Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Picky Wiki, Oh How Tricky

I knew that one essential piece of infrastructure I wanted to get in place for i2x was an internal wiki. Wikis, for me, are a combination whiteboard, scratchpad, document repository and all around general purpose tool. I've used wikis for everything from keeping track of account info for clients to hosting project specifications.

One of the nicest things about wikis is that they are easy to re-organize. As the needs of i2x are becoming clearer, I can change and update where stuff lives on the wiki and how it's organized.

The big question for today was what variant of wiki to install and commit to using? There are a multitude of options.

In the past, I've used UseModWiki and Pbwiki. Though I was curious if Trac, TWiki or MediaWiki would be better options.

MediaWiki is famous for hosting wikipedia.org, so that certainly speaks volumes about the project. And TWiki has a really impressive set of features, such as the ability to create interactive forms. And Trac is know for tight its integration with Subversion, which means that your source code, document, and bug repository all have wiki capabilities.

I spent way too long evaluating all these options today, and more.

At the end of the day, though, I decided to stick with the UseModWiki. My reasons?

  • The wiki is drop dead simple, and that's what I need. I want the equivalent of a whiteboard to work with, not a sophisticated drawing program. UseMod offers versioning, handy wiki syntax and no frills to get in the way.
  • Installation is nice and simple. I like that I can understand exactly what's going on with every aspect of the wiki.
  • The source is being maintained - the last release was on 9/12/2007. That may not seem impressive, but quite a few wikis I looked at today had development stop years ago on them.
  • The source is hackable. In the past, I've hacked the UseMod wiki to support embedding bug links (bug:928 automagically turns into a hotlink to bug report 928), calendar references (cal:1/3/07 links to that date) and other changes. The big o'l perl file isn't easy to follow, but I know I can change it if I see a feature I need.
  • I love the old school feel to the Wiki - using RealWikiLinks, and a more or less plain text feel to it. We've got evidence that this sort of simplicity works and works well.

I also looked into using PBWiki - a terrific online service which allows you to create your own wiki in a hurry (less time than it takes to create a peanut butter sandwich, as they say). In the end, I decided I wanted the flexibility of being able to control every aspect of the wiki and that I didn't want to contend with ads or space limitations.

If you don't use a wiki, you should definitely give PBWiki a try. Give yourself a few days with the tool and you'll think of dozens of uses for it.

For those who do use wikis, what variant is your preference?

Update: I should also mention a few more advantages to UseMod that I've found with playing around with it tonight:

  • It's possible to bookmark the edit page URL, which has the format: http://wiki.yourdomain.com/wiki.cgi?action=edit&id=ScratchPad. If you add this bookmark to your toolbar, you suddenly have one click editing for that page.

  • There's a patch to support pressing control+s to save your page and one to insure that a loaded page automatically gets focus on the text area. Combine this with the previous advantage, and you can now click a button to edit page, start typing, and hit control+s to save. Bottom line: edits can be really fast.
  • The wiki is totally usable, both from a viewing and editing perspective, on my Sidekick 3. In general, the HTML is so simple, it would probably work well on any mobile device with an HTML browser.

As I play with things a bit more tonight, I'm getting the sense that I made the right decision to go with UseMod.


  1. we use Trac as our project management suite at work. Besides including a nice SVN brower, it has a really basic Wiki engine. It also has many plugins you can addon on.

  2. I felt like such an idiot, I didn't even know there was a huge universe of people making hyper-specific wikis out there until this weekend. I knew of Star Trek and They Might Be Giants fan wikis, but didn't know they were being used as collaborative website builders for small things like school projects and corporate idea-sharing until recently.

    --Humbling moment of the month--

  3. Nick -

    I took a brief look at Trac, but for some reason, didn't fall in love with it. I guess I wasn't interested in the close integration with SVN.

    The more I use UseMod the more I like it - the fact that it's a single perl script that I can hack up as needed, is just too valuable.

  4. Sylvia -

    Yeah, it's amazing the things you can do with wikis. And sites like pbwiki.com make it just so easy to start one.

    Even though I'm using it for my business and only collaborating with my wife and self, I still find it immensely powerful.