June 3, 2004

Behind four Linux community sites

Author: Mary Tyler

In our recent overview of Linux
community sites
we highlighted several active sites that offered news, reviews, commentary, and Linux information. We thought an interesting followup would be to ask their administrators about the technology they use to get online.

LinuxForum.com is a beefy site running on a hosted Intel
dual-2.4GHz Xeon with 2GB of memory. The foundations are Red Hat
Enterprise, Apache 1.3.29, PHP 4.3.6, and MySQL 4.0.18. The site itself
is developed in-house in PHP and MySQL. The forum uses a modified
version of Invision Powerboard
(free with a "Powered by Invision Powerboard" notice, $50/yr and
$150/lifetime without notice).

"Powerboard required core modifications
to make our templating system work with it," says Eric Rosebrock, lead
developer and all around go-to guy at LinuxForum's owner The Web Freaks.  "We did some
search engine optimization enhancements for it, too."

According to Rosebrock, Invision Powerboard is easy to install and administer
and requires basically no maintenance. "It's a
pretty good board, well-built and pretty efficient, but at the same
time I'm not really wild about having to purchase software like that
when there's other [software] freely available," says Rosebrock, who
originally bought the software because he wanted to try it out. "Now,
Invision Powerboard's part of our Web site and we're not about to
change."

LinuxForum has over 21,000 registered users and 30,000 visitors per day, with 500 to
700 users on the forum at any given time. The forum database holds
over 300,000 entries -- 600MB worth. So far, uptime is 100%.

JustLinux.com and LinuxPlanet run on rack-mounted single- and dual-processor Intel-based servers from various vendors located at the
main office of Jupitermedia in Darien, Conn. The servers run Red Hat
Linux with the latest 2.4.x kernel, Apache 1.3.27, PHP, and MySQL.

LinuxPlanet, which carries additional content and links to JustLinux
as its forum, manages content with an in-house application called My
Desktop developed in PHP. JustLinux's forum runs on vBulletin ($85/year or
$160/owned), a PHP/MySQL based forum from Jelsoft Enterprises Limited.
Due to its nature as a PHP application, vBulletin's source is
accessible, but it is not Open Source, though the license
specifically allows you to modify the source at your own risk. "I
like [vBulletin]," says Managing Editor Brian Proffit. "I've used
phpBB and vBulletin and I like vBulletin. It seems more robust. It's a little slow compared to phpBB, but in terms of user management and
whatnot, I really like it." Features and stability appeal the most to
Proffit. "If you really want to, you can micromanage the heck out of
it. And it's difficult to hack."

LinuxQuestions.org runs its site on servers from ASL and Penguin Computing. All machines run Linux, mostly Red Hat Enterprise, and are co-located at
multiple data centers.  The foundation of the site is Apache, PHP,
and MySQL, along with other free and open source tools.

At LinuxQuestions, if it can be automated, it is. "Most of the front-end
site is done in PHP," says founder and administrator Jeremy Garcia.
"The back-end scripts are mostly Perl and PHP with a little shell and
Python." The forum runs on an extensively modified copy of vBulletin.
The mods mainly address performance issues and add features.

According to Jeremy, LinuxQuestions commonly supports more than 1,000
concurrent users with few ill effects. "The few times we have run
into performance problems it's been a result of old, outdated
hardware, and has been fixed by acquiring new hardware," says Garcia.
The servers get rebooted only for hardware and kernel upgrades, so
uptime is "very good."

Advogato.org is owned and run by Raph Levien, best known as the
head guy in charge of Ghostscript. Advogato currently runs on a dual-processor Intel-based server located at the University of
Berkley's computing center. The Web server runs Apache with no special modifications.

Though it predates the term and
concept of a blog, Advogato is essentially a blog forum devoted to
open source topics, particularly Linux. Levien wrote the forum
software mod_virgule (which
he subsequently released under the GPL) in C in 1999 as part of his
Ph.D. project on trust metrics.  "C was the language I knew best," says
Levien. "If I did it over now, I'd probably use
Python."

The site is all XML-based, and rather than using a database
back end, it uses filesystem calls to pull its diary entries. Though
this is, admittedly, not the most efficient method, Advogato supports
about 3,000 active accounts with a few hundred users online
simultaneously. Except for routine maintenance of the server, there's
no downtime to speak of.  Advogato also harks back to another open
source value sometimes forgotten in the rush to monetize and
commercialize open source products and communities. Advogato carries
no advertising and has no profit motive. "People wouldn't be here,"
Levien says, "but for the love of the game."

If you love the game and want to start your own forum, be prepared
for some hard work. That's one point on which all the site administrators
agree. You can't just build a community and expect people to come. "When you're
building an online community, you have to be very proactive until you
get the community to where it sustains itself," says LinuxForum's Rosebrock. Jeremy Garcia echoes the sentiment; even for
LinuxQuestions an undoubtedly mature site, "The mod team works very
hard on a daily basis to keep the forums running as smoothly as they
do.... Especially for large forums, much more work than you'd expect
goes into them."

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