Platform as a Service

8 Great WordPress Plugins

WordPress is used by more than 72 Million websites.  In fact, WordPress is used by over 16.7% of Alexa Internet‘s “top 1 million” websites and as of August 2011 manages 22% of all new websites.  48 of the World’s top 100 blogs use WordPress.  And WordPress is more than a simple blog engine, it’s developed to become one of the most simple to use Content Management Systems available today.  This is largely thanks to its rich plugin architecture and community support.  Did you know that there are more than 23,000 WordPress plugins – and counting?!

This great infographic by illustrates the popularity of WordPress.

WordPress Stats Inforgraphic


Here’s a quick overview of 8 plugins that I find most useful… – Jetpack supercharges your self-hosted WordPress site with the awesome cloud power of -VelvetBlues allows you to automatically update all of the links in your site when you change domains, or the format of your main URL. – WP Super Cache will speed up your site big time… Worked well for – WP Touch is not a bad way of auto-converting your site for mobile devices with lots of configuration options.  Doesn’t work quite so well for heavily customised sites – this is where you might have to consider getting down and dirty with some serious CSSing. – Cookie Confirm is a brilliantly simple way of meeting your EU legal requirements for privacy. – Embed Posts is a way of neatly and simply making a page out of posts.  Great if you want to reuse posts in multiple pages.  Try combining this with JQuery Expanding Box which creates a shortcode to add an expandable box to show and hide the selected content on a post or page with customisable show and hide links. – get All In One Favicon to easily update site icons, including your favicon.

The quiet Google Apps and Chromebooks revolution

Over the past few weeks I have been assessing how best we can deploy and manage a set of Google Chromebooks to be piloted across a group of schools.  We already have an enterprise deployment of Google Apps for Education with approximately 130,000 users grouped into around 450 Organisational Units.  The entire user and organisational management is efficiently streamlined using the Systems Interoperability Framework (SIF); new users, transient users and leavers are all near-time captured through SIF making account management a breeze!

How does this work?  (1) The school Management Information System (MIS) is updated – pupils and staff intake, leavers, or changes – and modifications are transported securely via SIF and the (2) Zone Integration Server (ZIS) to the Identity Management (IdM) server.  Here users identities are matched or created.  (3) Then the identities are passed via SIF to the ZIS and then (4) on to Google Apps.

SIF Identity Management

Now here’s the cloud clever bit… Before deployment to your users, each Google Chromebook is registered with your organisation’s Google Apps domain using the management console.  Here you can define a multitude of policy options including which applications, or extensions, a user should, or should not, have access to.  Policies can be defined for different organisational units – pupils and staff, sales and marketing, etc. – and updated at any time.  Any user who signs-in in to any registered Chromebook will automatically receive the profile relevant to them.  Organisational Unit policy changes are automatically applied the next time a user signs-in, or after a set time period.

Chromebook Management

This is a fantastic example of how simple, powerful, efficient and cost effective cloud computing really can be.  No expensive domain servers to maintain and house.  No network intensive traditional roaming profiles.  Easy management from any place in the world with an Internet connection.  Flexible and mobile workforce and learners.

The Evolution of the Web

Whilst trawling for information on Chrome OS and its supporting devices to understand how these might be deployed and managed across a large estate, I stumbled upon this great interactive infographic, built in HTML5, which details the evolution of major web technologies and browsers.

The Evolution of the Web

UK Government seeks a common infrastructure built on open standards

The UK Government’s Cabinet Office has announced a strategy to deliver real financial savings and efficiency gains through the agile implementation of an ICT infrastructure that will enable the reuse and sharing of our ICT assets.

In a move that is believed to reduce the high level of risk associated with large scale ICT projects, the infrastrtucture will build upon the successes of smaller projects that have transformed services through the use of common and open standards.  By encouraging and in some cases mandating the use of open standards, joining-up all of these pockets of smaller projects to form a supportive, comfortable and long lasting king size infrastructure mattress will be simpler.

Some key points to note:

The Government will push ahead with its agenda for data centre, network, software and asset consolidation and the shift towards cloud computing.

The standardised cloud platform will also allow developers, especially SMEs, to generate innovative solutions.

A common infrastructure based on open standards will allow for greater flexibility of policies and services delivered at lower cost and within a shorter timeframe.

The use of common standards can make ICT solutions fully interoperable to allow for reuse, sharing and scalability across organisational boundaries into local delivery chains.

The adoption of compulsory open standards will help government to avoid lengthy vendor lock-in, allowing the transfer of services or suppliers without excessive transition costs, loss of data or significant functionality.

Modern, knowledge-based service delivery underpinned by effective information architecture and open standards will support government to build more transparent, trusted and efficient information exchange processes.


How much ICT infrastructure does a school really need to manage?

Let’s just start with servers…

A quick tally of the number and types of servers a typical secondary school might have sitting in a dedicated, no doubt air-conditioned, room resulted in this visual…

School Server Infrastructure Today

School Server Infrastructure Today

And a few of the disadvantages of this approach might be:

  • Some poor soul has to keep all of these running and somehow manage stay an up to date expert across a wide-ranging set of server services.
  • Each server is most likely running 24/7/365 at an average of around 200 watts – roughly £2.5k per annum in electricity bills alone and that’s quite a smelly carbon footprint to boot.

Provider: Scottish Power (Tariff: Premier Plus online, London)
Rate: 11.252 pence per kilowatt/hour
Rate last checked: 10th Sept 2009

And that’s without going down the whole maintenance and replacement, licensing and support costs. Nor factoring in stuff like resilience and security…

What if today looked something like this..?

School Infrastructure Today?

School Infrastructure Today?

A few of the advantages might be:

  • High availability resulting in high teacher confidence in the ‘invisible’ ICT.
  • Much lower total cost of ownership – subscription based access to services that you need and when you need them.
  • Flexible – add new and remove unwanted services with ease.
  • More space – no more dedicated server room.
  • Sweeter smelling carbon footprint.
  • Access from anywhere and at any time 🙂

Yeah right… But how do people login to the network?

They don’t. Ideally they single sign-on (online) into the services that they have privileges to access. Look at how you can link-up your accounts on many of the popular web based apps like Google, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and so on and on and on… In education terms this would most likely look like using the UK Access Management Federation and Shibboleth for single sign-on.

But the web isn’t advanced enough yet to support all of the teaching, learning and management tools, apps and services that we need!

Sure it is! Just check out my Delicious bookmarks for a sample… Also check out Johannes Ahrenfelt’s blog for even more ideas!

Okay… But how on earth do I keep all of these disparate apps updated with the relevant info about students and staff?

How do you right now? A combination of many different and often bespoke or proprietary methods methinks? The Systems Interoperability Framework (SIF) is a promising option for education services. Get involved!

Yeah but what if our connection to the internet goes down?

Get some resilience. A fail-over connection maybe? Let’s face it, with all of those servers a potential weak point, the chances are that your internet connection is far more reliable than you might think!

What do you really think? Some good debate around this is very welcome 🙂

PS Would we still need a proxy server if, as is likely, most of the web traffic is encrypted across Secure Socket Layer (SSL) (port 443 / https)?

Smart Phones – a serious contender for everyday productivity & learning..?

Small is beautiful! But is it really practical?

I rely on being connected with access to my key apps, communication tools and unlimited supply of information – increasingly location specific. I’m also (slowly) trying to reduce the amount of stuff and clutter that I have, both at home and when out and about. I’ll always aspire to the minimalist way of life but acknowledge that this will never be a reality 😉

So, if it is a given that the ‘manbag’ is now as acceptable as the male handbag in our cosmopolitan existence, then this is a good starting point for stuff limitation.

Indiana Jones with his Manbag

Indiana Jones with his Manbag

My starting point back in 2006 was a manbag capable of housing a Samsung Q1, mobile phone and wallet. Although smaller than a standard laptop bag, with dimensions to support a 15-17″ device, my look was bulky and still reasonably weighty. I could link the mobile phone up to the Q1 to get a vague shot at internet access – the phone, a Samsung D400, alone was a no hoper on the web and apps front despite being the latest and supposedly greatest at the time.

Samsung Q1 and D400

Samsung Q1 and D400

And ultimately, the Q1 was not a heap better. The screen resolution was just not up to scratch and the battery life, although good compared to your standard laptops of the time, barely managed a couple of hours after a year’s regular use.As soon as it was possible for me to do so, I had moved back to a laptop – a Dell 430 which was about as small as I deemed practically feasible at the time. In the mobile stakes it proved pretty useless after a short while with dreadful battery life the main problem. Didn’t fit the manbag either!

Dell D430

Dell D430

Then came the Samsung NC10. Ultra mobile perfection when it arrived and still holds its own today! A usable screen, keyboard and awesome battery life that has not seemingly diminished in over 2 years of use! Plenty of connectivity options to boot and extremely well built. I firmly believe that the NC10 and its successors and imitators are currently the only way to go in the classroom, mobile working and just plain old social-wise.

Samsung NC10

Samsung NC10

And now comes the SMART phone. And I say now despite the existence of this marketplace for quite some time. It is really only over the past few years that these devices have become a practical mobile alternative to supporting short burst communication and productivity tasks. I started with the Blackberry Bold 9000… I wasn’t ready for touch screen and found the excellent keyboard and track-pad reassuring and surprisingly nimble to use. So, here I was in a position to downsize the manbag – well most of the time – email was a doddle, Facebook kept me socially connected and a decent web browser teamed with manageable screen size and GPS gave me access to most of the info that I needed most of the time. Battery life was also good enough – I’m quite happy for the overnight charging routine! Where the Bold fell down at the time was around the apps available and their true ease of use within the screen real estate and keyboard navigation.

iPhone 4_& HTC Desire

iPhone 4 & HTC Desire

With great trepidation (for me anyway), I took the slightly more expensive plunge for the iPhone 4… The closest competition seemed to be the HTC Desire with Google Android OS. Reviews suggested that there was little between the two; the main being that the iPhone just worked, was intuitive and had the best wealth and integration of apps. The Android OS gives you more geek factor in terms of getting under the bonnet.

I’m hooked! I can’t say that the iPhone replaces my little Samsung NC10. But it’s a 40/60 % split in use between the two. The iPhone is spot on for short tasks like viewing and small edits with Google Apps and other office tools.  I’m posting on WordPress, Twitter and Facebook. Photo stuff is a breeze with Flickr and Facebook. Dropbox and ZumoDrive keep everything stored and synchronised. And that’s without the many, many other apps that float my boat! Internet access with location services, music, talking and so on is all without effort – and I can go on a bit on the talking front! The option to pinch and zoom and switch between portrait and landscape at the flick of a wrist makes for a strong case for the size being really practical. Battery life still fits with the overnight charge regime and that’s despite comparatively far greater use.

More time spent with some of the apps that could be relevant to education is now needed to round this article off!