webtrees 1.1.2 released on 11 April 2011

The latest release of webtrees is now available. It includes some great performance improvements on some longer list displays; a wide range of bug fixes; and a new “interactive tree”.

I must admit that I intensely dislike this last item though. It is so “interactive” that it becomes hard for most users to understand. Its also very poorly integrated within the design of the overall software. However, for those like me who prefer a simpler style, we have added a variant of it to our range of “Simpl” modules here. Our version uses much of the same code, but with the distracting components and configuration options removed, leaving just a simple but still interactive tree.

All our kiwitrees client sites have already been upgraded to webtrees 1.1.2.

Advanced notice of upgrade to webtrees

This is just a short note to let all our clients know that version 1.1.2 of webtrees is due for release this weekend.

We have been testing throughout its development so are confident the upgrade will be trouble free. However we will complete one further set of tests on the kiwitrees demo site before upgrading all client sites. Expect those upgrades early in the week commencing 11th April.

Latest addition to our “Simpl” modules

We have just added “Simpl_menu” to our range of webtrees add-on modules.
This provides an easy solution to adding other software products like a forum, within the existing webtrees framework.

It places a new menu item on webtrees menu bar, with sub-menu links to any product you want to use. These are opened in a simple iframe structure, preserving the webtrees header etc.. Access can be controlled in the same way any webtrees module can be, limiting it to members, or open to the public, and much more.

webtrees as CMS

Among the most common questions I have discussed on the webtrees support forums are those related to integrating webtrees into some form of content management software (cms). The most popular forms of these are Joomla, Drupal, and the one I use here, WordPress. What all of these queries ask either directly or by implication is for some integrated way of sharing a single login between the cms product and webtrees.

The fact of the matter is that at present webtrees has no integration designed for such products, and the developers have no plans to include any. The main reason being that none of the team have a strong interest in it, nor do they feel it is a priority among the many things planned for webtrees.

However, my own opinion goes further than others on the development team. I actually don’t believe it is even necessary for most people. With a little effort, and perhaps some help, webtrees can provide almost everything  most users think they need a cms for.

Lets first consider the shared login. That is actually a very complex proposal because webtrees uses registration in many critical ways. The most important is that the security and privacy of the system is heavily dependent on it. Anything that even remotely risks this aspect of the system is, for me, a non-starter! Many people have tried such integrations, but I have seen equally as many successful breaches of those attempts. So instead I asked myself whether the integration is really necessary.

As a first step when I did use Joomla with PhpGedView (webtrees’ predecessor) I eventually realised that NONE of the information I was presenting in the cms parts was actually confidential. So instead of sharing a login, I turned off the login requirements of Joomla, allowing free public access, but kept the family tree part secured by its own login systems.Equally, if you do have private information in the cms part, you can choose to hide the family tree data from all but those you allow to register on the cms, and turn off the family tree software registration.

But this for me was still “messy”. In Joomla the integrated family tree was held in a “wrapper”, which is just Joomla-speak for an iframe. That is not an ideal presentation solution, as it often results in multiple vertical scroll bars. You can see that clearly at webtrees’ own demo page if you select any individual’s page – or shown here:

So instead, and as a second step, I started to consider how the things I wanted a cms for could be incorporated INSIDE webtrees. For me that meant including a forum where family members could discuss things, a gallery where we could display general collections of images, and a range of other pages of useful information. In PhpGedView I found that all these could be included, but that doing so required reasonably high programming skills. But when we developed webtrees, and added a more modular structure, it became a whole lot easier.

Now I have added some of these things to my own site Our Families which is hosted here at kiwitrees (of course). It also led me to develop kiwtrees’ own range of “Simpl” webtrees modules that make this process even easier. These either do, or will soon include a photo album display module, a menu add-on that can add a link to any other installed software, such as a forum, and an easy way to add text/html pages such as family histories, general information articles, etc..

Of all the “simpl” modules however, there is one that I no longer use – the addition of a forum. That’s is another area I recommend most users stop and think very carefully about before implementing. I can only speak from my own experience, and having viewed a few family history sites that have added them. What I see is that they are just not used! They are a great idea, but can’t compete with the Facebook and Twitter pages that so many people prefer. So my final recommendation is to be totally and brutally realistic about what you really need on your site. It is also worth remembering that every additional module or component you add to your cms-based web site is another piece of maintenance, another upgrade complication, and in the case of any forum, a magnet for spammers! Is it really worth it?

Taking the plunge – 3 (Online family trees security)

The third item on my list of reasons why you might be reluctant to put your family history on the web is security. Closely linked to privacy but in some ways even more worrying. Certainly in my experience this area is far more annoying, and chiefly involves two particularly nasty groups of “people” (in quotes as I’m not really sure they deserve to be classified as part of the human race….) called hackers and spammers.
First some clarification:

  • A hacker is a person who breaks into computers and computer networks, either for profit or motivated by the challenge. [ref: wikipedia]
  • Spam is the use of electronic messaging systems (including most broadcast media, digital delivery systems) to send unsolicited bulk messages indiscriminately. [ref: wikipedia] In this environment though we are more concerned with a sub-culture of spamming called “spamdexing”
  • Spamdexing refers to a practice on the World Wide Web of modifying HTML pages to increase the chances of them being placed high on search engine relevancy lists. [ref: wikipedia]

All of these intruders have a variety of goals in what they do; but the results for us are all similar and range from petty annoyances to severely trashing years of hard work and valuable research.

If these issues worry you, then you are already on the right path to preventing them. The worst thing you could possibly do would be to ignore them, having a “couldn’t happen to me” attitude. Its also worth remembering that you are unlikely to ever be 100% protected. Its like crossing the road, you take every possible precaution, but that still doesn’t GUARANTEE you get safely to the other side! However, as I said for privacy, you CAN take steps that allow you to enjoy the WWW, and still sleep soundly at night.

You need to protect yourself in two places. First your home computer, with its internet connection, email system and so on. This could be a gateway through which an intruder obtains access codes, passwords etc that allow them to access your web server, where all that important family history data is stored.  Second is your web server. This could be the same machine as your home PC, but that would mean you’re even more of a ‘techie than me, so not very likely! We’re mot likely talking about someone else’s web server, that could be almost anywhere in the world, that you rent space on.

Protecting your home computer means doing a number of things:

  1. Use a firewall, aT least a software based one, but even better a hardware one. In either case they sit between your computer and the modem that links you to the internet. They acts as a gateway doing its best to shut out unwanted intrusions.
  2. Use anti-spam / anti-spy software. This adds another layer of protection to the firewall.
  3. Use safe-internet practices. That means things like don’t download anything from anywhere you don’t know for certain is safe; don’t open emails from people you don’t know; never give passwords or account details for anything to anyone, ever; use strong, long passwords and change them frequently!
  4. Keep all software regularly updated. This is almost always free, and ensures any loopholes are blocked before they can be exploited. Its a fact of life that NO software is 100% bug free and safe. The developers are fighting a constant battle with the spammers and hackers, so help them to help you by staying in touch and using the updates they provide.

Protecting you actual family data history on the web server is easier, but generally has cost implications. That’s because of an old but relevant cliché, “you get what you pay for“. In general the more you pay the more secure your data will be, the better the software will run, and the fewer problems you will experience. In determining what you need from a web server host you should consider:

  1. Their reputation, especially in respect of support, service, and their general customer attitude
  2. The specifications of their servers. Do they offer the right package of products to suit your needs, and not just the bare minimum. When software you want to run on the web lists “minimum requirements” they means just that MINIMUM. That means just enough to get it running, which is quite different to “enough to get it running beautifully”.
  3. How often will your data be backed-up, and how easily is to access those back-ups in case of a disaster?
  4. What security processes do they have in place to protect your data, and do they charge more for the “better” security?

Hopefully, armed with these tips you will be able to find the right and safest home for your family history data. Of course, if you really want to have a trouble free life and not worry about all these things then you’re already in the right place. Solving these problems for you is exactly why I created kiwitrees!!!