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Another Plone Site on AWS OpsWorks

January 26, 2015

Congratulations to YES! Magazine on the launch of their redesigned website!

YES! Magazine

This award winning, ad-free, non-profit online (and print) magazine for progressive thinkers runs on Plone, our favorite CMS. Originally launched in 2009 by our friends at Web Collective and Groundwire (RIP), this is the first redesign the site has had since then. The focus was squarely on mobile usability (since 40% of site visits are now mobile) and social engagement. It looks great!

All the planning, analysis, and design work for the new site was done in-house; the Diazo theme implementation and site upgrade were done by Bryan Wilson, formerly of Web Collective. We helped a little bit as well: the YES! technical staff decided to host the new site on Amazon’s AWS cloud platform using the OpsWorks recipes for Plone and Python developed by Alec Mitchell. Alec walked Bryan through some of the technical details of the deployment stack and he was off and running.

We’re very pleased our Plone-OpsWorks contributions helped YES! Magazine!

Botany on the Web

January 8, 2015

Here at Jazkarta we really enjoy innovative uses of web technology, especially in the service of non-profit and educational projects. Go Botany! and Go Orchids! were two such projects – they harnessed Javascript, Python, Django, and Solr to create user friendly plant identification tools. Go Botany! was created by the New England Wild Flower Society with funding from the National Science Foundation, and it was awarded the 2013 NEEEA Maria Pirie Award for Environmental Education Program of the Year. This major award  recognizes outstanding environmental education programs that demonstrate innovation and creativity, have been implemented broadly, and can easily be replicated in other regions.

As proof of that last point, Go Orchids! – created by by the North American Orchid Conservation Center - was able to adopt the Go Botany! code base (which had been released as open source) and create a site focused on orchid identification in a relatively short period of time. Last fall Go Orchids! produced a video introducing the tool to new users:


See our earlier Go Botany! blog post for more information about the technology behind these sites. For an in-depth look at the system architecture, watch this Djangocon 2014 presentation by Brandon Rhodes (start at minute 18:54).

We are so pleased to have played a part in both these projects. And we’d love to do more of them! Go Orchids! contributed improvements to the code base that make the application more flexible and easier to adapt. Any organizations interested in having a plant identification website tailored to a particular region or taxon should contact us or the New England Wildflower Society.

New KCRW Website Launched

June 17, 2014

KCRW is Southern California’s flagship National Public Radio affiliate, featuring an independent mix of music, news, and cultural programming supported by more than 55,000 member/subscribers. The non-commercial broadcast signal is simulcast on the web at, along with an all-music and an all-news stream and an extensive selection of podcasts. KCRW was a pioneer in online radio, they’ve been live streaming on the web since 1995.  The station has an international listening audience, and is widely considered one of the most influential independent music radio stations around the globe.

KCRW has used the Plone CMS for 7 years and for the last 6 the website has been running on Plone version 2.5, which has been increasingly showing its age. Over a year ago KCRW embarked on a project to redesign the site and upgrade the software and functionality, and they selected Jazkarta for the technical implementation. It was an amazingly fun and challenging project, with lots of interactive multimedia functionality and a beautiful responsive design by the New York City firm Hard Candy Shell. We’re very excited to announce that the site launched last Monday!

Making the Most of the CMS

Plone is a robust and feature rich enterprise CMS with many features and add-ons that were invaluable for developing the KCRW site. Some highlights:

  • Flexible theming – Using Diazo, a theme contained in static HTML pages can be applied to a dynamic Plone site. For KCRW, Hard Candy Shell created a fully responsive design with phone, tablet and desktop displays. Jazkarta applied the theme to the site using Diazo rules, making adjustments to stylesheets or dynamically generated views where necessary so the CSS classes matched up.
  • Modular layouts – We used core Plone portlets and collective.cover tiles to build a system of standard layouts available as page fragments. Many custom tiles and portlets are based on the same underlying views so editors can easily reuse content fragments throughout the site. Plone portlets are particularly handy because of the way they can be inherited down the content tree – for example allowing the same promotion or collection of blog posts to be shown on all the episodes and segments within a show.
  • Managing editors – Plone provides granular control over editing permissions. For KCRW, this means that administrators can control what different types of users are allowed to edit in different parts of the site.
  • Customizable forms – We created PloneFormGen customizations to track RSVPs, signups, and attendance at events.
  • Salesforce integration – Plone has an excellent toolkit for integration with the CRM. For this phase of the project we implemented basic integration. Stay tuned for additional KCRW member features to be added this fall that take advantage of the Plone-Salesforce connection.

Supporting a Radio Station

KCRW is a radio station, and we developed some cool features to support their content management process and all the rich media available on the site.

  • A set of custom content types (shows, episodes, segments, etc.) and APIs for scheduling radio programs and supporting live and on demand audio and video. The APIs provide all sorts of useful information in a consistent way across lots of contexts, including mobile and tablet applications.
  • An “always on top” player built using AJAX page loading – as you navigate around the site it just keeps playing and the controls continue to show. This works equally well on mobile devices and desktops.
  • Central configuration of underwriting messages in portlets using responsive Google DFP tags.
  • Integration with many external services like Disqus for threaded comments, Zencoder for audio encoding, Ooyala for video hosting and encoding, and Castfire for serving podcasts and live streams with advertising.
  • An API for querying data about songs played on the station – live or on demand.  The API is built on the Pyramid framework and queries a pre-existing data source.

A Robust Deployment Platform

More than any other client, KCRW’s site provided the impetus for us to adopt AWS OpsWorks. had been hosted on a complex AWS stack with multiple servers managed independently. We needed an infrastructure that was easier to manage and could even save KCRW money by being easily scaled up and down as needed. Another major concern was high availability and we tried to eliminate single points of failure.

To accomplish this we made sure everything on OpsWorks was redundant. We have multiple instances for nearly every piece of functionality (Plone, Blob Storage, Celery, Memcached, Nginx, Varnish and even HAProxy), and the redundant servers are in multiple Availability Zones so the website can withstand the failure of an entire Amazon AZ.  The layers of functionality can be grouped onto a single instance or spread across multiple instances. It’s easy to bring up and terminate new instances as needed; this can be done manually, or automated based on instance load or during specific times of day. Time-based scaling is particularly relevant to KCRW and we are still experimenting with how best to schedule extra servers during popular weekday listening hours. Amazon’s Elastic Load Balancer and Multi-AZ RDS services give us the ability to deploy resources in multiple Availability Zones and eliminate single points of failure.

Dynamic Client, Dynamic Site

All of these technical details are fun for developers to talk about, but what’s really impressive is how much fun the site is to look at and use. Kudos to KCRW for having the vision to create such a great site, and to KCRW staff for the appealing new content that appears every day.

Scalable Python Application Deployments on AWS OpsWorks

June 3, 2014

Here at Jazkarta we’ve been creating repeatable deployments for Plone and Django sites on Amazon’s AWS cloud platform for 6 years. Our deployment scripts were built on  mr.awsome (a wrapper around boto, Python’s AWS library) and bash scripts. Our emphasis was on repeatable, not scalable (scaling had to be done manually), and our system was a bit cumbersome. There were aspects that were failure prone, and the initial deployment of any site included a fair amount of manual work. When we heard about AWS OpsWorks last summer we realized it would be a big improvement to our deployment process.


OpsWorks is a way to create repeatable, scalable, potentially multi-server deployments of applications on AWS. It is built on top of Chef, an open source configuration management tool. OpsWorks simplifies the many server configuration tasks necessary when deploying to the cloud; it allows you  to create repeatable best practice deployments that you can modify over time without having to touch individual servers. It also lets you wire together multiple servers so that you can deploy a single app in a scalable way.

OpsWorks is a bit similar to PaaS offerings like Heroku but it is better suited for sites that need more scalability and customization than Heroku can provide. The cost of Heroku’s point and click simplicity is a lack of flexibility – OpsWorks lets you change things and add features that you need. And unlike the PaaS offerings, there is no charge for OpsWorks – you don’t pay for anything besides the AWS resources you consume.

Briefly, here’s how it works.

  • First you create a stack for your application, which is a wrapper around everything. It may include custom chef recipes and configuration and it defines the AMI that will be used for all the instances. There are currently 2 choices, latest stable Ubuntu LTS or Amazon Linux. (We use Ubuntu exclusively.)
  • Within the stack you define layers that represent the services or functionality your app requires. For example, you might define layers for an app server, front end, task queue, caching, etc. The layers define the resources they need – Elastic IPs, EBS volumes, RAID10 arrays, or whatever.
  • Then you define the applications associated with the layers. This is your code, which can come from a github repo, an S3 bucket, or wherever.
  • Then you define instances, which configure the EC2 instances themselves (size, availability zone, etc.), and assign the layers to the instances however you want. When you define an instance it is just a definition, it does not exist until it is started. Standard (24-hour) instances are started and stopped manually,  time-based instances have defined start and stop days and times, and load-based instances have customizable CPU, load or memory thresholds which trigger instances to be started and stopped. When an instance starts, all the configuration for all the layers is run, and when it is stopped all the AWS resources associated with it are destroyed – aside from persistent EBS storage or Elastic IPs which are bound to the definition of the instance in OpsWorks instead of being bound to an actual instance.

Managing Layers



Managing a time-based autoscaling instance



Managing a load-based autoscaling instance

For more details and a case study about switching from Heroku, see this excellent introduction to OpsWorks by the folks at Artsy.

What We Did

OpsWorks has native support for deploying Ruby on Rails, NodeJS, Java Tomcat, PHP, and static HTML websites, but no support for Python application servers (perhaps partly because there is no standard way to deploy Python apps). This was a situation we thought needed to be remedied. Furthermore, few if any PaaS providers are suitable for deploying the Plone CMS which many of our clients use. Because OpsWorks essentially allows you to build your own deployment platform using Chef recipes, it seemed like it might be a good fit.

Chef is a mature configuration management system in wide use, and there are many open source recipes available for deploying a variety of applications. None of those quite met our needs in terms of Python web application deployment, so we wrote two new cookbooks (a bundle Chef recipes and configuration). We tried to structure the recipes to mimic the built in OpsWorks application server layer cookbooks.

The repository is here: Each cookbook has its own documentation.

  • Python Cookbook – provides recipes to create a Python environment in a virtualenv, to deploy a Django app, and to deploy a buildout
  • Plone Cookbook – builds on the Python and buildout cookbooks to deploy scalable and highly available Plone sites

The Plone cookbook can handle complex Plone deployments. An example buildout is provided that supports the following layers:

  • Clients and servers and their communication
  • Load balancing
  • Shared persistent storage for blobs
  • Zeoserver
  • Relstorage – either via Amazon RDS or a custom database server in its own OpsWorks layer (there is a built in layer for MySQL)
  • Solr
  • Redis and Celery
  • Auto-scaling the number of Zeo clients from the AWS instance size

The recipes handle automatically interconnecting these services whether they live on a single instance or on multiple instances across different Availability Zones. For more information, see the README in each cookbook.

 What’s Next

We’ve used OpsWorks with our custom recipes on a few projects so far and are quite happy with the results. We have a wishlist of a few additional features that we’d like to add:

  • Automated rolling deployments – a zero down time rolling deployment of new code that updates each Zeo client in sequence with a pause so the site doesn’t shut down.
  • Native Solr support – use the OS packages to install Solr (instead of buildout and collective.recipe.solr) and allow custom configuration for use with alm.solrindex or collective.solr in the recipe.
  • Integration of 3rd party (New Relic, Papertrail, …) and internal (munin, ganglia, …) monitoring services.
  • Better documentation – we need feedback about what needs improvement.

If you’d like to contribute new features or fixes to the cookbooks feel free to fork and issue a pull request!

New Site Launched: The Mountaineers

May 5, 2014

For over a year a Jazkarta team consisting of David Glick, Carlos de la Guardia, Cris Ewing, and me has been working on the development of a new website for The Mountaineers, the premier outdoor education non-profit in the Pacific Northwest. We are very excited to announce that it just launched today!

The Mountaineers website
The Mountaineers has over 10,000 members and over a thousand volunteers leading hundreds of activities and classes in hiking, backpacking, climbing, skiing, sea kayaking and much more. Their old website had become dated and no fun to use, with convoluted processes and an ad hoc structure, so the organization embarked on a major project to create something better. The goal was a beautiful, modern, and engaging website that simplified as many things as possible – making it easy for leaders to create new activities, for volunteers to volunteer, for members to sign up and donate, and for everyone to find what they’re looking for in The Mountaineers’ vast portfolio of outdoor knowledge.

After kicking the tires on lots of systems, The Mountaineers settled on the technology for their new website: a partnership between Plone, the leading open source enterprise CMS, and, the leading software-as-a-service CRM. Plone+Salesforce is a dynamite combination for non-profits because of extensive integration possibilities and deep license discounts. For The Mountaineers, it meant that their oceans of data about members, courses, activities, rosters, routes and places, committees, etc. could be seemlessly synchronized between these two best-of-breed systems.

Implementation of the site was a partnership as well – Jazkarta doing the Plone front end and Percolator Consulting, engagement strategists and CRM experts, doing the Salesforce backend. Darrell Houle provided user experience design for the many complex course and activity creation, scheduling, search, and registration processes, and Neal Maher turned Darrell’s wireframes into a gorgeous graphic design.

Fourteen months and 673 github tickets later, the result is a content-rich site with curation and management shared by a community of hundreds of collaborators. The functionality visible on any given page is determined by the role (member, leader, staff) of the person who is viewing it. A new Plone add-on, collective.workspace, provides roster functionality for courses, activities, and committees, allowing each participant’s role, registration status, and other information to be managed. A lightweight shopping cart integrated with Stripe payment processing allows users to easily pay for memberships and courses, or make a donation. Custom content types provide extensive metadata that enables as many kinds of faceted searches and dynamic listings as staff can dream up – like the activity faceted search shown below.

The Mountaineers Activity Search

All of this is the result of an incredible amount of work by a lot people. Thanks to the Jazkarta and Percolator team members and the many Mountaineers staff and volunteers who tested, made tickets, and tested again!

What Makes a Good CMS?

April 30, 2014

We at Jazkarta have worked on CMS-powered websites for many years. We’ve built a lot of sites and worked with a lot of customers and we think we know what makes a good CMS for the kinds of projects we do – substantial websites with lots of members and lots of content. Our go-to CMS is Plone  – we’ve been working with it since 2003! – but we’ve also tried out Django CMS, Mezzanine, and have managed our share of WordPress blogs.

As part of our 3 day rural sprint, we decided to pool our experiences and write down our thoughts about what makes a good CMS. What features are valuable and what features can be skipped? Because Plone is so feature-rich and we know it so well, it made sense to frame our ideas in terms of those features.

Our group consisted of Nate Aune, Carlos de la Guardia, Alec Mitchell, Cris Ewing, David Glick, Chris Rossi, and Sally Kleinfeldt. First we brainstormed lists of features in the 3 categories below. Once we had the lists, each person got 12 red sticky dots to place on any item to indicate how important they thought that item was. We could place all 12 dots on one item, 1 dot each on 12 items, or any combination thereof. (If these red dots look familiar, you may remember this process was used extensively at the Plone Strategic Summit in 2008.)

Here are our lists, annotated with asterisks to represent the red dots. We hope this information will be useful to anyone writing a new CMS or extending an existing one.

David contemplates his next red dot placement

David contemplates his next red dot placement

What does Plone do well that our customers use?

  • User Management **
    • Pluggable authentication system, configurable
    • LDAP, SSO integration
    • Easier integration with social is desirable ***
  • Search **
    • Built-in is good
    • Configurable to different back-ends is vital
  • Plugins/Add-ons ***
  • Content Placement/Management **
    • Orderable *
    • Cut/Copy/Paste *
    • Versioning *
    • Staging
  • Workflow ****
    • Usually simple
    • Occasionally internal/external
    • Business process/government can be complex
  • Staging or Working Copies *
    • Especially useful for government or education customers
  • Granting of local (to a portion of the site) roles/permissions to groups/users ****
  • Roles/Permissions and Users/Groups
  • Content Types **
    • Pages *
    • Folders (default page problematic) *
    • Events (but should they be a core feature?)
    • Content Lead Images *
    • Collections **
    • WYSIWYG **
    • Files/Images (thumbnail generation, basic image editing) **
  • Views
    • A few default views *
    • Selectable views
  • Analytics integration
  • In-place editing/creation/management *****
    • Important for users with little training
    • Site admins could be comfortable with separate backend-style configuration/editing
    • Should be cleanly separated for ease of theming ***
    • Categorization/Redirection/Link integrity
  • Portlets
    • Inherited down the tree of content ***
    • Configurable
    • Would be nice to have it merge toward tiles
  • Navigation
    • Usually customized

What does Plone do well that our customers do not use?

  • Related items
  • Complex workflow
  • Internationalization (i18n)/Multi-lingual (because we work primarily in the U.S.)
  • Content Rules **
    • Underutilized
Well-defined API was the clear winner

Well-defined API was the clear winner

What does Plone not do well?

For this category we always have to install an add-on or fix something.

  • Tagging/Categorization especially management of tags
  • Default Pages
  • Previewing changes before save
  • Default folder/collection listings are unattractive and not easily configurable *
  • Form builder ***  (PloneFormGen is reasonable)
  • Faceted search/navigation
  • Videos/embedded media ***
  • Geo-location/Mapping
  • Page layout customization **
  • Mobile-first/Responsive **
  • Well-defined API ************
  • Hosting/Repeatable deployment *****
  • Theming and template overrides ****

What we need

At the end of this exercise, we totaled up all the red dots to see which features we had voted most important. If there were red dots on sub-items, they were rolled up to the parent item. Here’s the list – the number of red dots the item received is indicated in parentheses. We added a few essential things that didn’t get any votes but that a serious CMS can’t do without.

  • (12) Well-defined API
  • (11) Content Types
  • (8) In-place Editing
  • (5) Content Placement/Management
  • (5) Hosting
  • (5) Search
  • (5) User Management
  • (4) Theming/Template Overrides
  • (4) Workflow
  • (4) Local Roles/Permission
  • (3) Form Building
  • (3) Video/Embedding
  • (3) Inheritable Portlets
  • (3) Plugins
  • (2) Content Rules
  • (2) Mobile First/Responsive
  • (2) Page Layout Customization
  • (2) Views – Attractive Defaults
  • (1) Staging/Working Copies
  • Navigation
  • i18n
  • Tagging/Categorization

The clear winner in this exercise was “well-defined API”, which is not a big surprise given that a bunch of developers made the list! Although our customers never ask for this, it is essential for doing the type of highly customized websites that they demand.

Plone 5 and the 2014 Emerald Sprint

April 12, 2014
2014 Emerald Sprint Attendees

Back row l to r: Alec Mitchell, Spanky Kapanka, Eric Steele, Ian Anderson, Ross Patterson, Luke Bannon, Cris Ewing, Andy Leeb, Cal Doval, Chris Calloway. Front row l to r: Elizabeth Leddy, David Glick, Steve McMahon, Fulvio Casali, Franco Pellegrini, Sally Kleinfeldt, Trish Ang. Photo by Trish Ang.

I recently returned from the Emerald Sprint, and I have to say that Plone 5 is starting to look pretty good. For developers, there is a solid core buildout that even I was able to run without a hitch. So if there’s a PLIP (Plone Improvement Proposal) or a feature that interests you, and you’ve been thinking about contributing – do it! The community awaits you with open arms.  And what a great community! You don’t need to be a Python developer – Plone 5 is a Javascript-friendly development environment. We would love to have more Javascript developers and designers join our ranks. You won’t be sorry.

OOTB Plone 5 with the new editing toolbar on the left.  Still a work in progress, you will be able to choose top or side placement, and icons, text, or both.

OOTB Plone 5 with the new editing toolbar on the left. Still a work in progress, you will be able to choose top or side placement, and icons, text, or both.

But UI improvements and new features are the real cause of excitement. The first thing Plonistas will notice is the new theme – people new to Plone won’t find it remarkable, just clean and modern, but we Plone folks have been looking forward to replacing Sunburst for a long time. In fact we’ve been looking forward to Plone 5 for a long time. After the community gained consensus about what Plone 5 will be, things got a bit bogged down. The Javascript rewrite was extensive. The new content type framework (Dexterity) had to gain maturity as a Plone 4 add-on. There was – and still is – much discussion over how to improve and streamline content editing and page layouts; ideas are being implemented as add-on products such as collective.cover.

Over the last few months the community has really picked up the pace on Plone 5.  Supported by the Plone Foundation and numerous sponsors, there have been a series of productive sprints. The Emerald Sprint’s focus was on user management, registration, and login.  A robust system of user permissions, groups, and roles is one of Plone’s most notable (and oldest) features and the concepts and underpinnings are still solid. However the UI is overdue for an overhaul and the old implementation layers have gotten pretty crufty.

Cris Ewing shows a mockup of the new registration process

Cris Ewing shows a mockup of the new registration process

The sprinters, led by David Glick, took a UI-first aproach which was fantastic. Before cracking open the laptops and diving into the code, we developed mockups of the new registration and login process and user management screens. It really helped that 2 of the 17 sprinters were UI/UX designers. Always try to get designers to come to your sprints!

The sprint gathered together a fantastic set of Plone gurus who were able to have in depth discussions of some of the thornier technical problems associated with users. For example, should user objects work like content objects? This discussion resulted in a concrete list of pros and cons and a better understanding of how to ameliorate potential problems if and when we decide to move to “contentish” users.

And of course software got developed. Teams worked on the Users and Groups control panel, member profile design and implementation, registration, log in, and forgotten password dialogs, and more. Read the summary report on for more details.

Plone 5 login design

Plone 5 log in design.


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