Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Euology for a Friend

We are here today to mourn the loss of a dear friend. One that has stuck by us, was loved by a select few, who fought the good fight. I am speaking of course, of our friend Concrete5. As much as it pains me to say it, after years of devotion and support, it is time to move on. But is it truly dead? That page has yet to be written. But I fear my blind devotion has finally cleared and I have reached a stage of clarity where I can see other vistas upon the horizon. New beginnings. Putting aside the fear and loathing of what I once spurned as a CMS after-thought, I am returning to WordPress.

Ok, enough histrionics.

It’s true. I decided to work with C5 because it was geared specifically to the needs of the CMS community, not first a blog. It was flexible, could be added to existing designs with a little programming, and was supported by a small, yet robust community. The C5 team worked apace and continued to develop the app and supporting addons like eCommerce and Discussions. In addition, there were great addons provided by the community for calendaring, blogging and more. Themes abounded. Life was good. I produced about 30 sites using C5 over the course of 3 years.

Then disaster struck.

The good folks at C5, seeing the changes in the industry, decided to upgrade the core of the application. Good thing, yes? Yes. Mostly. However, several things happened preventing the upgrade from becoming a one-click move. First, the apps were not compatible, designers were forced to recreate their sites by hand. Secondly, developers were required to rewrite their themes and addons. Designers whose sites that were developed using custom themes and addons discovered that many if not all of their themes and addons weren’t available in the new version.

Doggedly I forged on, trying to shoehorn solutions into C5, thinking all the while, “It shouldn’t be that hard to do this!” And secretly wondering if there was a WordPress plugin that could meet my needs. And the answer was almost always yes. You see, while C5’s users are devoted, they are few. WordPress developers are vast. That is certainly one major advantage of WordPress. Another is that the developers have adopted a basic/pro functionality with a majority of their plugins. That is, the basic version of most plugins work with limited options, functions, templates, etc. for free and the pro version gives you everything but you have pay for it. Makes sense. What I don’t like is that they sometimes ask you to subscribe rather than just buy it outright. The subscription entitles you to all the features, enhanced support and upgrades for a period of time, usually a year. Then you can continue to use the version you have, but without the support and upgrades.

“Well,” you say, “isn’t WordPress the Windows of the CMS world and as such is subject to hijacking, viruses, and spam? Yesss... but if you are concerned about that, there are ways to deal. Three options off the top of my head are custom webhosts specializing in secure WordPress installs like WebSynthesis and Dreamhost, caching services like CloudFlare, and plugins like WordFence, Loginizer and Akismet, that make your sites less likely to succumb to these threats.

I used a couple of wonderful templates in C5 (Supermint3 and Fundamental) that were more design frameworks rather than fixed layouts, something I could translate my or my associate’s designs onto rather than dumping content into specific sections. They provided the responsiveness, mobile support and code needed to build a modern site, while allowing me to implement the design almost completely as I saw fit. Luckily, there are a few of those now available for WordPress. Divi 3.0 by ElegantThemes, is my current go-to. and they are constantly updating and upgrading it, I mean like weekly. New features, bug fixes tutorials, etc. Pretty great. Their customer support, even for lifetime subscribers, is not super responsive and you need some patience, but they generally will help you solve your problems and even provide the necessary code.

Is C5 dead? Not quite. I still maintain both older and newer sites, the developers continue to provide patches and security upgrades. What is falling behind is their addon and template support and the support from the third-party developers. Maybe it’s just a growing phase that will pass, but in the meantime I need to get my client projects up quickly and efficiently. WordPress has just become another arrow in my tech quiver.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Born Again Website

I have recently begun to consider WordPress as just another web development tool alongside my go to app, Concrete5, instead of being the spawn of Satan. I mean, I really, really liked Concrete5, but have begun to feel that the newest version isn't getting the support from the both the people who developed it and the wider developer community. In that light, I have used WordPress to rebuild the website of my local church, trying to mimic the current design and feature set. I was pretty happy with the results.
  1. Template - Templates are a part of most of the web development apps in one way or another, WordPress being no exception. The current trend is toward template platforms – by that I mean templates that provide design tools rather than a fixed design. The Divi theme from ElegantThemes.com is a perfect example. Using a module-based interface, you can build pretty much any design you can think of.  And it comes with so many modules, you might not need any others for some projects. And with a child theme (a theme based on a parent theme), you can make further modifications without losing them when the parent theme is updated.
  2. Slideshow - a simple slideshow module built into Divi. All I needed. Done.
  3. Form - I was having an issue with our registration form for our summer camp program. I was trying to link it to PayPal and the available form addons in Concrete weren’t doing it for me.  Doing a plugin search in WordPress yielded me a bunch of options, and I decided on Form Maker. I was able to build the multi-part form and link it to our PayPal account easily.
  4. Protected Pages - to protect sensitive content from the public eye, I used the Restrict Content plugin and set the appropriate pages to Subscribers Only. Done!
  5. Maps - Map display provided by Google Maps through a setting in Divi. Neat.
  6. Security - There almost wasn’t a need for security in Concrete5, most hackers go for the big targets – MS Windows, WordPress, etc. But since using WordFence, I am pleased to say that none of the WordPress sites I have currently using it have been hacked, even if they were hacked previously.
  7. Caching - WP Super Cache takes the place of the built-in settings found in Concrete5 and may even be a little better in terms of features. That, plus free basic Cloudflare functionality from the web hosting service Dreamhost goes a long way to keeping things up to speed.
These next three features could have been easily managed by any number of individual plugins. But one enterprising pastor from the UK built his own Church Admin plugin, and it’s just a fabulous solution. You could probably even use it for non-religious groups, just by avoiding the church-specific features.

A word about the plugin. This plugin manages all of its data on the admin pages and then uses simple shortcodes to add the features you want where you want to use them. A shortcode is just like it sounds – a brief line of code usually in brackets [like this], that has hooks linking to the actual data in the admin section. Many plugins offer this feature.
  1. Calendar/Events - You just add the events to the Calendar tab in Church Admin, set colors, categories, and repeat intervals for them – just like the big boy calendar plugins. Then via shortcode, you can drop a full-page calendar or even a featured events list anywhere you want. You can even filter for the events you want to display.
  2. Directory/Membership - This is a powerful feature, allowing for individual entry as well as the ability to import CSV files if you maintain members in a spreadsheet or even in another application. You can then associate them with varies ministries (think committees) and group types. Again, using shortcodes, you can spit out directories and filter them for these ministries and groups, or lump them all in a single page. He also includes a link to download a PDF of the directory for off-line use.
  3. Sermons/Media - list, play, search Part of our site has the pastors's weekly sermons uploaded as MP3 files. In Concrete5, I had been using the blogging feature and an addon that created the listing with a built in player. But I had to maintain the blog landing page and all the monthly archive pages, which was time consuming.
  4. Built-in security - you can add a switch to the shortcode to prevent viewing by people who aren't subscribed, but it still needs a little work, which is why I went with the Restrict Content plugin mentioned above. But it does work.
  5. There are many more features to this plugin that I am not currently using, make sure to check out the link above to read about them.
Not all plugins are created equal. Some have very elegant UIs, some don’t but still get the job done. Almost all of them have a free version and pro/paid versions with more features. Most of the time, the free versions do the job.


Verdict
I was able to get 98% parity with the original design and even squeezed a couple of features I didn’t have or weren’t available under Concrete5. The site has been born again and is ready to grow as needed. Hallelujah! Can you say amen? Check it out . http://newcolony.org