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James Shadle's Blog

Adventures In Forum Community Building

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In the beginning.
To me it seems like forever , but it's only been three weeks since we launched the new Vbulletin 4.0.X. So far so good and I'm still tweaking and adding new features.

I thought I would take a couple of minutes off and give you some idea of what's been involved in upgrading to the new software. But first why did we upgrade and why does the new forum look different than the previous version.

Unfortunately, Vbulletin has not figured out how to allow custom "skins or styles" to be upgraded with their new forum software. We worked hard for 2.5 years to get a comfortable and functional forum style. All of that hard work went out the window when we upgraded.

Then why upgrade?
First and foremost is security. As we grow, we become a more interesting target for cyber trouble makers.
It's been our goal to make BPN the most secure forum on the internet. In order to realize our goal, we had to upgrade our software and switch to a new hosting company that specializes in hosting Vbulletin on a Linux platform.

In addition to the security issues, the new Vbulletin offers several new features that we will be introducing to our members over the next couple of weeks. Be sure to check the Home Page for information and tutorials on the new features and Member benefits.

Committed to our members or Needs to be committed(to a mental ward).
As I began this project I mentioned to Blake how many hours I had invested in the upgrade so far and how daunting it seemed. He said very matter of factlly "Dad, you had two and half years to do what your trying to do in two and a half weeks". Wow, I felt better, I hadn't looked at it that way.

Synopsis of the process.
The very first step we took was to move to our new hosting company, They have been a pleasure to work with and our up time and load times have been outstanding. As a matter of fact our load times are "Very Fast (0.817 Seconds), 83% of sites are slower", according to Alexa.
The old forum ran on the new server for two months before the upgrade. We wanted to make sure there were no issues to work out before the upgrade.

Next we installed a test forum on the new server. The old forum was then upgraded in the test environment. Every modification that is currently running on BPN was thoroughly inspected in the test environment. Even with almost every staff member testing the site for bugs, we still missed a few thing.
Little things like images being resized when they shouldn't be, improper thumbnail alignment and the like.

Now the tricky stuff - upgrading the software. It should have taken 6 hours to complete. However, the upgrade operator had a power supply go bad in his personal PC and the upgrade failed. Because of that the old forum had to be completely restored from the pre-upgrade backup. URLJET has a great backup system, so restoring the the forum was not a problem. The problem was time. The 6 hour job turned into 24 hours of nail biting and sedatives;).
Now that the forum was running I had to get into high gear. Every modification that was installed on the test server had to be re-installed on the live forum. Nothing from the test server was transferable, just the knowledge that the mods would work and not crash the live forum.

Before I could start modifying the forum's look and functionality, it had to be set it up. Hundreds of options to set including as examples, Forum permissions, forum structure, attachment types, email etc.

Once the forum structure was complete I designed and installed 8 skins or styles and I quickly culled that down to 4. The BPN staff has done a great job of providing feedback. Items like font colors being to light, pages to wide or not indexing properly were brought to my attention and fixed on the fly.

Next the plugins and products(sometimes called mods or hacks) needed to be installed. So far 13 products with 99 plugins and several template modifications.

After the forum started feeling like it should, I moved on to set up our new Home Page and Staff Blogs.

So far I have close to 240 man hours invested in the upgrade. So you decide "Committed to our members or Needs to be committed(to a mental ward)".
My wife is not allowed to answer the above question(well she has on numerous occasions).

The saga continues - stay tuned.


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