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Collaboration, open source style

Since mid/late 90s Collaboration technologies and services have been a particular field of interest for me. Used to say that the reason I ended up working with IT is not only because of (a genuine) interest in technology, but also due to a genuine interest in people. That a function, a service or concept actually works, and makes people happy or content.

After all IT is about information, organizations, people, groups of people and interactions, communication, and synergies. And content, deliverables, connections, search, structure and flexibility.

In any event, collaboration as methodology, technical solution or both, is key for organizations, projects or business. The better and more diverse the tools, the easier and more effortless such a process might be. Collaboration is in some respects a techno-green solution for data recycling. 

Collaboration - licensed style

Over the the past two decades several types of technologies have emerged, first from Lotus, later IBM, and Microsoft based ones. When I started the choices were few and Lotus (later a part of IBM) was the only company that had gone the full length and made products or services. Today Lotus actually is the brand name for IBM Collaboration solutions. I consider these to be among the best you can get, but solutions can be pricey, and there are several contenders/competitors. 

Different technologies come with different strong suits as well as weaknesses. But it is the sum of all aspects that matters, from technology to people, culture. And sense of ownership. In fact, per my experience, sense of ownership is one of the most important parts, together with good support and training. 

Today collaboration services have evolved further and become Social Business Technology. Several great platform choices exists, some (public) cloud based, some private cloud. And those you typically install in your environment. All with that in common that without a a solid concept, investment in a solid (working) culture, it might become a costly experiment. Important information, the sort that your company depend on, continue to lurk in individual mailboxes.

Changing technology and platform is one thing, changing peoples mindset and working culture something else. If one ever initiates such a projects, buy-in and dedication from everyone, including management, is very important.

Collaboration - open source style

Over the past few years I've used Open Source technologies for many different uses and purposes. Some of them can, with the right mind set and building blocks, be adapted or converted into collaborative environments. Extranet like solutions, with decent control and management possibilities for group-wise or controlled access.

But as things grow these designs might become more than a handful to manage, especially if you are looking for the "room style" way of containing people, data and functions. It was such needs that one day drove me towards

Open Atrium -  Drupal based Collaboration platform 

I've been aware of this platform for some time but really not sunk my teeth into it. Since I work with Drupal CMS and the solution is built on and with Drupal it was only a matter of time before I had to get acquainted.

You can quickly set up a Pilot on Pantheon (hosting service, link on the open atrium website) to try it out.

I did it my way

and went for my own installation. Like to have control over all aspects when doing initial pilots and investigation. The setup was easy enough, unzip or unpack a compressed file, FTP upload all source files and structures up to your web server. Prior of course preparing an empty MySQL database and have basics set up. And begin installation.

Tip: starting the installation procedure you get the choice between Quick installation and Standard installation. I first tried the quick but later found out that several things did not work as expected. Among other things the Rich text editor built into the system (based on TinyMCE) would not work. Tried a couple of times, no success.

On the Open Atrium forum I got the tip to try Standard installation. This worked, and everything was in place once installation had completed. Click visit site and you get a landing page like showed above. Later you can customize and build your own landing page but for starters, the standard one will do just fine. 

An "executive" summary - does it work

Yes it most certainly does, will write more about this in a later blog. It's simply too much to touch base on in a post that already has extended itself halfway around the equator. Suffice to say that, if one works with this technology and possibly add a extra functions, such as chat (with logging options) I cannot see what among basic or crucial tools, would be missing. You get it all for free, but like with all tools whether open source or licensed, you have to invest time, or in people to spend the time.

Once installed you can begin to create content. Set up a space or Room, add sections and functions based on tools and functions provided. This goes fast. Basics you need, such as files or folder structure area, a group or team calendar (with iCal Feed), task and actions list, discussion forums with the possibility for multiple threads, all there. 

Below a partial screenshot of a pilot place front at an early stage.

Design, options & authentication

Open Atrium utilizes several of Drupal's brilliant supplements, like Drupal panels (based on Panopoly), a very powerful design layer in Drupal. And Widgets. Page layout can easily be altered, changed to whatever you like, widgets added or moved about. You can also add different real time chat solutions, and set them up so you can control who sees who. Plus logging all chats, so data doesn't get lost. 

Everything is design responsive, and adapts to mobile devices of all kinds, handheld/tablets or mobile phones. Notifications and alerts can be configured too, so you don't really need to go to the space to check for news.  

Open Atrium supports local user management, groups management, teams, as well as OpenID and LDAP authentication. Using the platform in corporate environments with for instance Microsoft Active Directory should in other words be possible. I've not tried but standard LDAP vs AD configuration is more a matter of getting values and details right. Guides exists in plenty.

More later, thank you for reading :)