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Tales of an Audio Forum Administrator, Part Three

Issue 112

My last installment gave an in-depth look at what many forum moderators experience on a day-to-day basis. It isn’t the most glamorous job, but it’s ultimately rewarding enough that they stick with it.

What about the forum administrators? We may not seem to have much of a presence, but we are busy behind the scenes. Some administrators are not working on just one forum—they may have two, three, or even more that they oversee. In addition, many admins are volunteers, and/or have a full-time job in addition to administering the forum.

We have a lot of tasks that we cover. Some are daily or periodical, while others are longer-term maintenance or adjustments we need to make to the software or the server. Major upgrades, graphic redesigns and other major changes aren’t something that happen overnight. I’ll run you through a list of what a typical forum administrator might go through.

Daily or weekly tasks involve several things. A quick spot check of the public side of the forum lets us make certain everything is working as it should. This includes a glance at the statistics—how many visitors are online at any given time, and how many of those are members? This gives us a rough idea of the traffic we are seeing at varying points throughout the day.

A glance at the number of posts and threads indicates how much the forum content is growing. We also hit a few random but popular pages to see how the forum is responding, and make note if any condition of concern persists in case we need to address it.

We also have daily, weekly and monthly server maintenance. We have to clean out old log files, cache directories and other expendable items. We will open one of the resource monitoring tools which show the current processes (primarily memory, disk usage and CPU usage). The daily server logs need to be archived and removed from the site, as they can eat up a lot of space if left to accumulate. We also make certain that scheduled backups have taken place, and their files are stored off-site safely.

Longer-term maintenance includes monitoring appropriate resources, and digging into the server configuration to adjust anything possible. We may tweak our database configuration at least a couple of times per year. Our forum software is on a regular schedule of updates every two months, so those need to be applied, and any issues with the update resolved immediately.

Our current software uses a three-point versioning system. Using a version number of 2.1.5 as an example, the first point (“2” in 2.1.5) upgrade is a major upgrade where the entire backend of the forum is rewritten. (The backend is functional part of the forum, essentially the “engine” that processes the data and presents it in readable form to visitors.)

In most cases, these major upgrades break compatibility with older add-ons and themes a forum might use.  (An add-on, or plug-in, will either add new features to the forum, or modify the appearance of a specific element in the forum. A theme, or style, is like a new “skin” that applies a new color and layout as an alternative to the default style provided by the forum software developer. Themes and just about all add-ons are created by third-party developers.) Thankfully, these first point upgrades only happen only once every several years.

Second point upgrades (“1” in our example) are primarily feature upgrades and major bug or operational fixes. These usually occur every 12 – 18 months. Third point updates (“5”) are for security patches and bug fixes, which are released every two months, or sooner if severe security flaws are found. These generally create few if any issues.

The second-point feature upgrades sometimes cause a little work for an administrator. Some add-ons will break, and some themes will need to be fixed, so we usually wait until our major add-ons and themes are updated by third-party developers before we upgrade the forum. Many of us run a private testing forum on which to do our future development, and we try to test everything thoroughly before deploying it. Luckily, most feature upgrades are not all that troublesome.

The most work an administrator will do is when there is a major first-point upgrade in the wings. Since it is almost like starting fresh, the default forum theme needs to be tweaked, and third-party themes need to be customized. Add-ons need to be tested thoroughly but even more importantly, we need to wait for major add-ons to be rewritten for the new version, and that sometimes takes several months. We like to roll out an upgrade with all the same features in place if possible, as we want to do nothing but improve a visitor’s experience on the forum. These types of upgrades require advance planning, and some of us will take the opportunity to give the site’s graphics an overhaul (a refreshed logo, new color and style page layout changes, etc.). Nothing we do in planning an upgrade is done off-the-cuff—it can take months of planning, preparation and testing before launching the new site.

What is worse than a launching a first-point upgrade? Converting from one forum platform to another. Without getting into a lot of technical detail, achieving feature parity is often not possible—we can guarantee most, but not all, features will carry over to the converted forum.  There are many technical hurdles as well to make certain we transfer as much of the data over as we possibly can. Fortunately, the forum developer offers import scripts that handle the bulk of the data importing, and we run a few trial imports first, to make sure the process works as intended. This is in addition to the work we perform for first-point upgrades but luckily, these conversions are seldom needed.

Upgrades and conversions lead to even more work—educating the members on how the new features work. I tend to put together tutorials for members and post them in an appropriate place, and add some of these to a series of help and FAQ pages for future reference. There is also a lot of troubleshooting that inevitably happens right after the upgrade is implemented. As any developer will tell you, once you unleash your creation to the public, they find every way imaginable to break it!

Beyond this, the last part of an administrator’s task is the long-term planning—the “big picture.” Do we need to look at adjusting our advertising or monetization? Is our server working well, or should we start looking at hardware upgrades? Are there additional features members might want that we are not providing? Should we improve our social media presence? Do we want to change the focus of our forum by adding more possible discussion areas, or trimming back those with little traffic? Is there an untapped audience we would like to pursue? Those questions are always in the back of an administrator’s mind, and are yet another part of our job description.

To end this, I’ll offer a mini Frequently Asked Questions segment to help our readers understand what goes on when you have a question, and how we typically answer it.

The forum is running slow!! Can’t you do anything about it??

If this is isolated only to your experience, you may have an issue with your device or your provider. If others are reporting slowdowns, then it could be a server issue. But here’s the rub—if I can’t be monitoring the server at the exact moment you’re seeing the slowdown, all I can do is make a guess, based on what I’m seeing. Generally, forums will slow down under periods of high traffic—the web server process and the database both see a lot of activity at that time. At times, I may see a lot of queries stacked up in the database, meaning I need to make some adjustments to the configuration. Another reason a server runs slow is due to a handful of processes that keep the bad guys out (like a firewall, or the fail2ban script), but may slow down overall performance. Finally, don’t rule out a major Internet backbone disruption.

I can’t get this forum feature to work. What’s wrong with it?

Sometimes the problem is related to browser extensions/plugins you may have installed. An ad blocker, or anything else that interferes with the loading of Javascript or CSS (cascading style sheet, used to format web page layouts), can cause a forum to appear to misfunction. If all cookies are blocked, that can disrupt forum features as well. We ask that members disable these and try the forum again. Some DNS (domain name system) providers and VPNs (virtual private networks) also provide some sort of filtering that can interfere with forum software.

I can’t log in, or stay logged in.  Can you help?

This is often traced back to corrupted cookies in your browser, or you have blocked cookies in your browser settings. Clear them out under the forum’s domain and try again.

If the login issue is due to forgetting your password, staff cannot retrieve it. Passwords are hashed when stored in the database; this is a one-way encoding that would be almost impossible to reverse. Most forums now have a “Lost Password” link to recover it yourself. If you’ve forgotten your login name, newer forums also let you log in with an email address. When in doubt, contact the staff.

Why don’t you have a mobile app for your forum? Why not use Tapatalk?

Many forums today are “responsive,” meaning, they automatically adapt to the device they are displayed on. Many admins would rather not have to require their visitors to install an app to view the forum on their favorite smartphone. Many apps out there are really nothing more than browser shells anyways. As for the Tapatalk app, I had a negative experience with it opening up the forum and server to unacceptable vulnerabilities, on top of it also removing many of the forum’s functional features.

That wraps up our third part of the forum administrator series. If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the Comments section below and we will answer them in a future installment.

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