Frequently Asked Questions

We are frequently asked about our WordPress deployment by universities, NGOs and other institutions that are interested in setting up their own multiuser blogging platform. We’ve been answering those questions on an ad-hoc basis – this page will serve to collect the most common questions and hopefully be something we can refer to interested parties. First – see our Project Info page if you are interested in the early history of blogging at Berkman.

Notes: Answers are current as of 8/19/2014. This document does not represent the official position of Harvard University.

Blog Admin FAQs (14)

What OS do you use?

The blogs.harvard.edu servers use Ubuntu LTS (multiple flavors), though any *nix would be great.

What kind of traffic do you see? How many blogs are you hosting?

We have over 900 live blogs, probably 200 are active and maybe 100 are really active.

Our blogs have 700k visits per month, with around 3 million+ page views by actual humans and probably 7 to 8 million total page views counting bots.

Our bot visits are extraordinarily high. See our minimal robots.txt – we attempt to enforce the Crawl-delay value through the excellent limiting features provided by nginx.

What are people blogging about?

We host personal blogs and project blogs, we are the entire web presence for various working groups, we are the archives of administrative updates, and more. The following small selection of content perhaps best shows the diversity of content:

 http://blogs.harvard.edu/philg
 http://blogs.harvard.edu/corpgov/
 http://blogs.harvard.edu/doc
 http://blogs.harvard.edu/collegeadmissio…
 http://blogs.harvard.edu/mediaberkman
 http://www.youthandmedia.org
 http://www.herdict.org/blog
 http://blogs.harvard.edu/infolaw
 http://blogs.harvard.edu/tatar
 http://blogs.harvard.edu/yulelog

Why did you choose WordPress?

We wanted an open source multi-user blogging platform and it seemed the best choice at the time. We’ve been very happy with it, and there have been real improvements to the core features without the core team throwing backwards compatibility under the bus.

What is your current hardware for the blogs web server, and database server? Does any of this run in virtual machines?

WordPress requires MySQL. There was a PostgreSQL fork a while back that died off pretty quickly. We have a well appointed database server that shares duties with many other sites and applications – the database server is not a virtual machine and has directly attached storage to maximize IO (all the normal stuff you’d do to create a high performance database server).

Our WordPress application server is a xen VM with 3 gig of ram and 4 cores. We run nginx as a caching front-end proxy to our apache backend. This nginx config has been packaged as a plugin, along with sample configurations. Former Berkman developer Daniel Collis-Puro’s talk about high-performance WordPress (along with an overview of Berkman’s nginx deployment) at Wordcamp Boston 2010 is available on wordpress.tv.

We’ve read about some of the improvements you have made via your news page. Which improvement has been most important?

Hands down, the nginx caching proxy. Some requests are very expensive, RSS feeds, for instance. A caching proxy (or perhaps WP Super Cache) is a necessity. A default, uncached WordPress deploy is not going to get you far.

You definitely want a physical machine to maximize MySQL IO. You should tune it properly for the large amount of RAM you’ve surely installed in it.

Your WordPress app server needs multiple cores to maximize concurrency.

Be sure to use a PHP opcode cache – APC has been nothing but unicorns and rainbows for us.

We could probably handle double the traffic with our current hardware, and nginx can load balance for us if/when we need to use multiple WordPress application servers. Our performance problems have not been related to our MySQL server so far.

Do you let users install custom themes or plugins?

No. We will install custom themes or plugins occasionally for special projects, but only after a thorough audit and after all development has taken place on a completely separate system.

Have you done any core hacks?

In the past we have done a couple and have even contributed one to the WordPress core. Our current running instance has zero hacks to core to preserve compatibility with future releases.

Do you integrate with LDAP or another directory service?

Yes and no. We use apache’s mod_auth_ldap to protect some private blogs, but we don’t use it to populate users inside WordPress. This has worked out fine, with few complaints from users about having a separate account. It also has the advantage of allowing those who wouldn’t be in a university LDAP server to have accounts – alumni, contractors, collaborators, consultants, etc.

How do you deal with spam?

For comments, we use Akismet. It does a pretty good job, but it seems to be losing effectiveness over time. Either that, or the sheer volume of blog spam has been increasing – most likely it’s a combination of both. We also suggest that blog authors have comments close automatically on old posts (after, say, 30 days), and that they moderate comments to devalue us as a target.

For spam blogs or malicious users – requiring a harvard.edu address is a pretty high barrier. That said, we do have issues with compromised accounts, or university affiliates attempting to exploit us via linkfarming. We enforce our terms of service and view linkfarming as injurious to the university and against the spirit of this endeavor. Defining what’s spam can be a bit like defining obscenity – to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart’s concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio, “you know it when you see it.”

What kind of traffic do you see? How many blogs are you hosting?

We have over 900 live blogs, probably 200 are active and maybe 100 are really active.
Our blogs have 700k visits per month, with around 3 million+ page views by actual humans and probably 7 to 8 million total page views counting bots.
Our bot visits are extraordinarily high. See our minimal robots.txt – we attempt to enforce the Crawl-delay value through the excellent limiting features provided by nginx.

What are people blogging about?

We host personal blogs and project blogs, we are the entire web presence for various working groups, we are the archives of administrative updates, and more. The following small selection of content perhaps best shows the diversity of content:

Why did you choose WordPress?

We wanted an open source multi-user blogging platform and it seemed the best choice at the time. We’ve been very happy with it, and there have been real improvements to the core features without the core team throwing backwards compatibility under the bus.

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User FAQs (12)

Who can get a blog?

Anyone with an email address at harvard.eduradcliffe.edu, or hbs.edu can sign up for a blog.

How do I set up a blog?

If you don’t already have an account at blogs.harvard.edu, select the “Register” button at the top of the blogs.harvard.edu page. Complete the web form with a username and Harvard-related email address. Then select the “Set up a new blog” radio button selection and submit the form. You’ll need to verify the email address, and you’re all set.

If you already have an account at blogs.harvard.edu, log in to your account. You’ll be presented with a form to set up a new blog.

Can I make changes to my blog after I have created it?

Yes; if you would like to change the appearance or functionality of your blog, you may do so centrally through the dashboard, which you may access from the toolbar header when you are logged into your account.

Where do I find themes, widgets, and plugins for my blog?

In your blog’s dashboard. Navigate to your blog’s name on the toolbar header (if you are a new user, you will be directed to the administrative dashboard immediately) to access the dashboard. Select “Themes” or “Widgets” from the “Appearance” drop down menu in the left navigation pane. For plugins, select the “Plugins” option on the left navigation pane. Once you have found a theme or plugin you like, select “Activate”; to install a widget, drag and drop it into the widget pool to activate it.

Where can I get help?

If you are new to blogging, we recommend WordPress’s comprehensive introductory “First steps“. For bite-sized videos detailing anything from creating a new post to recovering a lost password, we have provided video help in the administrative dashboard. Select “Help” from the left navigation pane.

Why do you provide this particular set of themes and plugins?

In the 2013 update to the blogs.harvard.edu site, project developers systematically reviewed the active themes and plugins and deleted those that were outdated and unused; simultaneously, they polled the user community for recommendations and feedback. Following the poll and review, the developers then surveyed the commonly used themes and plugins and tested them for functionality and novelty. Those themes and plugins that filled a need and were robust were installed for use.

Can I install custom themes and plugins?

No. We certainly welcome your comments and suggestions, however.

Can I manage my readers?

Yes. Blog owners can choose to make their blog private or public, control the discussion and commenting settings, and add users with different roles. These settings are controlled in the administrative dashboard.

I have a private blog. Will this appear in the showcase or directory?

No. If your blog is private it will not be visible or searchable.

What happens to my blog once I stop posting?

If a once-active blog becomes inactive, that is, the owner has not posted within a year, then the settings for the archived blogs will be updated so that comments for posts older than 90 days will be deactivated and Akismet spam will be auto-deleted.

I recently created a blog and just received notification that my blog will be deleted if I don’t post. Why?

Blogs that have been created but for which no content has been added have been identified by blogs.harvard.edu as “dead”. You have a two-month window to create content before our system will flag your blog as potentially dead and notify you of your choices for next steps. If you post content within 14 days, then your blog will not be deleted. If you do not post, then your blog will be deleted, and you may not reactivate it. Our system sent you this notice as a courtesy to alert you that action is required on your part if you intend to keep your blog.

What happens if I leave Harvard?

If you leave Harvard, then your content will be stored on a secure server. As with an inactive blog, your settings will be updated so that comments will be deactivated after 90 days and Akismet spam will be auto-deleted.

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