Blogs

Newstead is Online - Freely

Since moving to Newstead, Victoria just over a year ago I have been involved in several tech projects in the town.

The first of these was helping to organise the inaugural StixCamp. StixCampNewstead was a great success - many described it as awesome (insert wikipedia citation/s needed here link). The event got some good media coverage too. Although the overwhelming majority of the 60 or so attendees were from Melbourne, several locals and people from across the goldfields turned up. Mount Alexander Shire Council kicked in some cash to cover the budget shortfall which ensured the event was free, and Telstra Central Victoria & Sunraysia gave us free internet via their Next G network. StixCamp showed that although the Newstead district has a population of under 600 people, we are a switched on community that can host successful events.

Just after moving into town I was roped into building the new community website. The site was launched on the 19 September. The new Newstead community website is built using Drupal 6, with a theme developed by a local designer and myself. Maldon & District Financial Services, operator of the Maldon branch and Newstead agency of the Bendigo Bank, provided some funding for this project, while DHC donated many hours of free labour and hosting. Unlike many community websites the Newstead site is maintained by the community for the community. Each community group has a person nominated to create and maintain their content. There is a local editorial team which takes care of the basic maintenance work.

The Newstead site is built around the existing community groups. The site lists around 40 groups based in the town. Each group can post news and upcoming events. This approach also allows us to showcase the spirit of involvement in the town. The business directory has over 40 business listed, which range from micro businesses to the large employers in town. Go check out the Newstead community website for yourself.

The other project launched at the same time was Network Newstead. Network Newstead is the local free community run wifi network. The network comprises of 3 access points which cover most of the activity points in the town. The Mount Alexander Shire's community grants program paid for the hardware. After some discussions with Internode, they came to the party with free backhaul. Without the support of both organisations this project would not have been possible.

Network Newstead allows locals and tourists a like to access the internet for 30 minute sessions. We only allow access to whitelisted ports, sorry unless you know how to run openVPN you can use p2p - but leave everything a geek should need open. OpenDNS provide simple DNS based filtering of inappropriate content - no I don't think I am Mr Conroy, but I do think we should be able control what is available on our free network. WifiDog is used for the captive portal.

Newstead's telecommunications infrastructure, like many other small communities, has been neglected by Telstra. The local telephone exchange only had a DSLAM installed in 2007, and Telstra could be only bothered to install some clearance sale ADSL1 unit. Many properties outside of central Newstead (read more than 2kms from the exchange) can't get ADSL due to pair gain and poor quality copper. In our case we ended up spending close to $1000 on equipment to get a decent signal from Optus. Unfortunately you can't buy good service from Optus and have switched to Telstra Business at $165 per month for 15Gb. For many in the community these costs are just excessive.

Some members of the local community don't own a laptop, but we have facilities for them too. When I moved into town the internet cafe at the community run Rural Transaction Centre (RTC), was referred to by some as "the biggest botnet in town". Over a period of 4 to 6 weeks DHC have replaced the Celeron machines running Windows XP, with newer Pentium 4 with 17" LCD screens from ComputerBank, running Ubuntu Linux. Dave Hall Consulting donated the PCs and services to the RTC to get the new network up and running, some equipment may have even come from our spare parts bin.

Although DHC has been the main driver and implementer of these projects, the Newstead community has been heavily involved in the planning and implementation. Structures are in place to ensure the community is also involved in the maintenance of the projects.

Being involved in tech projects in a small town has been an excellent learning experience. During these projects I was able to work with community leaders, senior members of council and other members of the community. I used to cringe at the thought of the local grave vine gossiping about what I bought from the supermarket, but now I think it makes you more accountable - if you do the wrong thing everyone knows about, but if you deliver everyone knows too. At the same time this network allows for rapid feedback on ideas. I am also conscious of the fact that if I argue with someone, I am likely to see them in the main street next week.

In a former life I worked in local government in metropolitan Melbourne, even as an employee, councilors and management seemed disconnected. When I'm in Newstead, I have a weekly meeting with the ward councilor to discuss where my projects are at. I even have the Shire CEO's mobile number along with direct numbers and email addresses for several other council employees. This level of accessibility makes it a lot easier to get things done.

If you are a geek who has moved (or is considering moving) to a small community, if you have the time, I would highly recommend offering some of your skills for free. Not only will you get that warm inner glow from doing something to help someone else, you build up some experience / street cred / brownie points / connections / local knowledge - all important things in a small community. Community projects can also be part of your portfolio / resume.

Expansion of the website and wireless projects are already on the drawing board. Watch this space!

Drupal Book Review

OK, I am not reviewing a book today, but I soon will be. Packt Publishing have asked me to review Matt Butcher's new book Drupal 6 JavaScript and jQuery. The book looks pretty interesting. Alhtough it isn't on the same scale, being asked to review a serious Drupal developer book, is a bit like Obama winning the noble peace prize - ok maybe I am exaggerating a little there.

I really like YUI, but Drupal has made me interested in jQuery. One of the things awesome things about Drupal is that you can use jQuery without ever having to touch jQuery. This has made me lazy about learning jQuery - especially in the context of Drupal. It look like I have run out of excuses.

The book should arrive in France by the end of the week, but I won't be back in France for a couple of weeks, I have heading off to China for 10 days or so to catch up with friends and discuss some ideas about doing cool things with Drupal. Watch this space.

Goodbye phpGroupWare

I am writing this post with a strong sense of sadness. At the same time I feel that I have no other option. I am walking away from phpGroupWare.

Before I walk out the door, lets go for a trip down memory lane. Insert tacky music wavy lines down the screen and bad hair styles from here on in.

I think the first time I heard Linux mentioned was in 1996/97. In 1999 I had my first experience with Linux, through an anarchist friend, I was very curious, but didn't have much of an opportunity to play with it.

In 2000, over a few months I started to play with Linux and GNOME dual booting my machine. I could never really make it do what I wanted, but I persisted. The first version of Linux I bought was Macmillan Linux 6.5 - I still have it in a cupboard somewhere. I then moved on to Red Hat 6.2.

In 2001 Julie's work was sick of waiting for their shared calendar solution. I was contracted to install it. They had an NT4 box running Lotus Notes, which no one wanted to touch - including me. I found phpGW by searching (probably "yahooing") for "open source groupwise". I would later discover I had embarked on an epic journey. I knew of open source, but I didn't know a lot about it. PHP seemed pretty cool, as did phpGroupWare. I recommned they get a new server - a good one, dual PIII-800s, RAID-1 and Linux, it cost over $3000. I learnt a lot on that box including basic Linux sysadmin, compiling stuff from source and what happens when you forget to update lilo. Today that server lies idle in a cupboard in my office.

Very quickly I became involved in the phpGroupWare commununity. By 2002 I considered myself active and later that year I was promoted to release manager. By 2003 I had landed my first overseas gig indirectly through phpGroupware. By now I felt very strongly that I was a free software developer. 2004 saw the EGroupware.Org fork, or as I still like to refer to it, the EGO fork. This did considerable damage to the project and sucked a lot of life out of it.

Since then the project has done some cool things, but struggled to get a release of trunk for over 5 years. There are some really smart people around the project, but none of us seem focused to shipping a product, and I think we all have different ideas of what that product should be. I have met many awesome people over the years, include the Paris conference in 2006.

It is now late 2009, I have 2 kids and a growing business. PHP 5.3 is out and we are still trying to port to PHP5. There are many solid application frameworks around - my personal favourites are Zend and Drupal. Both of these projects have large developer bases, active communities, clear development processes and documentation, phpGroupWare fails on each count.

The project has exposed me to so many great people and ideas. These things will stay with me for the rest of my life.

If anyone is to take over phpGroupWare, my first suggestion would be to start over. Clearly define a purpose for the project, define a target market, build a product which fits that purpose and appeals to that market. Such an approach will involve a significant investment of resrources. I just can't commit any resources to the project at this time. If things change I may come back one day, but now things feel too far gone.

As much as I hate to say this, I think phpGroupWare is a dead project. I feel that it is time for me to move on. I will make myself available to assist with any handover or shut down of the project.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed to making phpGroupWare such a great project over the years. It was fun while it lasted.

Brotherhood Books Launches - Giving Books a Second Chance

In late 2008 I worked on building an online second hand bookstore for the Brotherhood of St Laurence. Today Brotherhood Books was launched by comedian and writer Corinne Grant, at the Sacred Heart Primary School in Fitzroy. I'm hanging out for Corinne to publish her short story about the snot eating witch.

Brotherhood Books is a really exciting project, it allows people who can't access bricks and mortar second hand book stores to access quality second hand books at good prices. All of the profits from the service flow directly back to Brotherhood programs and services. Before this project I thought the Brotherhood ran a few big Opys and gave out some food vouchers. They do a lot more than that.

I have been to the East Brunswick warehouse a few times to meet with the workers to discuss how the platform is working and what can be done to improve it. Most of the Brotherhood Books workers are volunteers, who are trying to get some experience so they can enter or return to the workforce. They all seem to really love their books.

The identity, webdesign and initial marketing material was done by imageffect.com.au. The platform is built using Zend Framework, where possible we used off the shelf libraries, but there is a large amount of original work. The cataloguing functionality is pretty slick, almost all of the books are catalogued by volunteers scanning a barcode, entering a condition and adjusting the system recommended price and it is done. Yahoo's YUI Toolkit provides most of the AJAX yummy-ness for the volunteers, while most of the data is pulled from Bowker's web services.

Brotherhood Books has over 30,000 items for sale, and growing every day. So far over 45 tonnes of books have been saved from going to landfill!

If you have some spare books to donate to the Brotherhood, they have many ways of accepting donations.

At the launch today there was some media present, and someone from the BSL was interviewed by Red Symonds on 774 ABC Melbourne.

Many of computer books are dated, but they still make for fun reading, These days I have several titles from the Brotherhood on my bookshelf - including a mid 90s guide to cracking.

Go check it out and buy a book so you can claim you were there at the start.

Yes I am doing the hard sell on it, but I have been waiting since the soft launch earlier this year to be able to promote it widely.

Missing Software Freedom Conference Kosova

Today I should be in Prishtina Kosovo running Drupal workshops at the first Software Freedom Conference Kosova. Unfortunately due to work and family commitments I had to decline the invitation. I hope to make it there next year.

I will also be missing out on DrupalCon Paris next week too.

Sometimes it sucks to be in Australia, especially when Europe is so far away and so many cool things happening there too.

Back Blogging Again

Bless me internet for I haven't blogged, it has been 274 days since my last post.

I have wanted to blog, but I kept on finding excuses to avoid it - need to upgrade the software, need to finish x, y and z, need to focus on projects a, b and c etc. One of the main reasons is that I have been too lazy to put the effort in. I find it takes time to think of what to blog and then to bash it out, refine it and post it. When I have had the time to put that effort into my blog, I haven't had the inclination.

While things have been quiet here, I have microblogging using the open source laconica platform through identi.ca, which also posts to StixCampNewstead.

More recently I have been working with a client in France who has some serious collaboration requirements. At last count they have almost 2100 instances of drupal running. This has involved a lot of work, and some travel. I will blog about this project soon - it is pretty awesome (even if I say so myself).

We have built a small drupal powered site for a local assest management consulting business. They are very happy with the results. Now their customers just log in to download the software. Everything was off the shelf drupal - except for the theme and a 60 line custom permissions module.

We have built the Newstead community website using drupal. It still needs some polish before final launch. The community has been heavily involved in the development of the site. So far over 30 locals have been trained in maintaining their page/s on the site. There is no "webmaster", each local business and community group will maintain their own content

A couple of months ago I/we joined the drupal association. One day the buttons will be added to the site.

Where to next?

I plan to blog more about projects I am involved in. I also plan to switch this site to drupal 7 as close as possible to the release date - it looks like others will be switching too. Next week I will be commencing the build of the Newstead community wireless network.

Watch this space, lots happening - including more frequent updates from here on in.

Updated IMCE plugin for Drupal YUI Editor

My IMCE plugin for YUI Editor has been included in drupal CVS and the 6.x-2.33 release. Now I can claim to have code included in an official drupal release, ok it is a small plugin for a contrib module, we all have to start somewhere.

The version included in Drupal only supports YUI 2.5.x as the API has changed in 2.6. I have a new version which supports 2.6.x, but it has a layout bug, so I won't be submitting it until this bug is fixed. If you can tolerate the visual bug or want to help fix it, grab the lastest version of the IMCE plugin for Drupal's YUI Editor. Use the same installation instructions as last time.

Feedback welcome.

Open Letter to Senator Stephen Conroy on the state internet access in Australia

Hello Senator,

I have recently relocated my IT business from outer metropolitan Melbourne to country Victoria. The state of the internet in this country is a joke.

A professional associate of mine in Paris has access to 100Mbps down and 10Mbps up unlimited fibre. This costs him 45EUR p/m which includes line rental for a POTS equivalent phone service and basic cable TV. Setup is throw in if you take it for 1 or 2 years - he couldn't remember the term of the commitment.

I have a contractor in Hong Kong who has access to a network many times faster than people living in similar conditions in Melbourne.

In Tecoma I had access to business grade Naked ADSL2+ for $85 per month with 25G of data and a fixed IP address. Not included in the download quota was access to streaming radio, Linux and other Free/Open Source software (and some not so free), and some ABC content. If I exceeded my quota I would be shaped. The setup fee was $129. With this service I could use a high quality VoIP service for cheap calls overseas, where some of my clients and contractors are located.

Now I am living in country Victoria I am unable to even get ADSL1 - despite being informed by Telstra on 2 occasions that it was possible - "it won't be a problem just call us once you move in".

I am now stuck with a very sub optimal solution.

I am using currently using 2 HSDPA modems on the Optus network with directional antennas. During the week at best I can get 1.5Mbps/150kbps from each link. Each service has a 6G usage quota for $50p/m each, with excess usage charges of $153.60 per Gb (or 0.15c per Mb). All traffic is counted (both up and down).

The Optus network is stretched and even worse on weekends and evenings. The service is also unsuitable for VoIP, so I have to pay more for my calls too. Optus doesn't offer fixed IP addresses or an accurate tool for measuring usage. In every way their service is inferior to ADSL.

The equipment I used to set this up properly cost me close to $1000. I also spent several days setting it all up and paid for professional assistance with the project. As the service is not eligible for the Broadband Guarantee scheme I have to wear these costs as part of running a business in a rural area.

Satellite is completely unsuitable for my business due to the latency, slow speeds and a requirement of a minimum 2 year commitment. The claim that satellite offers a "metro-comparable level" of service is laughable - 1024/256kbps with 5G of data for over $100 per month and a $3000 setup fee is extortion.

My only other option is Telstra's Next G service which requires a 3 year commitment and costs considerably more than the similar service from Optus.

I am located near Newstead, less than 2 hours drive from the centre of Melbourne, not 200kms west of Uluru. I expect that I should be able to get reliable phone and internet services at reasonable prices with a choice of carriers. Based on my (somewhat limited) knowledge of the area less than half the connections from the exchange here can access ADSL. The current situation here is reliable, value for money or available - pick 2.

Anecdotal evidence would suggest that many businesses in rural areas are constrained by the lack of quality data services in their area. The lack of proper broadband services in rural areas must cost businesses millions of dollars every year. Local economies also suffer as people are unable to establish businesses which rely on reliable and affordable internet access and so the jobs and investment goes to the larger regional centres or metropolitan areas.

Based on overseas trends the National Broadband Network will be out dated before it is finished. Even with 98% coverage some 400,000 people in Australia will not have access to reliable high speed internet services.

Instead of wasting money on an filtering system which most people don't want, will slow down access and has the potential to cause major head aches for system administrators (not to mention making us an international laughing stock), you should consider investing in the future of rural and regional economies by giving us access to high quality, high speed internet services. My views of the filter scheme are best summed up by a comic.

Thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing about how you plan to fix the state of internet access for tech businesses based in rural and regional Australia.

Yours Faithfully,

Dave Hall

Managing Director

SKWASHD SERVICES PTY LTD

YUI Editor + IMCE for Drupal 6

Update: This has now been included in the 6.x-2.33 release of Drupal's YUI Editor module and I have added support for YUI 2.6.

Earlier today I finished off another Drupal based site. The client was pretty happy with it. Once they launch I will probably post a link.

The client came back to me and asked how they could insert images using the RTE. Based on some positive reviews I used the YUI Editor module this time around, instead of FCKEditor or tinyMCE for the rich text editor. The YUI Editor module doesn't support file browsing. I tried to see if someone had already hacked something together for this, if they had I couldn't find it.

In the past I have used the IMCE module for image browsing and uploading in FCKEditor or tinyMCE. Adding IMCE support to the YUI Editor module seemed like the fastest solution.

So here it is - the IMCE based image browser plugin for YUI Editor on Drupal 6.

Here is a quick howto. Install the YUI Editor and IMCE modules into your Drupal 6 install. Save the plugin tarball into your modules directory above the YUI Editor module and extract it. You should now have 2 extra files yui_editor/plugins called img_browser.inc and img_browser.js

Feel free to leave comments about how well this works for you. Enjoy!

We've Gone Green

Well Green Gully to be exact. Last month we relocated from Tecoma.

Where is Green Gully you ask? It is near Newstead - a little town down the road from Castlemaine, which is near Bendigo. If you want to come and visit from Melbourne it is about 1.5 hours drive from the Airport or 2 hours from the CBD.

I now work in a mudbrick house, with bottled gas, tank water and mains feed Green Power. The plan is to eventually convert the garage into an office, but this will take some work. For now just the servers live in the garage. The office still isn't fully setup, but it is getting there - all the important stuff is working.

Connectivity has been a challenge. I now have a pair of Optus e169 HSDPA modems giving me internet access- most of the time. I plan to blog about my setup when I get some time. I hope to start blogging more about bush tech - time permitting.

I will still be travelling for work, be it Newstead, Castlemaine, Bendigo, Ballarat, Melbourne, nationally or internationally. If you have a project you wish to discuss with me, just contact me.