Open Source and Open Standards

open-neon-signRecently we were asked by a client to migrate a web site from one server to another. The web site in question was built on a Content Management System (CMS) called Joomla – a CMS written in PHP and using MySQL for database storage.

I am not fond of Joomla, but that is my personal opinion and don’t let it colour yours. As a programmer I find it heavyweight and overly complex. Lots and lots of code means frequent discoveries of bugs and frequent updates. As my friend Alan Kennedy says “every line of code is a liability” and he is spot on. However we aren’t all programmers and for someone who wants an “out of the box” experience Joomla may well fit the bill. Personally I prefer the excellent WordPress – it may be a ‘only’ a blog system, but it is fantastic for static web sites too and uses a much simpler database schema, although it doesn’t have the extended functionality of Joomla.

Open Standards – your data, your way

Where am I going with all this? Well what happens when the person you used to create your web site disappears, or when you just want to migrate? If you are stuck into a commercial, closed source and/or proprietary model, you are at the mercy of whatever commercial provider will take you on. If, on the other hand, you are using open standards, then at the very least you have access to all the code and data in your web site.

Recently that is exactly what happened to a client. To make matters worst, his web hosting company had suspended his account because the Joomla installation he was using was old and insecure and had been exploited. We had no access to the old server. What he did have was a backup of his web server directory structure and his database content.

We were able to recreate the exploited and insecure web site on a private/firewalled server and then patch the Joomla installation to an up to date version. Once that was done we could migrate the whole lot to his new server. The complete process took several hours and was only possible because web site was stored in a non-proprietary format.

I’ve been an Open Source advocate for a long time now, but people tend to miss the point of Open Standards. Some more examples:

Microsoft and their new DOCX format.

I’m all for innovation but not for obfuscation. What Microsoft did when they introduced their new format was pretty low.

Notwithstanding the fact that we don’t really need a new document standard (there are several mature open standards out there already), Microsoft made the new format the default file format when you save documents in Office 2007. They then decided to offer free, time-limited demo versions of Office which various PC manufactures started to bundle onto cheap machines as part of the pre-installed crapware that comes on most new PCs.

The real problem happens when the time-limit for your Office demo runs out after 60 days. If you choose not to pay, you can open and view your documents, but there is no simple (and I mean simple for an average user) way to print, copy & paste content or save your document in an alternative format once your demo period expires. I have met plenty of bright people (they aren’t geeks, but you don’t need to be a mechanical engineer to drive a car, do you?) who have been bitten by this.

Solution: Avoid the DOCX format – use RTF, an older Office DOC format or even ditch Office altogether and go for the free and Open Source/Open Standards OpenOffice instead.

Novell Groupwise

I cut my networking teeth with Novell Netware. Groupwise is an email and collaboration system that comes bundled with the Small Business Editions of Novell Netware.

There was (and I don’t know if this has changed) no Novell supported way to migrate from Groupwise to another email system and keep your sent items (and I’m talking about an Open Standard like IMAP here). There were various third party tools available at the time I came across this issue, but there shouldn’t be a need for them – POP and IMAP were allegedly supported in Groupwise. In the end the decision was made just to dump the sent items and learn a valuable lesson about proprietary formats.

The client now uses IMAP to access email on a Linux server and they have since migrated their email server twice and nobody even noticed (apart from the fact that email became more responsive each time).

So buyer beware, Open Standards mean something. They mean your data remains yours and you can never be blackmailed into paying to have access to your own data.

Posted in Opinion

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