Development, PHP, Projects

My projects running on free software (and how to better integrate them)

Bismillaahir Rahmaanir Raheem

Software that is free from proprietary restrictions (a.k.a, free-and-open-source software, which I will refer to as simply “free software” for the rest of this post) has become exceedingly important in my life for both philosophical as well as practical reasons. Not only do I truly believe free software to be inherently better in every way for humanity than proprietary/closed-source software, but I have become increasingly incapable of working with non-free software. Now that free software solutions run the gamut of nearly everything I have a need for, I have all but eliminated non-free software from my essential stack. Having said that, I have a special interest in web-based free software as this particular realm of software has become crucial not only to myself, but to nearly all projects in which I am involved.

Across several of my projects, most of which have yet to really take off, I have been able to fulfill all online needs using free software exclusively. Whether it is WordPress (Columbus Dawah, AbuHurayrah.com, this site), phpBB (Columbus Dawah forums), MediaWiki (Encyclopedia Islam), or Moodle (Columbus Dawah School), there is a free software application ideally suited to the project’s needs. And if one application doesn’t fit perfectly, I have the source code, so I can extend it or modify – or better yet, someone else probably already has!

I’m currently in the planning stages of massively integrating, as much as one person can, four major pieces of online free software – WordPress, phpBB, Moodle, & MediaWiki – such that they will all share the same authentication backend. Better yet would be a way to actually & truly integrate all four together. While it is true that all four actually overlap somewhat with one-another (and some, like Moodle, actually have features of all the other three), I believe that each of these applications does at least one thing far better than the others. For example, WordPress is the unmistaken champion of blogging, while phpBB (especially now that version 3.0.0 has been released as of the end of 2007) is simply outstanding for forums & community sites, and nothing else comes close to what Moodle can do for an online learning environment and placing a curriculum online. As for MediaWiki – one word – Wikipedia.

The goal of integrating these sites is such that I would like to build a truly cohesive community environment that utilizes the strong points from each of these separate applications, but without making my site’s visitors and project members feel like they have to deal with multiple sites. So, one possible solution is a single sign-on for all the different applications. There are a few different ways this could be done, either via a hack, a 3rd-party authentication system (e.g., OpenID, LDAP authentication backend), or truly integrating the different applications into one unified package. As all the different apps have their own custom authentication systems, it is not trivial. But, since they are free software, it’s trivial for me to actually begin such a project. I don’t have to talk to anyone, get anyone’s permission, or work out strange and complex cross-licensing deals with myriad exceptions and/or restrictions. This, my dear readers, is what is meant by “free as in freedom”.

As it’s late now, I don’t want to start the tangent of actually how I intend to do this, as I haven’t really thought it out too much, but I am leaning heavily on an LDAP-based solution, as it is something I believe is natively supported by all four applications, and many others (should I desire to add another app to the mix – like, say, Roundcube).

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