Book Reviews

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Running weblogs With Slash (1E)
Title:Running weblogs With Slash (1E)
Author(s):chromatic, Brian Aker & Dave Krieger
Publisher:O'Reilly Media

If you about to set up a news or community notice board, commonly referred to as weblogs, then Slash is a prime candidate. I currently operate a few band websites, and have been thinking about using a Slash style weblog to pull together news and views from several sources all relating to one type of music. From what I knew of Slash, via slashdot, it seemed well placed to handle it all.

The good thing about Slash, is that it's components are all based upon the Open Source premise. As such the expense to a new site is primarily time spent getting the site up and running and registering all your new users. Before installing Slash as is, there are a few things you need to know, namely Perl, Apache, mod_perl, MySQL and Linux. With tweaking I'm sure you could get Slash working on Windows, but due to the high volume of traffic Slash sites can encourage, be prepared for high maintenance. Without a good knowledge of these you are going to struggle, so if you're new to any I suggested you find a few companion books too.

The book begins with a brief history of how Slash came to be, before starting proper by covering the installation of Slash. I suspect the majority of readers, like myself, are likely to have experience of installing all the other components, and as such I found it a bit unnecessary to cover those details here. The installation of Slash itself is covered well however, and also explains how to run multiple Slash sites from the same installation.

The next 6 chapters make up a pretty concise user guide. For anyone who is not too familiar with slashdot or newsforge, particularly on the administration side, these pages guide you though how the system interacts with users, authors, stories and comments. As the majority of a Slash site is likely to be based on user comments, an important chapter here is using filters and moderation. Having not read the documentation that comes with Slash itself, I suspect that these chapters will be invaluable to the new user or to support staff in helping to understand how the site is used.

In places I did find these first chapters were sometimes a bit too verbose in their description of basic functions, while glossing over some very complex functions. An example of which is description of linking to 'Everything2' ... how do I turn it off or change it to something that pertains to the site I'm installing? On the whole though it does a pretty good job at covering the GUI side of things.

However, personally I did find there to be too many subjective thoughts and comments throughout the book, which feel out of place with the intention of the book. "Choosing Topics and Icons" felt like it was just preaching to the converted, and didn't really add anything of substance to the book. Likewise the majority of chapter 8, contains nothing more than opinion. How to manage a community is something that very much depends upon the nature of the site being created, and offering marketing strategies does not fit well with a book bought for it's technical know-how. If this kind of chapter needs to be in the book, it would serve better as an Appendix, marked for interest only.

Anyone installing Slash may want the functionality, but probably not the look and feel. The next two chapters concern themselves with the real configuration of the site (or customisation as it's referred to here). However, the customisation does little more than skim the surface. There are some very useful hints and tips here for configuring the site, but there is also far too much that is left out. Perhaps the authors feel that changing images and HTML should be reserved for another book, but basic directory structure, naming conventions and the use of initialisation files for the nitty gritty would have been a real help here.

The final "chapter" concerns itself with the utilities and task management that keeps a Slash site healthy. Some of these are only useful if you are intending to provide news to other sites or scrape new stories from other sites.

The remaining third of the book is made up of the Appendices. For such a sizeable portion of the book to be taken up by Appendices makes me wonder if any thought into content management went into creating the book. Much of the Appendices should have been proper chapters themselves, as they cover some of the technical detail missing from previous chapters. The way they are written the Appendices do read like chapters, which is both good and bad. Good in that some of the details are explained, but bad in that a lot of information is still missed out.

Appendix A deals with the Slash Architecture. Much of the information within the Appendix would be more worthwhile appearing within the installation guide of Chapter 2, particularly the directory structure. Although as with the rest of the book, there is a lack of detail that would benefit the reader.

Appendix B deals with the common database tables. For me an essential part of how Slash works is it's database. As a consequence a chapter detailing the basic interaction is fine, but there also needs to be a detailed list of the tables in the database and what they do. Glossing over minor details only leads to confusion and sometimes can result in tables being misused or deleted that are required within the code. A real appendix would just contain a database schema, with perhaps a paragraph detailing what each table does and where it fits into the grand design.

Appendix C covers Slash's use of Andy Wardley's Template Toolkit. This is an very important "chapter" to read for anyone wanting to update the templates within the installation for their own use. I'm surprised this was hidden away in the Appendix, as there are likely to be many who are unfamiliar with Template Toolkit, despite it's growing popularity.

Appendix D & E cover the Slash API functions and configurations variables respectively. As I haven't looked at the code, I cannot say whether these chapters are covered in enough depth, but there does seem to be quite a lot of useful information contained therein.

Overall the book feels like it is aimed at the complete novice, which is a pity as the readership is more likely to be system administrators or experienced coders who want to maintain a complex site. The kind of information they need is a lot more in depth than what is covered in this book. As a companion guide to Slash, the books does work well, but I do feel that the second edition could do with some extensive trimming of the current text, and some 100-200 pages of technical details included for the code maintainers. At the very least a concise directory structure and database schema would do wonders.

Perhaps a reduction in the in-jokes would be nice too. Some only serve as a distraction to the content of the book, humorous to the authors, but confusing to the general reader. Although I'm sure enjoyed the hidden references in Appendix C.

If you're intending to run a weblog site, Slash is certainly a very good, reliable option. And if you do install Slash, I would recommend buying this book. However, be prepared to do a lot of digging for yourself to get the site working how you want it.

Rating: 7/10 - Good basic user guide, but lacks some important technical details.