What was the AOL Listserv?
The listserv was originally started several years ago as a way for folks with a common interest in the query tools offered by Business Objects. It was hosted by America Online (AOL) via a program called Give Back to the Net. The format used was a mailing list using a standard listserv package. The hosting fees and software costs were covered by AOL as part of their program to foster content on the Internet. In the early days we considered it a banner day if there were more than 6 or 7 messages a day on this discussion list. By 2002, the list had grown to over 3,500 members and often exceeded 70 or 80 messages a day.
Why was Bob started?
“Bob” was started primarily to be able to share the administration workload. Amy and Susan (from the University of Pennsylvania) were the only folks that could be involved in the administration of the listserv based on the contract with AOL. Given that the listserv had well over 3,500 members, that workload was becoming too much to handle on a volunteer basis.
A group of us sat down early in 2001 to talk about some options to replace the listserv. We actually started the discussion even before the KX was announced. At the time, we considered a web-based forum as an alternative for several reasons. In no particular order, some of the items we discussed were:
- Shared administration
- Use of a relational database structure to store information
- Ability to post files and FAQ’s
- No more “out of office” or bounced email errors
- Targetting posts to selective areas
We currently have around 10 members of the “moderator” team for Bob, with the goal of having around 12 eventually. The intent is that those 12 folks will perform the moderation duties that 2 had to do before. Over time we expect that the moderator team will change, which is not something we were allowed to do with the listserv.
By converting to an “open source” package that uses a relational database structure, our archives will become more portable. The conversion effort was largely driven by a gentleman in Scotland who wrote the initial conversion script. The final implementation and conversion will hopefully be done soon. The best part is that if the decision is made at some future date to move to something else, the conversion effort should be much less difficult now that we have made the tough transition from text files to database tables.
We never had the ability to provide FAQ’s on the listserv, as there was no real “host” for the system. By securing a web host with ample storage (our current agreement provides for up to 10 GB of storage) we can create FAQ’s, load sample files, and provide a number of other services. We’re setting up a code library with samples of SDK work for folks to browse, which is something else we could not do with an email-based discussion list.
The listserv was limited to 100 posts per day. We have exceeded that number several times over the past few weeks on Bob. We have also set up an “off topic” area that is proving to be popular. It provides a way for some of the listserv / Bob members to blow off steam, share a joke or personal story, and generally just get to know one another. It will allow us to truly build a community and not just a professional association.
Because of the structure of the forum, nobody will ever see an “out of office” notice again.
And finaly, the product suite offered by BusinessObjects has grown over the years. With only one listserv, all products from Reporter to Webi to SDK were up for discussion. Topics could range from simple query problems to complex infrastructure issues. By segmenting out different forums on Bob for each product, folks are more able to control the content that they are exposed to. The same holds true for local user groups… rather than broadcast an announcement of a local user group to the entire international community, we have set up local forums for any group that requests it.
So what was the trigger event that got Bob rolling?
Earlier in 2002 the idea of converting from the listserv to some alternative became a higher priority for two reasons. First, we had some system outages where the list was down for several days, and there were problems accessing the archives. Second, AOL started purging the archive files so that only the prior 12 months of data were available. Since there are quite a few common issues that occur over time, the loss of the archives was considered a prime reason to move forward with our replacement plans.
The forum software was selected and installed June 6, 2002. The package we selected was from the phpBB group (their web site is www.phpBB.com). The reason that package was selected was it was open source, has an active support forum, and a large installed base. (Reportedly there have been over 100,000 copies of phpBB downloaded, so even by a conservative estimate there may be as many as 10,000 sites running this package.) There is also an avid group of developers that are working to enhance the base package by providing “mods” or modifications to the base code.
We invited a core group of active long-term listserv members to help test the initial configuration and suggest improvements. Over the next several months we worked out several bugs and updated the base forum package with several enhancements. We had several months of testing and enhancements and just over 70 members when Bob was announced
publicly for the first time on August 15, 2002. As these notes were written, our user database has grown to over 1,000 members and we have processed over 4,000 posts over 500 different topics. [Edit: We now have over 2,500 members and nearly 50,000 posts. (Feb 28, 2003)]
We have lots of plans for growing and enhancing Bob as we go forward. There is already a list of enhancements made to the base forum product here. Some future enhancements include a calendar so that a user group representative can log an entry for their next meeting, and Bob will automatically include that as part of the Forum Annoncements box at the top of each screen. We’ll be setting up a Digest subscription so that folks can select which topics they want to monitor and get a single email with the activity for the day in those areas. Users will be able to mark certain forums to ignore completely, which could include “Off Topic” or local user groups outside of their area.
And, of course, we have a topic set up for folks to make additional requests or observations that we may not have recognized as room for improvement.
For full details on the different packages used to implement Bob you may want to review this topic.
Finally, in keeping with the original spirit of the listserv, Bob is open and free to anyone that wishes to use the service. You do not have to register to use the search facility or to read posts. We do limit the ability to post questions or participate in discussions to registered members to discourage spam or other unwanted content.
Who is “Bob”?
Why Bob? Two reasons… BusinessObjects Query Tools Forum is too long, and Bob has an icon. One of the emoticons that comes with the forum package is named “Mr. Green”. At some point someone decided that his full name was “Mr. Bob Green”, with Bob being short for BusinessObjects Board. The name stuck, and is likely to continue.
Bob is not currently sponsored by any particular company. We may eventually take on monthly sponsors to defray the hosting costs, but that will be the extent of the allowable advertising on Bob. To protect our (potential) sponsors, no other advertising will be allowed in individual posts.
There is a long list of folks involved in the conversion / transition from the listserv to Bob. We won’t try to list them all because we will surely leave someone out.
Bob (BOB member since 2002-06-06)