Mapping the way forward

You know your goal. It’s pretty straightforward: this is what you have to do. There’s really no question about it.

But how do you get there? That’s where things become tricky.

If you need to train a work force, learn or teach a new process, or implement a new system, building documentation either in advance of the implementation or at the same time will make your life and the lives of your employees significantly easier. Many teams put off writing documentation until after the project is done (“We wanted to wait until we had everything settled,” or “We didn’t have time!”), and then never go back so the process becomes lost, new employees take longer to train, and work processes are based on an ambiguous oral tradition.

SilverPen Publishing’s documentation consultation service can help you create a plan. We will assist in identifying the documentation you need to create; answer questions about software, formatting, and processes; and help you understand what steps need to be taken to get the work done. We can  also answer questions about wikis, Sharepoint sites, and other means of storing or sharing documentation.

To learn more about our documentation consultation services, just send us a quick message. We’re here to help.

Upgrading to Confluence 3.1 was rougher than I expected

I went in early to work today to upgrade our Confluence server. I had been running the latest version on a test server with great success, and we had a lot of really exciting changes to roll out. Ever since I first set up our wiki around 2.5+ years ago, no one from our West Plains campus could log in (their accounts are in a separate Active Directory), and only a select number of AD groups could be used for permissions sets. What was worse, the operating system it was running on (the first iteration of Ubuntu JeOS) was pretty much broken and couldn’t be updated.

So we were moving to Windows Server 2008 (at my boss’s request–migrating from Ubuntu about broke my heart), and we also transitioned from a locally hosted PostgreSQL database to a remotely hosted Microsoft SQL Server. Lots and lots of changes, all to the good.

Instead of the hour I had an anticipated (moving virtual machines on our VM server, swapping MAC addresses, renaming the machines, voila), it ended up taking eight hours and forty-five minutes. Random issue after random issue got in my way, bugs that could neither be reproduced nor explained cropped up, and I strained against my torment without a break and with great intensity. First it was database errors, so I had the web DB guy drop all the tables and started anew. Then it was a Java error, then an unlabeled error, then backup restoration errors, with each error taking 30-60 minutes each to overcome. Once everything was OK, we discovered that all the attachments were broken, and after a frantic hour or so including some frenzied communications with Atlassian, it dawned on me to just copy the attachments over from the old server. If you knew how complicated attachments are in Confluence, you’d understand why I didn’t do that to begin with.

About fifteen minutes before I was going to leave, I started getting emails that people couldn’t see the content they needed. Permissions were broken, and that took another hour to figure out. A helpful person who runs our Active Directory was on the phone with me the whole time, and between us we were able to narrow down the issue: From within Confluence, I could see the permissions groups, but none of the members of those groups. AD groups can be created as Local Domain or as Universal, and Confluence 3.1 requires the latter. The former is the default, though, and most every group created before he started (about 2 years ago) was set to the default. Unfortunately, this included all of the permissions groups we needed. A quick fix on his end, but it took us a while to figure out what was going on.

I got no confused, frustrated, or angry emails on the way home, and five hours later I’ve had nothing but a few Thank You notes for the upgrade, so I’m feeling pretty good about it. Unfortunately, I was also exhausted and ended up having to take a 3-4 hour nap, and my throat’s sore, and my sinuses are all stuffed up. Hopefully sleep will cure what ails me.

Appraisal and Development Plan (ADP) – 2008

Last year, a new evaluation system was instituted at the University to help both managers and employees with the evaluation process. Some of the goals included:

  1. Creating a system that was more objective.
  2. Creating a system that rewarded people based on the work they did and its quality.
  3. Creating a system that helped both workers and managers agree on clearly defined objectives.

Now in its second year, the ADP is becoming a bit more refined, and thankfully we didn’t have to do a full self-evaluation like we did last year. We do, however, need to provide supporting documentation for our ADP. The goal of this is to let our evaluators know what we did this year; they might have a general idea, but they might also have forgotten some things. We all want to avoid a situation where our evaluation score is low and we are told that, “If only you had done X, you would have gotten a higher score!” This might happen in a situation where you didn’t know you needed to do X, but it might also be that you actually did do X, only your evaluator didn’t know… and now it’s too late to change the evaluation because it has moved up through the great bureaucracy and been dutifully stamped and filed.

So, we file supporting documentation regarding what we have done this year. Not everything we have done, by any means, but the notable high points that we want remembered and considered in our evaluation.

When I describe what I do for a living, I first have to say that I work in the Computer Services Help Desk at Missouri State University. Within the context of IT, a Help Desk is generally just a call center, or a repair shop: help people with software, answer questions, replace broken computers, etc. That’s certainly a part of what we do, but my job rarely involves that kind of work. My second statement is always something along the lines of:

I don’t do much of the repair work anymore. Instead, I spend a lot of time researching and writing, trying to find new solutions to help people work more efficiently (specializing in open source solutions) and I also do a lot of web development. I maintain our unit’s web servers, our wiki, and I do a lot of speaking at conferences or just sessions at our University about different topics.

Since I put the time in to outline my year’s activities, I thought I’d post them here to further clarify on this. It’s nothing special, and most of it probably won’t make sense to someone who doesn’t work here, but if you’ve ever wondered what I do, this is it. It’s over-simplified and doesn’t go into any detail, so a project that consumed more than three months of this year is condensed into “Experts wiki went live in June,” but you get the idea.

Our three objectives for Centralized User Support Specialist this year are:

  1. Participate and contribute to the successful implementation of the ERP system.
  2. Maintain competency and currency through professional development. (PDF)
  3. Provide accurate and appropriate training and documentation. (PDF)

At this time last year, I thought that 2008 was going to be a breeze. I’d had a really busy year, and I was looking forward to a nice, easy coast downhill to 2009. Instead, I ended up doing about twice the amount of work I did last year, and I did it more efficiently in less time.

Looking forward, I can’t begin to imagine what next year will hold. The training labs have been built and in use for some time. The wiki is up and stable. The Luminis portal went live last Wednesday. There’s obviously still work to do, but it’s maintenance, not new projects. What can they throw at me next year that could top this year’s challenges?

And yet, I was wrong before. I have a feeling that 2009 is going to be very interesting indeed.

Educause 2008

I am currently in the Springfield airport, preparing for a flight to Orlando by way of Dallas. I am honoured to be attending Educause 2008, and even more glad that I don’t have to speak at it. I like speaking and all, but it’s nice to just relax and listen to other people for once.

I’ll be updating here, but not as much as I’ll be updating over there. This year, I’ll be keeping a blog on the Experts Wiki throughout the event. Not to the extent of live blogging, but as often as I’m able. I may or may not have pictures, though; I just tried to plug my camera into this laptop and it wasn’t picked up at all.

Heading down to the gate now, so I’ll update on the wiki again in Dallas.

We now interrupt our regularly scheduled programming

I know, I just recently started this gig, and I’m already breaking my scheduled update cycle. But you know, if I didn’t feel the freedom to do so, I think I might drive myself to bitterness and frustration with this site, so I’m going to take the opportunity to break away regardless. In this case, I’m not writing less;  quite the opposite, I’m writing a lot more, just none of it is blog-content or would fit on these pages.

We haven’t played D&D since Cody left about four months ago, but I recently started getting the itch to DM again. I’ve been running games since high school, but after Cody left, I had trouble seeing why we should go on. Only one of my original players remains (out of five), and though Ryan has joined us, that still only makes for two players and a DM. It’s just not enough for a good campaign.

But now that I’m getting back into writing, I’m developing ideas for a fantasy (fiction) world, and I want to start gaming again. Therefore, I am spending this week putting the ruleset into my wiki and developing the world. I’m really considering trying to learn how to draw, though I don’t know how successful that will be. Right now, it’s mostly building the framework of the rules, but hopefully by the end of the week and next weekend, I can start really building the culture of the world.

So, have a good week everyone. I’ll be back next Monday.

Just say no to IIS

Our university is not exclusively a Microsoft shop, but it sometimes feels like it is. We predominantly have Microsoft Windows PCs, all of our computer labs run Windows, most of our office computers, and the vast majority of our servers. Therefore, when I’ve had to build web servers for our department in the last year, they’ve always run Server 2003 and IIS. Quite frankly, I’m sick of it. My first webserver was Mandriva Linux running the LAMP stack, and though it was quite a learning experience resulting in reinstalling the operating system probably twenty times over the course of a month, I came to vastly prefer Linux over Windows. I now run Linux on all of my computers, both work and home, but I persisted in installing Windows Server on machines I built at work.

The justification was that no one else knew Linux, or at least not within our group. I wanted to build servers that others would be able to log into and administrate comfortably, if for no other reason than that I didn’t want to have to do all of the work. So I wrestled with IIS and ISAPI filters for redirection and poor SSL handling for encrypting logon pages and memory leaks and instability, just the whole gamut of problems one tends to run into when using Windows. The sad part is that I now have BSD on a second partition of my work computer, and even thoughts of that fill me with more warm fuzzies than having to put up with IIS.

Well, no more. I’m building a new web virtual machine for our wiki software, and today I configured the latest version of Ubuntu Server on it. I refused to touch the last version of Ubuntu Server (7.10) because it wasn’t mature enough yet. Last Thursday however, an LTS (long-term service) release of Ubuntu’s server edition dropped (version 8.04), and so I am more comfortable putting that on a production server.

So far, so good. I was able to get XFCE4 desktop manager on it with minimum fuss (once Ubuntu’s repository servers stopped getting hammered by everyone trying to acquire the software after release), and I have Confluence running smoothly. There were a couple of frustrating moments where something wouldn’t work right, but invariably a restart fixed it (like when I copied over a JDCB .jar file and it hadn’t been initiated yet because I hadn’t restarted the service, yet I was stupidly looking at my screen wondering why it wasn’t working).

Tomorrow, or Wednesday at the latest, I hope to get it setup as a mail server as well. It looks like that process is going to be significantly more difficult than it was with Windows, where I just installed hMailServer, but it’ll be a good learning experience if nothing else. And the most important part: no more IIS.

An Online Society

Due to a failure of our DSL gateway at home, a lack of internet connectivity is somewhat consuming my life right now. My wife, April, and I are at a Panera Bread so we can check email and I can write, and until this time we did not realize how much we had truly come to rely on the Internet.

When I first started a webserver, it was located in my bedroom, running Mandriva Linux 10.1 and built on pretty poor hardware. Whenever it went down, my website went down, and since the entire point of having a personal site was so I could reach my work/files from anywhere, this kind of defeated the purpose. So, I now use Bluehost, who have been fantastic, and no matter what is going on at home, I can reliably get to my files from anywhere.

The result of this is that I do all of my work over the internet. I develop work in my wiki ((I have since removed the wiki from this site, so this link to the wiki was likewise removed.)) , I do all of my writing inside WordPress, and I manage our finances through Google Documents. When faced with a blank page, I’m not entirely certain what to do with myself. When I can’t research whatever I want, whenever I want, I feel cut off and lost.

Rather than writing yesterday, I spent several hours thinking, developing a fantasy world in my head for a campaign setting I am working on (for tabletop roleplaying). But I couldn’t get up the motivation to write any of it down and then copy and paste that into my wiki later. I just didn’t feel like using OOo.

Because everything is on my website, I can get to my work from anywhere in the world, but that’s only if I have Internet access. The ironic part is that, while it’s accessible from anywhere, I couldn’t get to anything from home.  Without being able to go online, I was dead in the water.

I have no real commentary on the subject other than to point you to this.

Week seems long! Sun rises in the east! News at 9!

Two nights ago, I had a dream that I slept all the way through Thursday and that it was Friday, blessed Friday, when I awoke. When I told April, she promptly pointed out that it was Wednesday.

And yet I still went through the entire day thinking it was Thursday and that today would be Friday and I would be done for the week. But nooo, because “reality” has to go in “chronological, linear time patterns.” I believe this is due to its complete and utter hatred for one Matthew Stublefield.

My week hasn’t been bad, by any means. I’m just tired and anxious for the weekend. I have a ton of fiction work I want to do on Saturday and I’m really excited about it. When I redesigned my website, I got rid of my wiki because, as cool and full-featured as Tikiwiki was, it still wasn’t simple/nice enough to just throw my thoughts at. It took too much formatting and work to really be comfortable just sitting down and mind-dumping into it. Maybe I’ll find something else before Saturday that would suffice better.

In super-positive news, the latest version of Ubuntu (and this one a Long-Term-Service release, no less) drops today o/ I’m stoked, and I’m also excited about a faculty member who is bringing her EEE PC by for me to try and get Ubuntu onto it. That should be a lot of fun.

Garbage in, garbage out

The adage is pretty widely known, but every once in a while the realization creeps up on me that my input is occasionally of the type that should be gently placed in the recycle bin and carried to the curb.

I now have Confluence bound to our active directory, and following that accomplishment I got it to automatically stick users into the confluence-users group when they log in. I was pretty excited that it pulled all the usernames over and is syncing live with the LDAP, but I hadn’t gotten groups figured out until a guy from Enterprise Systems (a different group in my department–I’m in User Support) dropped in. He’s been helping me understand LDAP better and I’ve been bouncing ideas off him, so when I mentioned the groups issue (where I wanted Confluence to pull Groups/Roles from our AD so we can manage it from our standard account management system), he asked about how I had it set up and to what container I was pointing Confluence. Something he said sparked a realization and I changed one small tag (two letters, in fact) which fixed Confluence. It’s now pulling the groups I wanted it to pull.

I simply hadn’t given it the right parameters, and while I wish something could “Just Work,” that’s never actually the case. So now, both users and their groups are pulling from the AD. It’s not set up correctly on the AD for Confluence (I’m pulling the groups associated with our current “Common” folders, which are often used for shared documents, so it seemed like a good idea at the time), but it’s a fantastic proof of concept and it wouldn’t be hard to create a new locker with groups structured just for Confluence, should we decide to buy the software.

I’m just excited that it works. It has certainly been a frustrating process, but learning AD binding, how to search for and run queries against an LDAP server, and how to structure all this stuff has been a really valuable experience. I should probably spend some time tomorrow documenting how I got it to work so I have some point of reference for the next time this comes around (hopefully soon, if we buy Confluence).

My brain is mush

I’ve spent the day working on two things. I’m configuring Confluence as a wiki solution for the ERP, and I needed it to 1) run as a service, and 2) email comments/discussion to certain members as a tool for collaboration. This meant, concerning the second one, that I need our server to function in both web and email capacities.

I’ve set up email servers before, but absolutely hate the SMTP functionality built into Microsoft Windows Server 2003. Therefore, last time I did this, I used HMailServer. Unfortunately, my documentation was not complete and failed to note that, when authenticating to HMailServer, your username is the full email address (so I was just using the username, so everything else was configured correctly, but it wasn’t working, and it wasn’t providing me any errors. A simple mistake, but it took me the better part of the day to figure it out.

As for running Confluence as a service, our installation of Windows was missing a .dll it needed for that to work properly. After copying the .dll from the Confluence directory to the system32 file, everything worked perfectly.

Two good milestones reached in one day. I’m pretty proud of it, and tomorrow I’ll start looking into LDAP integration. For now, though, I’m done.