Over the last several months I have collected feedback about how to improve the Mozilla Discussion Forums from MozCamp Europe, the Mozilla Blog, from newsgroup threads on Mozilla.General as well as direct feedback from real live people. The feedback echoed problems we have heard before, and confirmed that the current state of mailing lists at Mozilla is found wanting by many in the community. To that end, we have come up with some possible solutions to address these shortcomings. Given our unique size and requirements, no one solution is a magic bullet, each has its own benefits and drawbacks, and we need help deciding the correct path to take.
What are we fighting for?
Our current Mailman-based Forum system isn’t perfect, and we have come to know some of its warts all too well. We have previously collected complaints and desired features that the community would like to see resolved. Highlights include:
- Posting via the Web. Currently this is done through Google Groups, would be nice to be done ‘in house’, so that we could customize, and optimize the interaction.
- Relying on Google Groups has caused painpoints when problems arise, particularly because Mozilla has limited access into solving those problems.
- Cumbersome management for moderators to deal with incoming message SPAM.
Whichever path forward is chosen, Mozilla will continue
What does great success look like?
An upgraded Discussion Forum system should improve the interaction of the website interface (that users expect to exist), whether by stabilizing our Google Groups integration, or using a different software setup that can provide a native web interface to both read and post to the Forum. An accessible Web UI to the Forums could breath new life into lists and projects around Mozilla. To manage the (new and existing) users and their messages, improved SPAM and moderation management would also be greatly welcome by list Moderators.
So with all that in mind, here are several high level(-ish) options we can pursue:
1. Keep on, keepin’ on
One (not very glamorous) option is to not significantly change anything. We can continue to rely on Google Groups to provide the sole web-accessible route to post to the Mozilla Discussion Forums via GigaNews providing NNTP mirroring of our mailing lists. This avoids achieving any of the big goals, but is comparatively lowest impact.
There are a few outstanding bugs that have been low priority or considered disruptive and thus haven’t found their way to getting Resolved:Fixed yet. Among them, odd message threading behavior that can make reading the Forums from e-mail clients like Thunderbird more cumbersome than it should be. These are getting addressed, and will expect to still be fixable if we moved to another system.
On the other hand, the conservative approach doesn’t address long-standing issues like providing a (more) reliable interface to post via the Web . While we have plans to improve SPAM protection, it requires a bit of duck tape and bailing wire to pull it all together.
2. Same same, but different
We’ve used Mailman 2 for about 10 years now, and version 3.0 has promised a number of useful features that might serve as a basis for achieving our feature requests. Its most promising feature (to us) is providing a native web interface for posting to lists (not just reading the archives), but that is still just a glimmer in the development team’s eye. The groundwork was laid, but the code has not yet been written to actually do it. Mozilla has an opportunity to organize development down this road, be it through Summer of Code internships, or sounding the horn across Mozilla community of developers to organize around this or even by providing a bounty.
In particular, Mailman 3.0 has a few other under-the-hood changes that make it an appealing upgrade path. A comprehensive REST API (finally!) means more common tasks (requesting a project mailing list) can be automated away. In fact, that API is the basis for a future Web interface for posting messages. Version 3 also manages subscriptions site-wide, using Persona, which eliminates monthly reminders.There has even been some work in adding native NNTP directly to Mailman. Multiple domain support would let us potentially combine the FOUR separate Mailman instances Mozilla uses to support all our various needs in our consolidated configuration.
Even with a Mailman 3 upgrade, there is no definitive date for supporting web-based posting to the forums. The API exists, developers have talked about it being a pretty neat idea, but it hasn’t begun actual development. But we could be the spark.
3. Starting over from scratch
While Mailman is certainly a popular listserv, it is far from the only one. Several similar Open Source projects exist that offer a similar-but-not-identical featuresets and have not been hindered by backwards compatibility concerns for the last several years. Among them, GroupServer and Nabble, which both provide a native web interface for posting, along with email access to lists as expected, however, there is no clear way to support NNTP, so Newsgroup access would break Google Groups and GigaNews support. Some light sampling of Forum posts showed upwards of 30% of posts to all Mozilla Newsgroups come from News, given the option. Either dropping NNTP, or trying to spin up some sort of proxy to sync to GigaNews, is not (necessarily) out of the question.
4. And now for something completely different
Then again, maybe Mozilla should not try to be all things in all cases by running services in-house when dedicated experts might do better. Using a hosted service could provide a straightforward Web Forum + Email list integration with a (potentially) more actively maintained interface. Effectively, this would mean dropping the niche access method (NNTP), and doubling down on the two more common methods (Web + Email). The drastic improvements possible to a well integrated web interface for new and experienced users could justify this option.
Because we have not (as of yet) found a commercial product that matches our feature requirements (which ideally include native NNTP integration) that can operate at Mozilla’s scale, certain feature requirements would need to be dropped, and NNTP is the lowest hanging fruit on that list.
We hack, you decide
Again, it is important to point out that there is no one magic bullet for solving all known complaints in any Discussion Forums setup, let alone one that must accomidate a community of thousands of developers and millions of users. We can only hope to reasonably approximate our ideal setup.
If you have avenues that haven’t been listed above, let us know. We want to make the best decision possible by considering all the possibilities ahead of us.