Introducing the OERu Tech Blog
The Open Education Resource universitas (OERu) is an open organisation from top to bottom. Our entire technological infrastructure (with a couple exceptions) is built with and on Free and Open Source Software to which I normally refer as "FOSS".
We are committed to using FOSS for our infrastructure because:
- it is consistent with our "open" philosophy for education - if our educational materials and all our OERu planning processes are "open on principle", then delivering them on "closed" (or, more precisely, "proprietary") technologies would be a clanging bit of cognitive dissonance. There's even a word for it: "prefigurative" - use means that are consistent with your desired end.
- it allows us to use "best-of-breed" technologies (in the web-space, most innovation happens as FOSS first), combining many single-purpose solutions together in a modular way - via the open standards, open data formats, and open APIs they all support - to form a robust, feature-rich and secure communications and collaboration infrastructure. If a better solution to one of our requirements emerges, we can rapidly adapt our systems to adopt it, ensuring we are responsive and offer a fresh, state-of-the-art, well-supported and technically excellent platform.
- our partner institutions collaborators become familiar with these tools, and if they find any of them valuable, they can champion their adoption by their home institutions, helped by the instructions provided by this blog or our FOSS code repositories. The money saved and flexibility gained by our partner institutions by doing so are likely to be of substantially greater value than their annual OERu membership fees!
- Perhaps most importantly, none of our collaborators or learners are ever compelled to accept dubious (and usually exploitative) proprietary software Terms and Conditions to be part of our community. We respect our community's right to privacy and personal data sovereignty from the ground up.
Our infrastructure is currently hosted on FOSS Ubuntu and Debian Linux systems provides by four IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) providers:
- our MediaWiki infrastructure, the star of which is Wikieducator.org, is hosted on Amazon's "Elastic Compute" EC technology (located in the US, in our case), running Ubuntu Linux 14.04.
- the rest of our self-hosted infrastructure, hosted on a high-specification virtual machine, "Hetzner", also running Ubuntu Linux 14.04 (based in Germany). More on the many services provided by Hetzner below.
- more recently, we have created hosting for some of our new services on Azure, taking advantage of an annual grant given to qualifying non-profit organisations by Microsoft. We run Ubuntu Linux 16.04 hosts there. We ensure we do not make use of any proprietary Azure capabilities in any of our automated scripts so that we can shift hosting providers with minimal cost and inconvenience if/when Microsoft changes their free-hosting policy.
- in 2018, we also received sponsored hosting capacity from NZ's own cloud service provider - whose cloud offering is entirely open source software built on open stack - Catalyst Cloud. We host our code repositories on their infrastructure. Many thanks to Catalyst!
Incidentally, the FOSS operating system, Linux, is the most widely used hosting platform on the Internet today, and Ubuntu is the most widely used "distribution" of Linux.
We also make use of some externally hosted commercial FOSS services (we pay them for their services) to provide all the functionality we require:
- OnlineGroups.Net for our family of mailing lists.
- Mautic for our newsletter and user-engagement needs (Update 2017-06-16: due to substantial price increases for the hosted Mautic service, we are moving to a self-hosted version set up like this).
- Update 2017-06-16: we have adopted a new open source Kanban planning tool, Kanboard, and we're supporting the developer by paying for the hosted service.
We host and maintain a number of websites "that do stuff", otherwise known as web applications. These include:
- Our Course website which acts as a platform for per-course and per-cohort course websites, generated automatically via an OERu innovation: our course "snapshot" process from learning materials formulated on Wikieducator that are transformed into fully-formed, partner-institution-branded websites. Built on the WordPress blog platform, running in "multisite" mode.
- Our main OERu Website - which provides information about the organisation relevant to both learners and partners. It is built on the Silverstripe Content Management System (CMS).
- This Technology Blog... which is built on the Drupal CMS (version 8).
To maintain control and flexibility, we self-host a myriad of useful web-based resources and services. These include:
- our data sharing/digital artefact-storage site, comparable to having our own "Dropbox", is NextCloud.
- our collaborative document editing platform is Etherpad-Lite.
- our two "next generation" online forums, Community (for educators and OERu collaborators) and Forums (for learners), built on Discourse.
- our chat system, a Rocket.Chat instance, similar to the proprietary Slack platform, replaces our venerable geeks-only platform, IRC (Internet Relay Chat).
- our planning system, an instance of the Wekan "virtual Kanban board" (Update 2017-06-16: although we still use this a bit, we have found we prefer Kanboard)
- our link shortening service is an instance of YourLS.
- our issue tracking service is an instance of Mantis Bug Tracker (Update 2017-06-16: we've retired this as it wasn't quite the right fit for our users)
- our integrated link sharing "course resource bank" is Semantic Scuttle.
- our website usage tracking system built with Piwik.
- Update 2017-06-16: we have recently set up a Mastodon instance to facilitate training our learners in the use of social networking without having to resort to a proprietary freedom-compromised platform. Here's how we did it.
- Update 2017-06-16: we have a NextCloud instance, linked to a Collabora Online office suite instance, a concurrent editing application similar to Google Docs/Sheets. Howto coming soon!
- Update 2017-09-22: we have a Lime Survey instance, replacing our use of Google Forms for conducting web-based surveys and polls.
We have a convention of documenting (including instructions, source code, and configuration examples) all of our individual implementations FOSS implementations. We have multiple projects for public reference stored at both Bitbucket (we have repositories in both the Wikieducator and the OER Foundation projects - Bitbucket is a source code "forge" run by Atlassian in Australia) and Github (a forge run by Github in the US).
Over time, a few of us will be writing up some blog posts on specific technologies to introduce them in a gentle way to those for whom terms like "git" and "pull request" do not yet have a respectable technology-related connotation.
To build and maintain our infrastructure, we use a cornucopia of additional FOSS tools. Among these are text editors, monitoring systems, backup tools, debugging environments, "devops" platforms, container technologies, and many others. We'll no doubt cover some of these in future blog posts.
A couple noteworthy tools that all of our institutional partners should know about include:
- we get all of our SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificates, that help keep our users' information secure and private by providing browser-to-server end-to-end encryption from Let's Encrypt, at no cost. We encourage everyone else to do likewise! Here's our Let's Encrypt howto.
- OpenSSH (Secure SHell) - which ships with all Linux systems of which we're aware - it's the way we access all of our remote systems securely from anywhere.
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