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TAMU Webmaster's Blog

Information and insight from the A&M Webmasters


WordPress CAS Authentication Issues

So apparently several of us around campus simultaneously experienced a similar issue recently with the CAS authentication plugin many of us use. The basic issue was that we were getting “Application Not Authorized” when trying to log into an HTTPS protected WordPress site using the CAS Maestro plugin. Our friend Donald St. Martin over in Engineering wrote up this great walk through of the problem and how to fix it.

HTTPS and the CAS Maestro WordPress plugin


Tuesday, January 31st, 2017 CMS, Systems, Uncategorized, Web Security No Comments


So over the last several months, I have been dedicating a fair amount of my time to updating our configuration managment system. Several years ago I started using Puppet for this purpose. Due to some of the limitations of both my knowledge and the SUSE Enterprise version we have been using, our methods and implementation have been in need of a good update. After spending longer than I care to admit evaluating what was out there, I finally decided Ansible is where I wanted to start.

So far… Ansible is awesome.

I have only begun to scratch the surface, but I can definitely say I’ve been able to get much further and much deeper, MUCH faster than I ever did with Puppet. Now to be fair, my experience with Puppet certainly helped give me a good jump start, but I feel like its been much easier to get in and do things quicker with Ansible. Certainly the iteration process is many times faster.

There is a few reasons for that.

Its agentless. This is so awesome, and honestly probably was the single biggest reason for deciding to try Ansible. In the grand scheme of things, I admit, its not a huge deal. However, the fact that you don’t have to authorize and manage an agent on each server is just one more layer you don’t have to worry about, or troubleshoot. All you need is a relatively up-to-date version of Python (2.6), and SSH. Simple. Being agentless also implies another awesome feature…

Its serverless. No server to run on a centralized machine. You can run all your scripts from your own workstation… or ANY workstation for that matter. That’s two less things to worry about.

Developing with Vagrant. Now this isn’t part of Ansible itself of course, but we have been slowly working Vagrant into our workflow, and it is a huge help. I can run a complete copy of whatever server I’m currently working on and test, re-test, and test some more, very quickly. If I totally screw something up, all I have to do is delete the virtual machine and re-deploy it. All on my local machine. This speeds up things dramatically with out the worry or hassle of connecting to a remote machine.

One last thing I’d like to mention is that Ansible is now owned by Redhat. Now this may not be a big deal for some people, but I feel like its nice to have some backing by a longstanding, trusted company, especially when it comes to using new technology on production machines. So far it seems that Ansible has been left to do what they do best. We will see, but for now I see this as a nice bit of insurance that it will be around a while. This also coincides with our decision to move everything to CentOS 7.

That is all I’m going to go through at the moment. There are a million posts and articles out there on “Ansible vs.” whatever configuration management flavor you’d like if anyone is curious. I’m looking forward to how far and deep we can take our Ansible implementation, and hopefully I can share some more knowledge about it in the near future.



Thursday, January 19th, 2017 Uncategorized No Comments

New Mobile Website

Earlier I mentioned that we had updated the university’s mobile app.  Part of that same project was to bring our mobile website into line with the app’s content.  In the past the two had been separate, and in some cases competing, platforms.  Now they include the same content, presenting a consistent user experience for mobile browsing on our campus.

This was accomplished through the framework that powers the mobile app.  In many ways it should be thought of as a content management platform rather than an app publishing platform.  It allows us to create the content in the back-end application and then publishes both to a native app and to a mobile website.

Screenshot of the university's mobile website

Monday, May 2nd, 2016 Uncategorized No Comments

GoWeb Campus WebTalk on March 11 – Search Engine Optimization

GoWeb is excited to announce our first campus WebTalk on search engine optimization!

In today’s world, over half of a website’s traffic originates from search. As a web developer, we must optimize our pages for search in order to stand out and be found. Attend this presentation and learn what you can do to ensure your sites don’t go unlisted and unused, while avoiding the snake oil treatments that are associated with this topic.

The WebTalk will be held at 10:30 a.m. on March 11, in General Services Complex room 2605, inside suite 2601.

Please join us for the presentation and conversation around this important topic.


Thursday, March 3rd, 2016 Uncategorized No Comments

HighEdWeb Takeaways – Part 5

The typical way university websites are redesigned is to go look at what other universities have done and build something like that. There has been buzz about looking at corporate sites as part of the design process, but little of that has actually been done. In today’s world, though, we probably should take a page from the corporate playbook.

The trend online in business is to have everything online. Look at car insurance, for example. The website for any insurance company does not just describe the products and give you a number to call a local agent. It instead offers you the opportunity to create an account and sign up right away.

The corporate world is also much better at identifying and agreeing on the customer (i.e. the target audience.) They define measurable goals and set benchmarks for what successful completion of the goal is. The site has a defined purpose. The example insurance company website, for example, might have a goal of increasing policy purchases by 7% over the next six months. How many of us have that precise of a goal? How many of us instead have a goal of just providing information to whoever is interested in looking at it?

Whoever the target audience is, the goal should be to engage with them. Active engagement leads to conversions. Drive customers to your products, whatever they may be. For a university this might be a completed application, registration for a campus visit, or even the completion of a “send me more information” form.

Take a look at some of the for-profit educational institutions. Because of their profit motive they have been among the leaders in applying these principles. Compare their navigational elements to yours and see where they are putting their focus (not that this is something we should strive toward, but it is important to consider.)

There has been a focus shift in the role of websites. They originally centered on the organizational structure, then moved to focus on the user, and they are now becoming about the engagement process and driving conversions. Many of us are in isolated IT or communications groups. In order to effectively migrate our sites to this new paradigm, we must reach out to those who are setting our mission goals and find out what our priorities should be.

Friday, October 23rd, 2015 Uncategorized No Comments

HighEdWeb Takeaways – Part 4

Rolling a couple of presentations into one post, the theme here is website optimization, from both a technical and content standpoint.

Website download speed correlates directly to user experience, which in turn correlates to conversions. Tying back to the first of these posts, you should have some measurable goal for your website that you can track in conversions. This is how we can align our digital strategy to the mission of the university.

Perceptions of website speed:

  • Response time 0 – 100 ms => instant access
  • Response time 100 – 300 ms => site is working properly
  • Response time 300 – 1,000 ms => perceived delay, consider adding a spinner
  • Response time > 1,000 ms => attention is likely to be wandering
  • Response time > 10,000 ms => They have probably left by now

In looking at the above figures, keep in mind that network latency is a huge issue. Even assuming no network slowdowns, the location of the client and server can add enough overhead to make your site perceptibly slow. This is why the best thing you can do to optimize your code is to decrease the number of http calls.

For optimizing content on the page, there are several myths that need to be dispelled. This can be a challenging process, though, because they are often deeply ingrained.

  • The “3 click” rule has been disproven for many years. Evidence shows that users will continue to click for over 20 links if they perceive they are making progress to their eventual destination.
  • The Boston Globe is seen as one of the leaders in online publication. They have done extensive A/B testing and have shown that the concept of “the fold” does not apply on websites. In fact, depending on design, heatmaps of many sites show that site use can be stronger below the fold.
  • Carousels are not effective in increasing user engagement. Focus instead on a single content element that is the most compelling

Content must also be well written. We say that “content is king,” but a king needs his kingdom and that is what the website provides.

One of the worst offenders of bad content is still the “click here” link. This is becoming increasingly true as fewer people “browse” the web and instead rely on search. Your SEO suffers every time you write “click here.” Search engines give added weight to linked text, so the best practice is to include key words that you want searched in the link. Do you really think people go to Google and type “click here” to find your site?

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015 Uncategorized No Comments

HighEdWeb Takeaways – Part 3

What is the most important page on your campus? According to one presentation it is your campus calendar.

There are three important audiences (in increasing order of importance) for a calendar:

  • Internal audience – people who want to know what is going on
  • Internal audience – groups on campus who want their event promoted
  • External audience – the calendar gives a sense of place and shows what the campus is like.

The identification of this last audience rings home to me. In the last revision of the university website I had many people ask why we should include calendar events on the front page and worked hard to remove it altogether. Keep in mind your site audience and their needs, though. For the university website, we very intentionally slanted content toward prospective students and their parents. For these people it is very important to understand what campus is like through seeing the types of events that take place here.

The external audience also comes into play for marketing purposes. We have many high profile events and speakers who come to campus. Use your calendars to show what is happening this week that you want the world to know about.

A few tips to consider when creating calendar sites or events

  • Use imagery. Photos and graphics draw the user’s eye and help to flesh out your event
  • Don’t settle for a static location for the event – include it on a map so that people can see exactly how to get to the event.
  • Push events to your digital signage. If your digital signs have geolocation, target events which are geographically close to the sign’s location.
Monday, October 19th, 2015 Uncategorized No Comments

HighEdWeb Takeaways – Part 2

The University of Alabama has created a web professionals community similar to the Go Web team that we are currently putting together. They have good buyin – 78 members from 30 departments. They have a decentralized structure similar to us, so face many of the same challenges.

Their goal is to help the university by helping its people, which is very similar to the goals of our own campus group. They went through several phases to get where they are now — first as a blog, then as a purely social group, and then as a group that meets to talk about issues and have topical presentations.

A few thoughts from what they are doing:

  1. Use Slack and Listserv lists to stay in constant communication
  2. Their central web team acts as a steering committee, but does not seek to dominate communications for force the group to follow their own agenda
  3. Start small and scale up
  4. Group meetings to watch webinars or streaming conferences is a great way of both learning new ideas, saving money by pooling costs, and participating as a group
  5. Encourage meetings which are centered around members sharing success stories. Don’t just focus on technical conversations.
  6. Webex presentations of vendors demonstrating a product are great ways of stimulating campus-wide discussion on a platform
  7. Actively look for academic licensing opportunities. They are leveraging BitBucket’s academic license to allow for private repos
  8. When planning a presentation, try to begin planning 3 months in advance. Have a backup in case the primary speaker has to cancel. Roundtables often make for good backups as well.
  9. Thursday, October 15th, 2015 Uncategorized No Comments

HighEdWeb Takeaways – Part 1

There were so many great takeaways from the conference last week that I can’t adequately sum them all up in one post. I will therefore break things up over a couple of weeks so that each one remains easily to follow and retain.

Going in to HighEdWeb I was already starting to think in terms of how to better frame everything we do to align more closely with the mission of the university. Too often we get caught up in projects because we think they are “cool” or invest importance in the project for the project’s own sake or because it is important to us personally. We instead need to think in terms of how the project can best serve the goals of the university as a whole.

This was brought home in the first of the track presentations that I attended. Beloit College produced an amazingly cute and funny video starring their campus squirrels. Everyone loved it and talked about it…but it didn’t actually drive increased admissions numbers.

Another presentation described a web team that many of us are familiar with. They were in an environment where they were seen as order takers and no one in their organization would say “no” to a new request. This led to a mass of projects and priority being given to those who yelled the loudest. They were able to turn the situation around. Their advice is to go to leadership with a definite plan. These people probably already know about the problem, and if you get in front with a plan they will likely support you. Understand, though, that this might wind up increasing your work load for at least the short run. The key to to have a plan, identify priorities, and focus your resources on the priorities. Don’t be afraid to outsource projects that are not on the priority list, just be sure to contract for post-launch support as well.

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015 Uncategorized No Comments

HighEdWeb 2015

After a packed three days, the conference is over now except for the trip home. As always, I will be coming back loaded with ideas, and as always it will probably take another six months to clear our plate and be able to start looking at any of them. I do hope, though, that several of the presentations and conversations from the last few days will work themselves into initiatives – both for Marcomm and the university – over the next year. I will try to go over my notes and post some of the highlights here, but in the meantime I encourage you to review the #heweb2015 Twitter feed to get several interesting insights and outtakes.

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015 Uncategorized No Comments