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New campus service untangles the web of website creation

Mike Bohlmann is the director of information technology at the College of Media and one of the members of a group of campus IT managers responsible for developing publish.illinois.edu. With the service, users say once the text is written, they can create a website in as little as 90 minutes.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Easy as PIE
Mike Bohlmann is the director of information technology at the College of Media and one of the members of a group of campus IT managers responsible for developing publish.illinois.edu. With the service, users say once the text is written, they can create a website in as little as 90 minutes.

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INSIDE ILLINOIS, April 4, 2013 | Mike Helenthal, News Editor | 217-333-5491; mhelenth@illinois.edu

In just its first full year of operation, the publish.illinois.edu website service has led to the creation of more than 700 new campus websites – and the number keeps rising.

The service, created and maintained locally on a volunteer basis by campus information technology professionals, is meant to give anyone with a campus NetID the tools to quickly create a basic, inexpensive website.

“We wanted students, and faculty and staff members to be able to make a website and start publishing within minutes,” said Mike Bohlmann, the director of information technology for the College of Media.

“It’s fully up and running now and we hope it really gets utilized.”

Bohlmann said he’s been amazed at the number of sites developed in the first year, which he sees as a sign that the system is easy to use.

The system’s virtual servers are provided by Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services and are capable of handling thousands of websites without taxing infrastructure. Virtual servers allow many servers to be added onto a single physical machine, making the hardware more efficient.

The need for such a Web publishing system had been discussed among campus IT professionals as an alternative to the Netfiles service, which required HTML knowledge and was not user friendly. In 2010, the IT pros started meeting as a group to figure out how to develop it – choosing the freely available and customizable WordPress software because of its demonstrated usability.

Bohlmann said the websites created through publish.illinois.edu – sometimes called PIE for short – do have a 10 MB space limitation for large files like images, videos and PDFs.

But he said there are ways around that, including the option of integrating plug-in software such as Flickr and cloud computing such as Box.com to expand website capabilities without using an inordinate amount of storage or computing space on the PIE system. The website also offers helpful hints for resizing photos and other ways to maximize space.

“We’ve talked about possibly expanding storage space, but the idea has been, from the very beginning, to keep storage small,” he said. “It gets expensive when you start providing more storage.”

Kimberly Gudeman, the associate director of communications for the Coordinated Science Laboratory in the College of Engineering, said publish.illinois.edu has already made an impact.

“Over the past few years, requests for new websites have increased tenfold,” she said. “We simply did not have the resources to build custom sites for each group.”

They turned to publish.illinois.edu at the recommendation of engineering’s IT Web team and now have a dozen websites, with plans to create more.

“The idea was to enable everyone from office managers to faculty members to update their own content with little or no HTML experience,” she said. “The process for getting the sites up became seamless. We can literally put up a simple new site in less than 90 minutes, as long as the copy has already been developed.”

What once seemed impossible suddenly has become easily replicable.

“When you can turn around a new website by the end of the day, you kind of feel like a rock star,” she said.

She said the operational and storage limitations mean there are not a lot of fancy bells and whistles, but it leads to templates that can be easily developed and adapted.

“WordPress is probably not the right solution for large, complex or highly dynamic sites, but for the smaller sites it’s a total dream,” she said.

Gregory Matheson, a graduate student who works at the Wildlife Medical Clinic in the College of Veterinary Medicine, said publish.illinois.edu was an easy way to update the clinic’s website. He said the new site will be active soon.

“Our website was starting to look pretty outdated and students could only edit their sites with Dreamweaver through one computer in the VetMed library,” he said. “It just wasn’t practical anymore.”

PIE selling points included its low cost and compatibility with social media.

“We are very close to having everything the way we’d like and so far there has been a lot of positive feedback about how the site looks and runs,” he said.

Bohlmann said volunteers come from CITES; the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences; the College of Education; the College of Engineering; the College of Media; the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, and the University Library. A governance committee also exists to address issues as they arise. While anyone can create a site through an automated system, sites are reviewed to be sure they are related to university business. One of the regular tasks will be to audit sites that no longer have active university faculty or staff members or students associated with them. The system also allows outside collaborations with non-university users.

He said the management system might have to be revisited should the number of websites grow exponentially – considering all of the volunteers have their own departmental responsibilities to tend to during office hours.

“The system’s ease of use makes this possible at all,” Bohlmann said.

However it plays out, he said there is a value in having the service managed locally.

“We think it will continue to grow but we want to keep this community-based as much as we can,” he said. “The members of the community are the ones updating things and we think that’s a real advantage.”

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