Main.TrailIndexPage | The website, past and present

Website History

Old website

This group started as a Group on Yahoo! We quickly ran into limitations, the most serious of which was that we had no control over our destiny: Yahoo! could terminate the service at any time, delete attachments, drop content. We had no guarantees. And we were right: Yahoo! Groups has since been killed, as have Google Groups and other successors.

A number of volunteers got together and decided to develop our own website and pay for hosting it ourselves. For that time (we are talking 2005) quite an advanced system was put together using Snitz Forums and a lot of custom developed ASP code. That system served us very well indeed: the membership was growing, the community active and many posts were made. That success also become our problem: our database grew dramatically, until at some 100MB our hosting provider started becoming problematic. Charging us too much for hosting, and not providing us with enough performance: many users had difficulty posting new items, and searches frequently stopped because too much computer time was needed.

The user system of completely separate forum memberships and full memberships was also giving problems due to the increased userbase. The system administrator received around two or three enquiries per day caused by this.

As the static home pages of the site were developed in a tool for which the sources were no longer available, it was very difficult to maintain these pages: it required in-depth HTML coding knowledge.

Finally, the old content from the Yahoo boards has been added to the beginning of a set of Technical documents, but were really a series of unedited posts from those boards. It was decided to start developing a collaborative Technical Manual, allowing us to take content from Yahoo and the Forums, and structure it into a complete and comprehensive technical manual for our group. That was implemented using a Wiki, and the choice of Wiki was largely determined by our database limitations.

So ultimately it was decided to move to a new system which:

  • could run on much cheaper, Open Source based, shared webhosting;
  • used a MySQL database system (moving from MS SQL to MySQL immediately reduced the database size by half due to more efficient storage of data);
  • has a more modern look and feel;
  • has a consistent look and feel across the front pages and the forum pages of the site;
  • provides a Single Sign-In for all members for the forum, the Technical Manual and the front pages;
  • handles all Full Membership subscription as automatically as possible.
The old incarnation of this system running on the Windows based forum system called Snitz Forums, contained some 60,000 posts. As we did not want to lose that content, we were limited in our choice of forum system to one that allowed us to convert relatively straightforwardly whilst keeping most or all of the content intact. We experimented with 4 different forum software packages, but Simple Machines Forum was the only one which offered us this continuity.

Software used

The site for the Pagoda SL Group consists of three major software packages, which have been integrated and amended to form a single system. This section aims to document the system such that future maintainers can maintain and update the system.

This section is not really interesting to the general public: if you are a moderator or administrator of the system it could be of interest.

The website is hosted with a shared hosting provider. Shared means that the site does not run on its own computer system buts shares it resources with many other websites. The core of the system is a large database (at the time of updating (Oct 2014) it is approximately 150MB and grows at a rate of around 10MB per annum). The database contains all the user information and forum messages and posts of the system, as well as the content of the homepage. The database is a MySQL database.

In addition we currently have around 8GB of files: mostly pictures, but also some documents, and of course the Technical Manual. The volume of files grows at around 1GB per annum. To this is added the operating system software.

The software comprises the following different parts:

  • the front part, the relatively static information with this documentation and the featured cars. This is implemented in a content management system called Contao, version 2.11.17.
  • the forum, with all its boards, topics and messages. This is implemented using a public domain forum system called Simple Machines Forum (SMF) version 1.1.20.
  • the technical manual, which is implemented using pmWiki version 2.2.68. pmWiki is a straightforward Wiki, with a clean design, and stores its content in regular files. For us this was a requirement as the database at the old provider was filling up rapidly.
  • In order to serve video our website uses yet another Open Source software element: JWPlayer. This software streams an .mp4 video format file in HTML5 (for iPad's, iPhones, OS X etc) and Flash (for Android, Windows etc).
  • These are all based on a standard LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP). Next to these standard, and well respected Open Source Software modules, a number of specific modifications were implemented by one of the members of the group (user vanesp). These modifications comprised:
    • a clean and uncluttered layout and theme for pmWiki;
    • development of a layout and theme for the Simplemachines Forum based on the pnpn theme;
    • development of a very similar theme for the Contao CMS to provide a consistent look and feel between the front end of the website and the forums. Do note that we still allow members to choose their own theme, which results in the forum looking different, but gives users the most flexibility;
    • development of a Full Member administration, allowing the system to record full memberships (for real world distribution of our magazine, newsletter and other membership benefits). This system is fully integrated with the forum membership system and requires (in contrast to our previous systems) just a single log on. It tracks memberships expiries automatically, reminds members and so on. People who join or renew and pay with PayPal are activated automatically, as the system processes PayPal payment notifications automatically;
    • changes to support extensive anti-spam and security measures have been implemented in the Forum software;
    • even though the code of the Simple Machines Software has been modified from standard, the database structure is unchanged to allow future conversions or upgrades.
    • to mail the membership, we export the Full Member list to Mailchimp with which we send out newsletters, but only to Full Members.

Automated backups of all the files and the databases are performed every night.

Changes made in 2016

In 2016 we needed to make significant changes to our system because the old version of the forum software could not be upgraded to later versions of PHP and MySQL. As a result we had security vulnerabilities on the system, which were exploited by hackers.

  • We decided to re-implement our Full Member subscription system into version 2.0.11 of Simple Machines Forum. This allowed us to move up to the latest versions of Linux, PHP and MySQL;
  • The server was moved to our existing hoster, but is now physically located in the US, closer to most of our membership;
  • We moved all of the membership information that was previously in the Contao system to the Technical Manual, where it is easier to maintain (check and for example)
  • Contao was dropped and replaced with a Static website generator ( which now just provides the front end
  • the front end part of the website is just that, a front end. It is designed to advertise our group, and membership. All the real content is in the forums or on the wiki
  • it is responsive... that means that it works on small screens, big screens, phones and iPads (try it by changing your window size and see what happens)

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