of extending, and creating layouts, or making other modifications. When I found a post on Community Server blog I was happy, because of new functionality that will come with new release.
Below is a brief list of what you’ll find in this Beta (list came from Community server blog):

  • Groups. We’ve added support for private and public groups that support their own membership, blog, forum, gallery, and pages. You can now easily create mini-communities for friends or for your team.
  • Web Services APIs. Community Server 2008 includes a complete Web Services layer for working with Community Server. This makes it even easier to share data from within Community Server with other applications or tools. The Web Services implementation is a RESTful implementation and we also include a client library to include within applications that need to talk to Community Server.
  • Friends. We’ve completely overhauled the friends functionality to make it easier to both manage and add friends. You’ll find the friends behavior much more like FaceBook’s friend functionality.
  • Media Gallery. We’ve merged the Photo/File Galleries into a single Media Gallery application. The Media Gallery includes viewers for rendering images, audio, video making it even easier to share content in your community.
  • Message Streams. New to Community Server is a message stream application that enables multi-user conversations (formerly private messages), social streams (similar to FaceBook), profile comments, and more.
  • Enterprise File Storage. We’ve completely overhauled file storage so all files are in a Centralized File Store (includes both a File System and Amazon S3 provider).
  • Widgets. Community Server now supports shareable widgets in all sidebars.
  • Simplified Permissions. We’ve tried to simplify the rich permissions functionality that Community Server has always been known for. All the previous permissions capabilities still exist, but we’ve added some tools to make it even easier to manage and apply permissions.
  • User Experience. We’ve started to introduce some new user experiences in both the Control Panel and other aspects of the site. When Community Server 2008 ships you’ll find a much friendly and beautiful experience for both running and managing your community.
Conclusions
As Brooks said 'no silver bullet - refired' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Silver_Bullet) so we have to make a hard choice when we decide current platform. Each solution has pros and cons. However, we should decide soon which solution will be the best one. If you have any thoughts about presented solutions and its usages as community platform please drop a comment here I am sure that your ideas help us to make a decision. 
Cross Posted from Yet another geek's blog Posted on Sunday, March 30, 2008 7:08 PM | Back to top


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