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Web person at the Imperial War Museum, just completed PhD about digital sustainability in museums (the original motivation for this blog was as my research diary). Posting occasionally, and usually museum tech stuff but prone to stray. I welcome comments if you want to take anything further. These are my opinions and should not be attributed to my employer or anyone else (unless they thought of them too). Twitter: @jottevanger

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On [that] day, 4th October 2011... pt 1

Tuesday October 4th was a big one for the Imperial War Museum. We in the New Media department had been working towards it for well over a year, but several other parts of IWM also had first-night nerves as the presented something shiny and new to the public. All in all we launched a new brand, the beta of the all-new IWM website, a re-skinned image licensing site, overhauled e-shop, redesigned print sales website, and phase 1 of a new system for delivering collections information to our public digital interfaces. We also took the covers off a new licence – the IWM User licence – which applies to lots of data and content and a large number of the images, audio and film (yes indeed) on the new site. The common theme, you’ll note, is that the web is part of all of these, so it’s fair to say we were probably the nerviest of all departments!
The timing was no accident, of course: Carolyn, our head of department, was not far into her plotting before it became apparent that we’d be launching our new website along with the new brand, and that we’d be tying in wherever possible with a 3-year e-commerce programme. The brand re-launch in turn was timed to fit with the opening of a major new exhibition coming to IWM London, "Shaped by War", and the e-commerce programme entailed some important implications for licensing too, so the dependencies were complex.
The brand
I can’t report much about the brand except to say that timing was critical, and that what we were most interested in was whether or not the brand structure would have any implications for information architecture and site navigation. We needed to know how we’d be expected to deal with what could be considered informally to be sub-brands (whether that be our branches, e-commerce sites, exhibitions, partnerships etc). To remain uncontroversial I will limit myself to saying that we were not given a recipe-book for how to apply the brand in a digital environment and that evolving its digital expression has been quite a challenging process. Personally I quite like the wedge device, although as lapsed geologist it reminds me of a horst. Or perhaps a graben, I always mixed them up. I think it’s fair to say that reactions have been polarised but the commenters on branding and design websites, at least, appear to dig it.
E-commerce sites
Over the last couple of years IWM has been using the excellent services of consultant Alice Grant, who has led a comprehensive e-commerce programme with literally dozens of projects within it. In particular she has reviewed the way we conduct business around our collections assets, with one vital development being the establishment of a commercial unit. She’s also been co-ordinating a number of activities to try to ensure that when we relaunched the website our B2B and B2C e-commerce offers made sense and worked well.
Over on the site at http://www.iwmcollections.org.uk/ that you can still see for a couple more weeks, we have split out the image sales and licensing functionality and re-skinned that, and put it onto isl.iwmcollections.org.uk. The ISL aspect of the old site will persist for a while yet because its functionality will remain part of our business processes for the foreseeable future, whereas the straightforward collections search part will shortly be retired, having been replaced by the corresponding part of our new site (of which more later). The ISL site again sports the new brand, was designed by Christian and implemented by Andrew Stephens in our ICT department.
I should mention the film sales site, which has been bubbling under for the last year but not really been promoted. We’ve now got a strengthened infrastructure and rely on this to deliver media through the core sites too, so I think it’s worth shouting a bit about film.iwmcollections.org.uk/ too. This B2B-facing site is again a Statham reskinning of the basic site built by CIS, whose DAMS we use (Imagen). Looks like we need to get the new logo in there though, Christian...
Our consumer-facing print sales site run by Cabinet UK at http://www.iwmprints.org.uk/ also had a complete facelift and its range multiplied about 10-fold, I believe. Not only that, it links back to our main site’s collection records pages. I reckon it looks pretty slick.
Finally, earlier this year we launched a heavily re-skinned e-shop in the knowledge that we might be obliged to revisit the whole process when the branding process was complete or when Cybertill launched their long-anticipated new software. The old site was haggard but, working within the constraints of the existing templating system, we were limited in what we could do. Nevertheless, with some imaginative design courtesy of our very own Christian Statham and some creative coding courtesy of Garry Taylor at the Bouncing Ball we ended up with a really good solution. Actually, that doesn’t do it justice at all. Under the skin, you’ll find quite a lot remains of the minging HTML that the system churns out and which cannot be changed at present, but which Garry’s CSS and jQuery skills have made look 10 years newer than their real age. For the beta website launch we made only small changes, mainly to tie in with the new brand.
All of these sites have another new dimension which is not necessarily visible on the sites themselves: they are integrated with the new website. We have built an index for our e-shop catalogue and integrated it into the site, returning results in the global search and enabling us to build carousels or products for promotion and use them anywhere; and images or films for which you can buy a licence or hard copy offer you this opportunity when you look at them in our collections pages.
It was time to revisit how we host, to give us more control and at the same time slash costs. From an arrangement where our main sites were hosted on 3 dedicated servers at Rackspace we have moved to a hybrid solution with a beefy dedicated server for databases, Solr and some media, and a variable number of cloud servers to run web applications, including our core Drupal installation. We’ve also virtualised the old CMS to run a few legacy bits of that site. Whilst previously our hosted sites were isolated, we are now in a position to integrate them securely with services running on our own network, for instance with an oEmbed service that we use to tie the DAMS in with Drupal, or for replicating data or connecting to mail servers (things that could be done other ways but which are easier and more secure with the VPN we have in place). Parts of our web offer are delivered directly from our DMZ – our streaming media, the ISL site and our blogs – but again we’re now well placed to change this, if we wish, without huge investment, as the cloud part of our solution makes rapid expansion or scaling straightforward.
Having come from a background of essentially Windows/IIS/ASP+ ASP.Net/SQL Server and made the decision that we should go with the full LAMP stack, this was one of several steep learning curves I’ve been on (am still on). I’ve never been a server admin although I’ve picked up a certain amount of knowledge over the last 12 years, but it was pretty much like starting from scratch when I was faced with a bare-bones RHEL server and a Putty window. Fortunately I’ve got several experienced colleagues to put me on the right path or do various thing on my behalf. Together with some help from Rackspace themselves we’ve got there. I still have a long way to go but now that we’ve launched the beta at least it’s looking a bit less intimidating.

In Part 2 I'll say a bit about collections, licensing changes, and the main website itself. Then if I get that far I might do a post to say how things have been going in the first couple of weeks.

Friday, October 21, 2011

SOAPhar, so good

All of a sudden video and sound on our new beta site, streamed from our DAMS, stopped working this week. We embed these using a (currently) private oEmbed service which gets its data from a SOAP service on the DAMS to construct the streaming URL for a given media item, with which it then assembles the embedding code. The SOAP call was timing out and giving the following error:

Fatal error: Uncaught SoapFault exception:

[WSDL] SOAP-ERROR: Parsing Schema: can't import schema from 'http://schemas.xmlsoap.org/soap/encoding/' in C:\[myfile]:20
Stack trace: #0 C:\[myfile](20): SoapClient->SoapClient('http://[DAMS WSDL URL]', Array)

That schema file is being imported at a namespace declaration in the DAMS SOAP service's WSDL file. It could be accessed just fine with a browser but the PHP soapclient call which loads the WSDL file had no such luck and would just time out.
I have no idea why a service that had been running fine for 8 months or so suddenly went freaky, but I did suspect another unheralded proxy change, since these tend to play havoc with our dev environment and at the moment the oEmbed service is running there. Other people have experienced problems with this encoding schema at xmlsoap.org, but since it's going to be present in all proper SOAP calls that doesn't really tell us whether it's indicative of a problem with the URL and xmlsoap.org, or of network issues. All the same, what worked for this guy worked for me. Well actually, whilst he simply removed the namespace import element, whereas, I saved the WSDL for the SOAP service that my oEmbed script called and edited it to point at a local copy of the encoding schema at xmlsoap.org. Happily my SOAP call seemed to work just as well with a local copy of the WSDL and everything started working again. Hooray! I had wondered whether I would be scuppered because I couldn't edit the original WSDL file, but since the WSDL doesn't actually do anything, it just lays out the instructions for a SOAP consumer to use, it was aboslutely fine to edit and run it locally.
Perhaps this will help others suffering the same grief.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Flash 10.2 on Android phones with ARM: partial success

Imagine my disappointment and annoyance and slight feeling of miss-selling* when I discovered that my otherwise lovely new Android phone (a Samsung Galaxy Ace / S5830) couldn't install Adobe FlashPlayer. OK, it's a low-end device but that's lame. Word is that the ARM chip is less powerful than Adobe would like. However rumour also has it that it's perfectly powerful enough for the job. And without Flash, there's no iPlayer and no embedded YouTube (I can use the YT app that's pre-installed, but not watch videos embedded with the Flash player).

So when I tried to install Flash from the Android marketplace and was told I couldn't I did a little looking round and found that some very useful people had hacked the 10.2 version of the official player to make it installable on devices with slower chips. I was a little nervous, of course, about putting an unsourced app on, but although I might have unwittingly installed some well-disguised malware so far there's no sign of that. My success is only partial, however, because iPlayer is still unhappy and wants me to go to the marketplace to download again. I understood it only needed Flash 9 but perhaps it's using some other way to tell that it's not happy with my phone (presumably based on what plugin the browser is reporting). Embedded YouTube clips work now, but videos from our own collections at IWM don't work :-(

So I'm still rather peeved that the limitations of the phone were not made clear, and also that as users we are aren't even offered the choice of installing the official FlashPlayer, performance reservations notwithstanding. After all, I can see that the hacked version does work perfectly well on those sites that don't whinge about it, so chip speed evidently isn't a deal-breaker.

In any case, if you want to have a go with it, check it out here:


I could have linked straight to the APK but that seems a little rude given that you're getting something for nowt so you do have to go through a couple of screens of adverts; keep going!

*to be honest, not just a feeling of miss-selling but of stupidity, having forgotten caveat emptor and done sod all research before going into the 3 shop. I leapt at the chance to upgrade considerably for no extra cash, and I wouldn't have paid much more anyway.