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Introducing the RIPE Forum

Marco Schmidt — 11 Apr 2016
Contributors: Mihnea-Costin Grigore
The RIPE NCC has developed an additional interface for the RIPE community mailing lists – something that we hope will encourage more interaction and discussion among the RIPE community.

Background

Mailing lists have been the main tool for community discussions since the early nineties. They allow for reliable, transparent and documented communication, and will continue to play this role. However, we’ve received feedback through surveys, email and in-person at RIPE Meetings and other events that some of our members and the greater RIPE community wanted the option for a more modern way of interacting and sharing information.

As a result, we began investigating different ways we could open up community discussions to as many participants as possible by offering a way to participate on the mailing lists using a web-based interface. It’s important to note that this new interface is completely optional – those who like using the established mailing list system can continue on as they always have, and won’t notice any difference.

Mailman Threaded View Example

Mailman: archive display

Evaluating some of the options available on the market, we discovered that many of them had valuable features and options; however, they required invasive changes to our infrastructure as well as changing the way users communicated on the mailing lists. After weighing the alternatives, we came to the conclusion that the best solution would be to write our own forum software.

The main goals for the implementation of this new communication platform are to:

  • Maintain full compatibility with the existing mailing list software and archives, so that anyone who does not wish to interact in this way does not have to make any changes
  • Provide a user-friendly platform for discussion via a modern web interface
  • Keep it as simple and non-intrusive as possible

This idea was presented to the RIPE Working Group Chairs, who confirmed the relevance of this project and agreed to trial it.

Introducing the RIPE Forum

The result of this is what we call the "RIPE Forum". This new communication platform was completely developed in-house. The back-end is written in Python and relies on direct interaction with our existing mailing list management software, Mailman 2.1. The front-end leverages the latest responsive design and dynamic features made possible by the redesign of our website and aims to provide a very simple and intuitive interface.

RIPE Forum Threaded View

RIPE Forum: thread display

Over the past few months, the forum has gone through a few rounds of prototyping and internal testing as well as being tested by the RIPE Working Group Chairs and a limited audience from the RIPE community. Many valuable observations were made and improvements were implemented by our developers.

We are now ready to open up the forum to public testing, and the first list to benefit from this new platform will be the RIPE Atlas mailing list . We hope that the diverse RIPE Atlas community will make use of the forum and provide us with more feedback.

Together with the RIPE Working Group Chairs, we will review the feedback we receive from this list and use it to further improve the RIPE Forum, which we plan to enable on other RIPE community mailing lists after the RIPE 72 Meeting at the end of May.

How the Forum Works

The main forum page will show the available lists (currently RIPE Atlas and a dedicated list for testing the forum – see more below). Within each list, discussions will be displayed by thread in reverse chronological order (i.e. the thread with the latest comment will be shown first). Clicking on a thread will reveal all posts in chronological order.

The system works by taking a message, as submitted through the web interface of the forum, and creating an email that is then sent to the list. Likewise, if a message is sent to the list, the system will then read it directly from Mailman and present it in the forum interface.

To respond to a post or start a new thread, users need to sign in with their RIPE NCC Access account. When someone posts a message to a list who is not yet subscribed to the mailing list, the software will automatically subscribe them and they can choose whether or not to receive all messages posted to the list.

Test it Out

We created a special mailing list for testing purposes , so that any conversations about the platform itself can be contained there without disrupting the regular flow of discussions on the RIPE Atlas mailing list. Feel free to send test messages and try out the RIPE Forum on this special list.

The forum is still in "beta" status – there are likely still some bugs and we are continuously working to improve things, so please keep that in mind while exploring the forum.

Benefits

A central design goal was to have a lightweight integration with Mailman. What this means is that users who prefer emails can continue using the mailing lists exactly as they did before. Those who would prefer using a web browser and forum-style software to interact with and comment on mailing lists can now do that as well. All communication ends up safely in the same place, displaying the same dates and content. There is simply now more choice in how you access and contribute to the mailing lists.

We believe there are several advantages to this approach:

  • Because the software was developed in-house, we have full control over the features being implemented
  • We can host it in the same network as our Mailman infrastructure, thus greatly simplifying integration
  • We can respond to requests from the community in an agile manner and control the priorities for development
  • Leveraging RIPE NCC Access, we provide a single sign-on account for all of our users
  • We have the option of integrating search capabilities with our existing website indexing functions, allowing for more granular, in-depth search results

Feedback

We hope you will enjoy using this new interface – if you choose to – and look forward to any feedback you have. You can leave comments here on RIPE Labs or use the "Report a bug" button on the RIPE Forum itself.

6 Comments

Sander Steffann says:
11 Apr, 2016 01:58 PM
Thank you!
Thomas Rücker says:
09 Jun, 2016 11:55 AM
The mailing list frontend looks really nice! Congratulations!
Is there any chance you could open source this? I run a few Mailman instances, among others lists.xiph.org and always wanted a better frontend. Mailman 3.x remains unusable and I think this might be a more sensible way forward.
Marco Schmidt says:
09 Jun, 2016 04:11 PM
Hello Thomas,

You are not the first one to ask us this question :)

Currently we have no plans to publish the code powering the RIPE Forum as it is tightly integrated with our existing infrastructure such as RIPE NCC Access (SSO) and would not work in another environment without extensive changes.

If the project moves beyond the beta version and there is high demand for it, we will consider creating a stand-alone version or releasing parts of the code for external use.

Kind regards,
Marco
Marvin Scholz says:
12 Jun, 2016 08:42 PM
Hey, I just wanted to say that it would be great if you could open source it or just some parts of it. Even if it just works in your environment I guess some of the code would be still interesting to have a look at and adapt for own needs, but I can understand it if that will still take some time, but hopefully it can be done some day!
Anyway, great work!
Bengt Gördén says:
19 Jun, 2017 12:10 PM
I can't see that this got an answer or that it is open sourced. I'd also like this to be open sourced.

EDIT: It actually got an answer. Thanks for that Marco. Still, I'd like to see more in-house produced software from NCC published as open sourced.
Adam Castle says:
20 Jun, 2017 02:54 PM
Hello Bengt, thanks for your comment, we're looking into removing the RIPE NCC Access implementation of this tool so that we can easily make it open source. We hope to have this done within the next few months. We will announce this once it's complete and online
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