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Employees of large, worldwide companies face the challenge of collaborating easily with each other. Coming together with people who work remotely, live across the country or on the other side of the world is a daunting task. The language, culture and time differences can be stumbling blocks for even the best project teams. The result is often miscommunication and extended project schedules. In this article, I'll share with you a few of the open source collaboration tools Novell has found helpful in leveling the playing field and removing many of these stumbling blocks. These tools can make an average project extraordinary. I’ll explain how we have implemented them at Novell.

According to wikipedia.org, “A wiki is a Web site that allows users to easily add and edit content and is especially suited for collaborative writing. The name is based on the Hawaiian term wiki, meaning quick, fast or to hasten (Hawaiian dictionary). Sometimes wikiwiki (or Wikiwiki) is used instead of wiki.”

A wiki is also a Web site where (almost) any visitor can edit any of the content on the Web site using an edit-in-place function. A Wiki is also more than just a tool or a Web site; it represents a significant change in how you think about the ownership and control of “your” content.

Wikis naturally carry an attitude that can break down barriers between groups and encourage everyone to trust each other. It helps create an environment where everyone can freely share their knowledge and insight with others. The first time you edit (or correct!) the contributions of your co-workers, or even your manager, can be both an intimidating and liberating experience.


The first wiki implementation in the software community was the WikiWikiWeb implemented by Ward Cunningham as a tool for knowledge exchange between programmers. This site is still available today at http://c2.com/cgi/wiki.

The most famous wiki is likely Wikipedia (wikipedia.org), which is an attempt to build an entire online encyclopedia using wiki technology by allowing anyone to contribute to it.

How Does Novell Use Wikis?
Novell currently has 12 distinct wiki implementations supported by the IT group. Two of these are targeted at employees only, while another 10 are available to members of the extended Novell community: partners, customers and members of open source projects with which Novell is involved.

The Novell internal wikis have several functions. They:

  • manage logistics for events. Wikis easily capture potential agenda items, finalize the agenda and share it. They also help communicate travel logistics and more among team members.
  • capture FAQs to share among a team or users of an application. Wikis allows anyone to easily add value to the FAQ by either adding new questions or answers, or enhancing current answers.
  • capture process descriptions for teams. Wikis encourage team ownership by empowering everyone to make changes.
  • capture best practices for product information. Wikis are a low-threshold way for experts to share best practices on potentially any topic. (See Figure 1.)

The Novell wikis are a core component of many internal as well as external collaborations. (You'll read more about the community-specific wikis later in the article).

Externally, we use wiki tools to encourage our customers, partners and community members to contribute to and enhance a knowledge base that benefits those same people and stimulates interaction between them and Novell. Because wiki tools are a common part of many open source projects, we have adopted them as a main component for several of our project sites.

Wiki adoption has grown fast and they are useful because:

  • you can use edit-in-place tools to edit the content directly on the Web without having to download the content, edit it and then re-upload it.
  • they provide a relatively simple way to make content edits and share them with your co-workers around the world in near real time.
  • you can receive content-change alerts when content changes on the wiki. Depending on the tool you use, you can subscribe to specific pages or areas to be notified of updates either by e-mail notifications or an RSS feed.
  • they usually provide an audit trail of changes. Typically, within a wiki you can find a list of all changes, who made them and when. Again, depending on the wiki tool, you can compare different versions and even revert to previous ones. (See Figure 2.)
Hindsight is 20/20

Additional helpful hints:

  • Start small with a group of interested and motivated users and encourage a “viral” approach to get others to adopt the technology.
  • Integrate training about the wiki with other new employee training.
  • Adopt and encourage good naming conventions for pages, categories, and the like.
  • Encourage appropriate use. Sometimes other tools are a better fit for things such as documents that require extensive formatting or that are too long for online reading only.
  • Focus on its strengths, such as open, easy editing.

These steps let our users know that the wiki is just as much a part of our intranet as anything else on the site.

The Culture and Adoption of Wikis
Within Novell, the introduction of wiki technology has been somewhat disruptive to ways we have traditionally worked together. You have to get used to the mindset of editing someone else's content directly, and in turn, having “your content” edited. It both requires and builds trust with your fellow employees or community members.

The first time you encounter content on a wiki that you know could be improved can startle you; do you “take the plunge” and edit it? You can! But self doubt may creep in: “Do I dare? What if I'm wrong? What if someone sees me?” Then what happens the first time you realize you should fix content that belongs to your manager or director? Do you change it? Are you comfortable “correcting” your boss? These and similar issues are the types of questions employees encounter when using a wiki, and it often takes time to move past it.

At Novell, getting past this initial cultural shift has been a slow but steady process. We have seen a continued growth in usage—both by people consuming the content and also by contributors. As people have adopted the “wiki way,” it continues to become more valuable and be an essential part of how we work together. The culture of openness, both of access to content and the possibility that someone else might modify “your” content has become a big part of the Novell culture.

Three key things helped our internal adoption. We:

  • made the wiki look and feel like the rest of our Web site.
  • indexed all the content and made it available to users of our intranet-wide search engine—Novell QuickFinder.
  • integrated all wikis in the novell.com domain (internally and externally) with Novell's identity infrastructure. Users can now log into our intranet or extranet and edit the wiki from there with no additional logins required! We also take advantage of implementing our own security solution wrapper, iChain, which is now included in Novell Access Manager (www.novell.com/products/accessmanager). This allows us to better track users and lets us restrict access to certain sites with sensitive data when needed.

For more hints on wiki implementation, see Hindsight is 20/20.

Individual Wiki Implementations
Internal Wiki Tools

Now let’s talk about the actual wiki implementations Novell supports.

First, our three primary internal wiki tools are referred to as the Novell Wiki, the TWiki and the Help Wiki.

The Novell Wiki is an implementation of MediaWiki, the same software that supports Wikipedia. This wiki is our enterprise wiki used by any employee for most any content they want to capture or share with others. It is also the internal wiki with the most traffic. Its target audience consists of all Novell employees and most Novell contingent workers. Deployed in April 2004, its usage was initially quite low, but in recent months has been averaging about 40,000 hits a month with 20 percent of all employees using the Wiki in some way each month and 5 percent of employees contributing content each month. For configuration information, see The Novell Wiki Configuration.

The TWiki specifically supports our engineering group. It's an implementation of the TWiki software. Its features go beyond those of the MediaWiki tool, some of which are vital to our engineering group, such as the ability to have both read and write security around specific subsets of content. This is critical, because it provides a means to discuss future product directions, and so forth, without committing to a new product direction. Another feature is the ability to support a more sophisticated plug-in architecture to enable more customization. The target audience for this wiki is the Novell engineering groups. The TWiki was deployed in mid-2005 and in recent months its usage has been averaging more than 30,000 hits each month. For configuration information, see The TWiki Configuration.

The Help Wiki is a specific subset of content primarily authored by the Novell help desk to provide users with a knowledge base for answering internal support questions. It's easy to update and encourages users and help desk technicians to contribute content. All Novell employees are the target audience for this wiki, specifically those looking for technical support on internally used applications. For configuration information, see The Help Wiki Configuration.

In addition to the above wiki tools, the internal engineering teams have implemented and support several more themselves, primarily of the TWiki software. We have implemented the TWiki as a way to encourage consolidation of these individual TWikis into one that is centrally supported. That effort is still underway.

Wiki Tools

Novell Wiki Configuration

  • Software: MediaWiki 1.5.6
  • Database: MySQL 4.1.20-max-log
  • Wiki application server: HP DL380 G3, 3.2GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9
  • Database server: HP DL380 G3, 3.2GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

TWiki Configuration

  • Software: version 02 Sep 2004 $Rev: 1742
  • Database: MySQL 4.1.20-max-log
  • Wiki application server: HP DL380 G3, 3.2GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9
  • Database server: HP DL380 G3, 3.2GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

Help Desk Wiki Configuration

  • Software: MediaWiki 1.5.6
  • Database: MySQL 4.1.20-max-log
  • Wiki application server: HP DL380 G3, 3.2GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9
  • Database server: HP DL380 G3, 3.2GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

Cool Solutions Wiki Configuration

  • Location: http://wiki.novell.com/
  • Software: MediaWiki 1.5.6
  • Database: MySQL 4.1.20-max-log
  • Wiki application server: HP DL380 G3, 3.2GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9
  • Database server: HP DL380 G3, 3.2GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

DeveloperNet Wiki Configuration

  • Location: http://developer.novell.com/
  • Software: MediaWiki 1.5.6
  • Database: MySQL 4.1.20-max-log
  • Wiki application server: HP DL380 G3, 3.2GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9
  • Database server: HP DL380 G3, 3.2GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

Partner Wiki Configuration

  • Location: novell.com/partners/wiki
  • Software: MediaWiki 1.5.8
  • Database: MySQL 4.1.20-max-log
  • Wiki application server: HP DL380 G3, 2 x3.6 GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9
  • Database server: HP DL380 G4, 2 x3.6 GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

CNI Wiki Configuration

  • Location: novell.com/community/cert/instructor/wiki
  • Software: MediaWiki 1.5.7
  • Database: MySQL 4.1.20-max-log
  • Wiki application server: HP DL380 G3, 2x3.6 GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9
  • Database server: HP DL380 G4, 2x3.6 GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

NUINet Wiki Configuration

  • Location: nuinet.com
  • Software: MediaWiki 1.5.8
  • Database: MySQL 4.1.20-max-log
  • Wiki application server: HP DL385 G1, 2 AMD x2.20 GHz, 3GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9
  • Database server: HP DL385 G1, 2 AMD x2.20 GHz, 3GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

External Novell Wikis
Novell has also embarked on wiki technology for external usage by our customers, partners and community members. Some of these are publicly readable, but they require registering as a user in the novell.com domain. Others are only visible to and editable by certain users. Still others, particularly those supporting open source projects with which Novell is involved, are open to everyone.

The Cool Solutions wiki supports the long-standing Cool Solutions communities—a primary community for users, administrators and developers to share their tips, articles and free tools. The Cool Solutions wiki is a natural fit with this community experience. Novell deployed this wiki in February 2005 and has seen significant growth in use from a few thousand hits early on up to about 40,000 hits a month recently. For more information on that wiki configuration, see Cool Solutions Wiki Configuration.

Novell's DeveloperNet is a another long-standing Novell program that recently adopted the use of a wiki. The DeveloperNet wiki was deployed in mid-2005. For more information on that wiki configuration, see DeveloperNet Wiki Configuration.

The Partner Wiki is a tool for Novell partners to collaborate with Novell and other partners to help drive new business opportunities. This wiki was deployed in December 2005 and has seen a steady usage of about 10,000 hits a month since then. For more information on that wiki configuration, see Partner Wiki Configuration.

Novell deployed the CNI Wiki in March 2006 for its authorized instructors. The CNI Wiki provides a means for those instructors to collaborate with each other and with Novell. Its usage has been growing, seeing several thousand hits each month. For more information on that wiki configuration, see CNI Wiki Configuration.

The NUI Wiki supports the Novell Users International community—a community and association of Novell professionals. This wiki was deployed in May 2006 and is a key part of the community experience for members. It supports easy exchange of ideas between community members and also with Novell. For more information on that wiki configuration, see NUINet Wiki Configuration.

Last, but certainly not least, the following are additional details on several wiki tools Novell has implemented in support of open source projects.

Wiki

Location

Software

Hardware

opensuse.org

opensuse.org

MediaWiki 1.5.8

MySQL 4.1.20-max-log

HP DL385 G1, 2 AMD 2.20GHz, 5GB RAM, running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

Betterdesktop

http://betterdesktop.org

MediaWiki 1.5.8

MySQL 4.1.20-max-log

HP DL380 G3, 2x3.6 GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

HP DL380 G4, 2x3.6 GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

Bandit Project

http://bandit-project.org

MediaWiki 1.5.8

MySQL 4.1.20-max-log

HP DL380 G3, 2x3.6 GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

HP DL380 G4, 2x3.6 GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

go-evolution

http://go-evolution.org

MediaWiki 1.5.8

MySQL 4.1.20-max-log

HP DL380 G3, 2x3.6 GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

HP DL380 G4, 2x3.6 GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

Blogs
What is a blog? According to Wikipedia, “A blog is a Web site for which an individual or a group frequently generates text, photographs, video, audio files, and/or links, typically (but not always) on a daily basis.”

A blog, or Web log, is a tool similar in many ways to a wiki. It provides easy, in-place editing of posts. Beyond that, a blog is more of an individual or group's online journal. Blogs started as simple online journals—a way for people, often open source programmers, to post comments on their work and allow others to follow their progress.

From there, blogging has grown significantly in recent years. There are many reasons for this growth, including: an influx of many other types of bloggers to the “blogosphere,” such as civilian journalists and political commentators; the advancement of some technologies, such as RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and Atom, as a way to easily syndicate blog posts; and the continued evolution of the software used by many bloggers to include comment functionality (to make the experience more communal).

The primary distinction between a blog and a wiki is that a blog is primarily content by an author published as a series of essays that are chronologically viewed. It centers around the author and the interaction between the author and readers. A wiki is more about the content being authored and mutual authoring of that content. And wikis are certainly not centered around the author.

As Novell has evolved in recent years and acquired several open source companies, we have found that many employees were already using (external) blogs to interact with their communities and that other employees wanted to use a blog internally.

Novell deployed an internal blog for employees in March of 2005. This was implemented using the blog software b2evolution, v 0.9.0.10 and uses a MySQL database. We have also integrated this blog with iChain, which is moving to Access Manager, to provide a simple single sign-on for users of the blogging tool. This implementation runs on the following hardware configuration:

  • b2evolution: HP DL380 G3, 3.2GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9
  • MySQL: HP DL380 G3, 3.2GHz, 6GB RAM running SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

To date, we have not experienced a large growth in usage of the employee blogging tool likely due to a combination of several factors including: many employees already use an external blog, lack of a comprehensive communication plan around use of the employee blog, and potential confusion as to when they should use one of our internal wikis and when they should use the blog.

Another common concern heard from potential users is that the blog presents a higher level of visibility of the author (“I'll be the top post on the home page? I don't want to be that visible!”) Similar to the wiki, adopting blogging as a way of life takes time.

Following the implementation of the employee blogs tool, Novell recognized the value of more visible blogging (as already practiced by many Novell employees). Since then, we established and host several more blogs that are externally visible.

The Novell Strategy blogs include a:

This also includes the Novell Cool Blogs (novell.com/coolblogs/), which are blogs from many of its product managers, project managers and prominent technical leads. The Cool Blogs can be viewed in aggregate or by author or category.

Each of these is an implementation of WordPress 2.0.4 running on the following configurations:

Blog

Location

Hardware

CTO Blog

novell.com/ctoblog/

HP DL385 G1, 2 AMD x2.20 GHz, 3GB RAM, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

HP DL385 G1, 2 AMD x2.20 GHz, 3GB RAM, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

CMO Blog

novell.com/company/blogs/cmo/

HP DL385 G1, 2 AMD x2.20 GHz, 3GB RAM, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

HP DL385 G1, 2 AMD x2.20 GHz, 3GB RAM, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

PR Blog

novell.com/prblogs/

HP DL385 G1, 2 AMD x2.20 GHz, 3GB RAM, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

HP DL385 G1, 2 AMD x2.20 GHz, 3GB RAM, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

Cool Blog

novell.com/coolblogs/

HP DL385 G1, 2 AMD x2.20 GHz, 3GB RAM, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

HP DL385 G1, 2 AMD x2.20 GHz, 3GB RAM, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9

Summary
This article covers just a few of the fantastic collaboration tools we have implemented at Novell. These tools have helped us decrease travel, remove time and distance barriers and increase effectiveness. They have also allowed us to save time and money by reducing the amount of meetings needed to discuss important topics and communications; we can now keep everyone updated and easily share information through the wikis. Users can access the information when they need to instead of holding seemingly endless meetings to keep everyone abreast of developments. These open source tools won’t solve all your collaboration issues, but they are a great start. Wikis have come a long way and have proven to be a valuable component to the success of any project team. red N



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