U.S.A. Federal IT Dashboard

In keeping with my fondness for Drupal, I’ve got another impressive project that is built on top of Drupal. This one is the Federal IT Dashboard. This is how the site describes itself,

The IT Dashboard is a website enabling federal agencies, industry, the general public and other stakeholders to view details of federal information technology investments.

The purpose of the Dashboard is to provide information on the effectiveness of government IT programs and to support decisions regarding the investment and management of resources. The Dashboard is now being used by the Administration and Congress to make budget and policy decisions.

The site was developed by REI Systems. They are unabashed fans of Drupal. And they’ve taken the time and effort to lay out some great information on why they decided to use Drupal to build their project including the advantages it brought as well as some of the challenges.

They have posted two case studies giving brief but interesting overviews to the development of the IT Dashboard. One approaches the project from a technical perspective and the other gives a management perspective. I think both are great reading.

My real hope now is that REI might contribute back the custom work they did to the community where it is appropriate. Either way, they’ve shown what a powerful platform Drupal is.

Open Atrium

I was messing about with some Drupal stuff this week and ran across Open Atrium. Open Atrium is a collaborative suite built on top of Drupal. It is now a product of Phase2 Technology, a company with a slew of Open Source based solutions in their stable. It originally started life as a Development Seed project.

As I mentioned, Open Atrium treats Drupal as a platform and I think they have a really good thing going with that choice. The install is a Drupal install. Including time to create a mysql database, database user and uploading the package it took me about 10 minutes to have an Open Atrium site up and running. It probably could have been quicker if I’d done it from the shell rather than cpanel.

Once the install is done, the site presents a custom admin interface, hiding the Drupal admin screens beneath. Setting up groups and users is pretty straightforward and there are 3 roles pre-built for managing rights.

The dashboard presented to the Admin on the home page.

It is possible to dig deeper into the Drupal settings via the admin toolbar. This toolbar initially only shows up for the original admin account created during setup but it can be given to other users.

Since it’s Drupal underneath it can be extended, and the Open Atrium folks call these Features. Right now there are a few built in features and hooks are provided to add others. I would hope that if the Open Atrium community grows that there would be a sharing of new features and extensions to give more functionality. I for instance, would be interested in being able to use the CAS module that is available for Drupal.

The built in features available are Blog, Calendar, Notebook, Case Tracker and Shoutbox. I hope Blog and Calendar are self explanatory. Notebook is a place for sharing and storing notes, files and other resources. It supports tagging of pages, organizing pages in books, notifications to people connected to the notebook and viewing revisions. Case Tracker supports the creation of tasks for work to be done and the creation of cases for bug tracking. The forms are very similar to those for the notebook allowing for tagging, notifications, revisions, file attachments, etc. Shoutbox is basically a little built in microblogging tool to facilitate team communication.

Group Dashboard
Member's dashboard within a group.

What Open Atrium does right now, out of the box, is impressive in my mind. It certainly would be a great jump off point for anyone looking to build a teamwork solution for their own organization. I think it would be especially attractive to working in an environment where internet connectivity was an issue. Open Atrium would provide a rather useful teamwork environment that could very easily be locally hosted. I’ll be keeping an eye on this product as well as the offerings from Phase 2 Technologies.

Taxonomy Access Control

I’ve been doing a lot of messing around with the Taxonomy Access Control Drupal module. It’s pretty impressive. Basically it creates a whole new permissions interface based on taxonomy. In my case, I break down nodes by requiring a tag for the region that applies to the content. Then I have regional roles that have permission to edit these nodes, based on the taxonomy. It gives a nice new layer of of control over content. I highly recommend it.

Florida DrupalCamp 2010

This last Saturday (Feb 20th) I had the privilege of attending Florida DrupalCamp 2010. It was a great time and very much a worthwhile investment of time. There were great presenters, presentations and good food as well as swag. I don’t think one could ask for more for $6.11. The lunch or t-shirt alone were worth more than that. In fact I joked with my friends that when I was younger and single I’d have signed up for it just to get the food, even if I didn’t know what Drupal was.

This was my second DupalCamp after attending the camp in Atlanta last year. This one was smaller, but I think that makes sense, as the population of the Atlanta metro area is more than double that of the Orlando area. That said, the turnout was solid. The space was limited and it didn’t take long for all the spots to be taken and a waiting list to form. The event was held at the offices of Mindcomet, and they were very nice. It was a bit tight for all the people that came to the camp, but I was impressed they could handle all of us. They had very functional spaces and I thought more that once it looked like it would be a really nice place to work.

If you hit the camp site you can see what the schedule looked like and what sessions were offered. I mostly stuck to the intermediate track, and tried to upgrade my understanding of CCK, Views and taxonomy. As in Atlanta, I spent a lot of time just jotting down information of the various modules that presenters were using and storing that away for future reference. So much of the power of Drupal lies in learning what modules offer the most bang for the buck. I think I’ll start writing up posts on specific modules here in the near future. This is one space that seems to be lacking good resources. I hit “Top 10” lists every so often, but not much of real substance.

After the session on writing modules I bailed from the theming side of the intermediate track and jumped in to the beginner track for the sessions on modules and site maintenance. I don’t mind knowing how theming works, but I also know that design is not one of my strengths. If that kind of thing really matters, then the smart thing for me to do is not to spend tons of time and effort on what will be a mediocre outcome at best. I’m better off getting help from someone gifted and skilled in visual design. I can focus on my strengths that way and make sure things work the way they should while they make it all look nice.

I couldn’t attend the second day, it being my son’s birthday and life upset I’d taken an extra day away as it was. The folks that went got together and built a site for a local non-profit. They teamed up experienced folks with new folks and it was an opportunity to invest in the community and learn at the same time. Pretty awesome I think.

The sessions were videotaped and I’ll post when they become available, as anyone who couldn’t make it can still get the information. Everybody involved in putting this on did a phenomenal job. I was very impressed and I’m looking forward to next year.

Florida DrupalCamp

The Florida DrupalCamp is coming February 20th and 21st. This is an opportunity to network, get training, etc. I’m really looking forward to it. It is in Altamonte Springs, which is part of the Orlando area. They’ve got a deal with a hotel near by for anyone that wants to travel in.

I really enjoyed the DrupalCamp in Atlanta last year, and have high hopes that this will be of the same quality. The site says that seating is limited to 150, which makes me think that registering early would be wise. I’d be surprised if they don’t max out well before the 20th roles around.

Drupalcamp Atlanta 2009

This last week-end I had the privilege of attending Drupalcamp Atlanta. The conference was held at Kennesaw State University. It was a one day event comprised of an opening keynote speech, a set of various sessions and an informal social get together at a local restaurant. I attended everything but the social get together after the sessions ended. It was probably fun, but I had to catch my flight home and couldn’t stay. This was the first Drupalcamp Atlanta, put on by the Atlanta Drupal User Group. They did a great job, especially in light of it being their first. I especially appreciate that they made the conference available at no cost, with the bill being picked up by sponsors of the conference.

The keynote address was by Addison Berry. Her address, “The Drupal Movement – Where Do You Fit In?” was not technical at all. It was basically an introduction to the project, the community around it and an exhortation to get involved in that community. She threw in advice on just how one might go about that, how things were organized (or disorganized maybe) and what one could expect. It was humorous and not too long. Other than some audio issues, that were not her fault, it was a great way to kick off the morning. Attendance was capped at 250 and they filled up pretty quickly after the conference was announced. I don’t know what actual attendance was but I think most everybody made it.

The schedule for the break out sessions is available on the Drupalcamp site linked above. They also tried to video as many sessions as they could and supposedly those videos and other materials from the sessions will be made available on the site. I don’t see them yet – but it’s only Monday morning. Those guys worked pretty hard and I expect we’ll see all that stuff go up later. I’m going to give a summary of my experience in the 5 sessions that I attended.

My first session was “Implementing a Multisite Website and Sharing Tables” presented by Andy Thornton. Andy already had his slides available via his personal site so you can check them out now if you are interested. The session was about the various ways one can set up sites to take advantage of the Domain Access project. This project is a suite of modules that make it possible to run multiple Drupal sites from a single installation and single database. The session really wasn’t looking at the modules side of things but what needed to be set up outside Drupal to make it all work. It was very good as this is something I didn’t even know could be done with Drupal. It means patching and updates can be done against a single code base in a large environment.

What’s cool about it too is that basically you just get everything to run to the same site and then Drupal will take a look at the URL and figure out what to serve up. So it really isn’t all that complicated. Some of the different ways to share or not share certain tables (he had an example where the user stuff was shared across a group of sites) are handled with settings.php. Andy mentioned a number of other cool things that can be done in that file. I need to spend more time there and look over all that is available. He was asked about how it scales and said he supports an environment running 30 sites using 21 different languages and some of the sites are getting thousands of posts a day from users. That’s impressive to me. Andy did a great job moving through the material and handling questions. A number of people there were already pretty familiar with this set up and had questions that he handled very well. (I don’t remember specifics as I’m new to this and didn’t have a context to help me hold it all in place.)

My second session was “The Power of Blocks” presented by Scottie Claiborne. This was a great session. Scottie covered what blocks were, how to create them, how to get them where one wants them, etc. It was a very basic handling of the topic and just what I needed to start getting a much better handle on how Drupal works. One thing Scottie did, that happened in many of the sessions I attended, was mentioning useful modules that can really help build great sites. Those that I noted from this session were Pathauto, Block Theme, Panels, and Views Bulk Operations.

Scottie was solid, handling a ton of questions that ranged pretty wildly all over the Drupal landscape. This was in no small part because there were so many beginner type folks there. She handled them all very smoothly and did a great job of bringing things back around. She had great examples for her talk and walked through things in Drupal rather than purely using presentation slides. This kind of hands-on demonstration was great and I saw it used a few times throughout the day.

My third session was “CCK Demystified” by Doug Vann. I have to say this was my favorite of the day. In part because of the information provided, but also because Doug is just a cool guy. He’s got mad presentation skills as the kids would say. His sense of humor and ability to just throw comedic gems out there with little effort were greatly appreciated in my first session after lunch. Doug also gave out some books and dvds- with the best system I’ve ever seen of doing so. But back to CCK. CCK and Views are two modules that really take Drupal to the next level. Oddly the sessions on them were scheduled in the same hour – so I couldn’t go to both. Hopefully the video for views will be up soon. CCK allows for adding custom fields to nodes. Slick stuff that.

Doug uses Aquia Drupal which is Drupal with a bunch of useful stuff already rolled in, so that one need not go get it all right after install. I am probably going to move to using that as my base install. One module Doug used was Admin. I saw a few people using it later and it makes the Drupal admin menus much, much easier to navigate. I’m all over that one. He also recommended the book Using Drupal from O’Reilly. I’ve got that and need to go through it again.

My fourth session “Creating and Extending Features” was presented by the folks from Sprocket. It was all about using the Features module. Basically it takes a bunch of setting, bundles them into a module and then allows the admin to install that module into another Drupal environment without repeating all the work that went into setting it up. I really need to look into this for some stuff we do.

Another module that was brought up during the session was Demo which allows the creation of site snapshots. The demo name comes from the ability to use it to run a demo and then jump back to a current state, but the uses for development and other things are many. It looked sweet and I’m going to be messing with it. He also hopped over to Drush. This is another module I need to install and start using. It’s a scriptable command line interface for Drupal. I will be all over that.

This was a good session but I was in a bit over my head. I took away a general idea of what Features was about, but too much of what was going on involved understanding things I don’t have a real solid handle on. There were people who taught the beginner oriented sessions I went to, that showed up at this session. It was packed. What it can do is impressive but I need to learn quite a bit more about Drupal before I’m ready to get the most out of it.

My final session was “Getting Started with Version Control Using Subversion” by Chris Hales from Mediacurrent, one of the primary sponsors of the event. Unfortunately Chris was pretty snowed under, operating with a lack of sleep and told us he hadn’t had time to really prepare anything in advance. He just answered questions and kind of winged it. I felt for the guy, it’s too bad they couldn’t shift to someone who was more able to be prepared. He did bring a wealth of real world experience in building Drupal sites and answered questions honestly, talking about what does happen as opposed to what ‘should’ happen. There was value to that. He mentioned issues with Subversion that centered around connectivity and the difficulty in branching. This really served to reaffirm my inclination towards distributed version control.

All in all, I was impressed with the level of experience and knowledge that the speakers brought. And there were 22 sessions I didn’t see. So there was a lot there for anyone. They could have easily charged for this conference and it would have been worth a decent sum. That it was free, included lunch and had such top notch speakers was very impressive. The cheap ticket to fly up and back was well worth it. I got what I would say was thousands of dollars worth of training for under $200 total. Anyone who might have thought about going to this conference but hesitated and missed out, I would suggest watching for the next one and jumping on it immediately.

I think the Orlando Drupal Group is planning one for next year. If they do, I’ll definitely be there in hopes that it is just as good as this was.

Open Atrium beta

Open Atrium has moved to public beta

Open Atrium is a collaberation suite in a box that has built on top of Drupal. The features are impressive, including

  • blog
  • wiki
  • calendar

and more. What’s not there can be added – as it supports modules. The themes they have available are also open source. I haven’t run any of this yet, but it looks nice and I look forward to checking it out.