On 31-Dec-04, I moved all our subscribers from our aged Power Mac 7100 running ListSTAR 1.2 (we’re talking systems that saw their last significant upgrade in 1997) to our shiny dual-processor Xserve running Web Crossing, which serves static and dynamic Web pages, provides a high-performance object-oriented database, and handles all our normal and mailing list mail (short of three translation lists that I still need to move), among other things.
Overall, the move went well, although the welcome message generated quite a few more bounces than I’d expected due to the roundabout method we’d used to track them in the past. Picking the holiday break also meant a slew (almost 400) of out-of-office replies – I feel like I know many of you just a little bit better now. And most surprising, since I seldom run across them in normal mail, were all the challenge-response requests, of which I received about 125 from at least 10 different systems. In an intentional break from our standard policy of not responding to any challenge-response mail, I chose to respond to each one manually in this specific case, since I wanted to reduce the confusion of switching to a new system as much as possible. And do I have opinions on the usability of challenge-response systems now! But that’s a future article.
Explaining Common Confusions — Needless to say, some confusion still resulted, thanks in part to the fact that people aren’t always caught up on reading TidBITS and thus didn’t expect the move. Nothing I can do about that. But a few other things came up that perhaps I can explain a bit better.
Several people were horribly offended at being given a TidBITS account with a password and wondered why it was necessary. The primary reason is that we spend a lot of time helping people change their email addresses and cleaning up mailing lists after people abandon old addresses. We’re too small to be spending time on unnecessary clerical tasks that everyone can easily do themselves. In fact, this was one of the reasons I chose Web Crossing for our server software in the first place; it has full-fledged user account capabilities. So, for instance, if you want to change your email address, you can do so in your account, and the new address will immediately be reflected in all of our TidBITS and Take Control mailing lists. If you don’t want to change your email address, there’s no need to log in to your TidBITS account at all; should you ever want to do so, you can always request a new password.
A number of people have been confused by the interface to the Web Crossing preferences. It’s not ideal, and it’s certainly not pretty, but if you just follow the instructions on our Account Help page, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble. Redesigning the preferences pages is on my list of things to do; it’s one of those areas of Web Crossing that hasn’t received interface attention in a number of years, and it’s clearly due for some work.
Some folks have been confused by the fact that we appear to have two subscription interfaces. Here’s the deal. The TidBITS Subscriptions page was brought over from our old server; it’s a nice interface and is easy to use for subscribing and unsubscribing, as long as you know which of your email addresses to use. However, it’s a "dumb" form that requires email confirmation of all changes made through it to prevent people from messing with other people’s subscriptions. Then there’s the Manage Subscriptions page, which Web Crossing maintains automatically and dynamically as part of your TidBITS account preferences. It lists the mailing lists to which you’re subscribed and lets you change how you’re notified of new messages. So, both pages can be used to unsubscribe, but only the TidBITS Subscriptions page can be used to subscribe to new lists. Simplifying this dichotomy will take some thought; we need a public page that people without accounts can use to subscribe, but at the same time, it’s nice when the system can identify you and help you manage your specific subscriptions. As I become ever more familiar with the Web Crossing mindset, I’ll figure out a better approach.
The above confusion seems to have been exacerbated by the fact that some people don’t realize we offer TidBITS in four editions: Text Issue, HTML Issue, Text Announcement, and HTML Announcement. Each edition has a different mailing list; the vast majority of our subscribers receive the Text Issue, which is the full TidBITS issue in 7-bit ASCII text. The HTML Issue is the full TidBITS issue formatted with minimal HTML that looks good in all email programs that support HTML mail. Relatively few people are subscribed to the announcement lists; instead of the full issue each week, subscribers receive a summary of the issue and a list of articles with links to our article database. If you wish to try a different list than the one you’re currently subscribed to, use the TidBITS Subscriptions page to subscribe, being sure to use the email address that’s currently associated with your TidBITS account (otherwise you’ll end up with two accounts).
Smoothing the Road — These transitions are never perfectly smooth, but overall, I think this one has gone pretty well. After I finish moving the last few translation lists over, it will be time to concentrate hard on the content management system. I certainly hope to keep any downtime to a minimum, but it’s impossible to predict how things will develop, so thanks for bearing with us on this server move!