|July 22, 2017||Posted by Stevan under Operations||
The four main workstations that are part of the Assynt Community Digital Archive have done their job since 2011, and remain adequate for what is needed in this role. As with the main archive, part of the reason for this longevity is the use of Free and Open Source software, which is both kind to older hardware and allows us to stay up to date without software costs.
Until recently we have run the long term supported versions of the Ubuntu Linux operating system using the XFCE4 desktop. This has been updated every three years, but eventually, such updates become lengthy exercises, and little configuration irritations creep in.
Now one of the joys of Free and Open Source software is how modular it all is. I have found through experience that the OpenSUSE Linux system upgrades really well and quickly, and while it does not have long term supported version like Ubuntu, nothing would be lost by trying OpenSUSE as an alternative. As before, the XFCE4 desktop would be used, so that, to users, everything would appear to be the same. The exercise in installing OpenSUSE has also allowed us to refresh and check our procedures and security setups. The standard operating procedure for setting up the workstations is less than page long.
We now have bang up-to-date workstations again, and although this runs on ageing hardware, it remains fit for purpose.
|December 16, 2016||Posted by Stevan under Consultancy, Everyday Notes, Operations||
The Assynt Community Digital Archive was set up in 2011 as a long term community initiative. Readers of this site will know that among the founding principles of the Archive was an adherence to metadata standards and the choice of Free and Open Source software on which to run the Archive. Among the reasons for this, which have been proven over the years, is that Free Software finds no advantage in attempting to lock users in, the Free Software movement requiring technical excellence as the reason for staying with, or moving to or from, a software package.
The original choice of DSpace was an appropriate one for Assynt’s archive, as at that stage it was not clear how the archive would develop, or how the community would make use of it. DSpace would provide an industrial-strength, proven platform to hold securely any digital item thrown at it.
Another contender was the Omeka system, also discussed extensively on this site. At the time the Assynt Archive was set up, Omeka was still in its infancy, having been developed from around 2008. Like DSpace, it adheres to standards, most notably using Dublin Core metadata, as well as providing standard interfaces to export and import data. Unlike DSpace, which seeks only to be a repository of information, Omeka also allows extensions for creating digital exhibits, and provides mechanisms to view some details of the digital record easier. There are pros and cons regarding this philosophical difference in approach, which need not be discussed here.
One advantage Omeka has, in practical terms when it comes to managing a digital archive in the longer term, is simplicity of technical implementation. Omeka is based on PHP and MySQL (or MariaDB) while DSpace is based on Java and Postgresql, requiring a runtime Java environment and a more complicated build and upgrade routine. While it would be wonderful if Omeka abstracted the database requirement, allowing Postgresql to be used as an alternative to MySQL, there is no doubt that it is easier to run an Omeka instance than a DSpace instance.
Meanwhile, in Assynt, we are gearing up for some additional demands of the digital Archive, as the Coigach and Assynt Living Landscape Partnership (CALLP) has been successful in gaining lottery funding for a series of large projects over the next five years. It s likely that these projects’ data legacies will be met by the Assynt Community Digital Archive, and there was a desire to ensure that a suitable degree of flexibility, to support better the projects’ potential requirements, was available to them. It looked likely that Omeka, now a much more established system, would be a better option.
A series of meetings and demonstrations of the systems with the volunteer archivists gave the go-ahead to transfer one DSpace community to Omeka, to see whether it suited general requirements. That was successful, and all the DSpace communities and collections were transferred, using import plugins on the Omeka side, and standard export interfaces on the Dspace side.
Among the advantages are a slightly more acceptable, to casual browsers, user interface – Omeka looks more modern and less academic in its standard guise – and the fact that many data types, especially images, are displayed in line with the record. From a systems architecture point of view, it was decided to provide each existing (and future) DSpace community with its own Omeka instance, so that each community or project can make its own decisions about how look-and-feel, or even about where it wants to host its data. This approach does make for more repetitive future systems administration, but also spreads any future risk.
As before, all the new systems were built using virtual machines, making the systems less hardware-dependent. Hardware, in some circumstances for community archiving, is now much less of an issue compared with a few years ago, and Omeka’s lighter requirements contribute to this.
It looks as though cross-training to Omeka would be easy, and training new volunteers would be no more challenging than with DSpace.
The change to Omeka from DSpace for the Assynt Archive by no means implies than Omeka is “better” than DSpace, or that Dspace is not fit for this purpose. It simply means that, given this choice of option, for Assynt’s current requirements, Omeka looks to fit the bill a little better.
If you want further information about this, please contact me.
|May 10, 2014||Posted by Stevan under Interesting, Operations, Principles||
The Assynt Field Club, as reported here, set up a project to begin the process of archiving digitally a huge set of physical collections of sighting records and other information they have accumulated over many years. Key to these collections is the work of two local residents, Pat and Ian Evans. Through the North Highland Initiative, funds were made available to employ an archivist to carry out a pilot project. The pilot seeks to establish whether the Assynt Community Digital Archive is a suitable an practical repository for digitised information of this kind, and whether the collections are amenable to such processing.
Avril Haines was appointed as the Archivist. Her first responsibilities were working with Pat and Ian Evans, as well as the Filed Club chairman, Andy Summers, to work out what part of the collection to use for the pilot. It had to be manageable but also representative section of the whole. The reptile collection was chosen as well as the material and a full copy of Pat and Ian’s unique book, Flora of Assynt.
This project is now coming to an end. To date, Avril has added about 400 records to the Assynt Community Digital Archive. The quality of the metadata and the consistency of recording are especially noteworthy regarding this project. Avril has also used the project to demonstrate to other groups in the area the value of the Archive as a ready-made legacy for their work, in the present as well as older material.
On Friday 9th May 2014, the Field Club had an Open Day to demonstrate to members and others in the community the work that this pilot has achieved. Refreshments were provided by the newly re-opened Mission Café.
The funders for this project were represented by Eilidh Todd. Eilidh has been especially helpful in easing the administrative burden of such a project, which relies otherwise on voluntary commitments. While Avril was the Archivist, the project relied on others, including Eilidh, Andy Summers, and, of course, Pat ad Ian Evans.
Avril will now complete the project, including writing a report to examine the project, document any specific learnings and use it to inform the development of future such archival projects. From the point of view of the Assynt Community Digital Archive, this has been a wonderful project, professionally completed, and further demonstrates the way in which community archives can drive direct as well as more oblique value in a community.
Contact Stevan for more information.
|April 2, 2014||Posted by Stevan under Consultancy, Operations, Principles||
If you have read something of the history of the Assynt Community Digital Archive on this site or elsewhere, you will know that the Archive was set up as part of the project that brought the old Fishermen’s Mission building into community ownership as a bunkhouse and café in 2009, opening in 2011. The Assynt Community Association, a long-standing umbrella body for various Assynt initiatives, took the lead in this, and the building is owned by that charity. The Archive was given its own Archive Room upstairs in the Mission building, appropriately wired and equipped for its purpose. A trading company was formed to run the café and bunkhouse, but late in 2013, the trading company ceased to trade. It has now been wound up.
Now one of the issues that concerned us when the Archive was set up was to ensure that there was a complete legal separation between the trading entity and the long-term initiative which is the Archive, which was seen to be a possible issue as they both occupied the same building. Further, the temptation must exist to see the Archive as a short term exploitable asset rather than the long term proposition with societal rather than purely economic value. So effort went into ensuring a separation both legally and practically between the two. This separation was sometime over-effective, with a perception developing that the trading company staff were not allowed to direct visitors to the Archive, though improved communication helped that issue.
When the trading company ceased to trade, the bills that were paid to keep the heat and power and connections on also stopped, causing the Archive some short term problems. However, these were overcome over the winter, and now the Community Association is taking a different view on how to gain community value from the asset which is the building. One of the effects of this was the possibility that the Archive may be required to move. This is technically possible, and indeed, the initial design foresaw this eventuality, but of course, the question was where it could conceivably go. Other building in Assynt were not suitable. The upshot was that the Archive was asked to move from one location in the Mission building to another, which would easily have been possible.
But eventually the plans have worked out that there would no longer be a requirement to move, and a new trading company has been formed which will follow a slightly different business model. We wish Assynt Community (Trading) Ltd all the very best for a long and fulfilling existence and we look forward to working with the trading company in future, though, of course, remaining separate.
The point of this is that it is very important to get the legal framework right when setting up a community archive. It could easily have happened that the Archive may have had a legal connection to a trading company, exposing the archive to the vagaries of the market and the risks of commerce.
|January 16, 2014||Posted by Stevan under Interesting, Operations, Training||
The Assynt Field Club, a local society for those interested in natural history and ecology, has a collection of material gathered over many years, in the form of physical records, slides, maps, diary entries, logs and many other information records. Many of these records are the work of Pat and Ian Evans, who also received sighting records, photographs and other information from field club members, Assynt residents, visitors and field specialists. Much of information pre-dates the common availability of digital formats. The Field Club is aware of the archival value of all this information, but the task of digitising it all and making it accessible is a huge one, almost certainly beyond the scope of voluntary work to get it all done. The Field Club has long been aware of the possibilities the Assynt Community Digital Archive represents to their archival requirements.
The suggestion was made to seek funding for a pilot exercise, and the North Highland Initiative was approached to see how such an exercise would fit with their priorities. The intent was that the Field Club would run the project, using the facilities of the Assyt Community Digital Archive. NHI was enthusiastic about the proposal, and it was agreed to fund a short project of 22 days as a pilot to determine the value, scope and achievability of such an archiving project. A local resident, Avril Haines, was selected as the archivist, from a very capable and satisfyingly large list of applicants. Avril’s training in digital techniques and archiving principles started in January 2014. The project is run under the auspices of NHI, with local oversight by the Field Club representatives, mainly Ian Evans and Andy Summers. Eilidh Todd of NHI has been wonderful regarding the administration and facilitation of the post, and Ian Mitchell very helpful with candidate selection.
At the end of the pilot, a report will be drawn up to lay out the learnings of the project and to determine criteria for future such work, if applicable.
This is a great example a local social group making use and “owning” a section of the Assynt Community Digital Archive, achieving their own ends, but also contributing towards a greater whole. For further information, email Stevan- ku.oc.evalsnitnull@evalsnit
|January 17, 2013||Posted by Stevan under Operations||
The Assynt Community Digital Archive is built mostly on five virtual servers, separating services across virtual machines to aid resilience and ease system updates by containing risk to just the service in question. This tactic has other advantages, as we shall see. Four of the virtual servers are required, and the fifth is a remote access virtual desktops system, not strictly required, but definitely useful, for a disaster recovery situation. This article uses technical terms which may be most meaningful to a technical reader but the outcome should be of general interest.
Just before Christmas 2012, remote monitoring software showed that the entire archive was down, all five virtual machines, but the firewall, a separate little unit, was still accessible via ssh, and through the firewall access was possible to a tiny £100 test server Stevan uses (an HP microserver with just 1GB of memory and a 2TB disk.) The test server is also used as a staging post for backups, the main systems backing up to the small server, and from there, copied to removable disks for offsite storage. As it happened, Stevan was unable to go to the Archive for a few weeks, but this represented a good opportunity to look at disaster recovery. One of the glories of Free and Open Source software is that it tends to be quite modest in terms of hardware requirements. With virtual systems, you can also cut your cloth to suit, as will be shown.
The backups already on the little microserver already contained all the data, but, as it happened, copies had been taken of the main virtual server containers just a few weeks before. As a test server, it was already set up as a KVM virtual system host. It was therefore simple to copy over the various XML definition files for each virtual system. This meant modifying each file slightly, as there were differences between the file format on the Debian Squeeze installation on the microserver, and the Scientific Linux installation on the main server. (This difference is now a thing of the past, as the main server now also runs Debian.) Other edits were to change the location of the container files, though it may have been possible to put in a symlink to the location as well. However, edits were additionally required to make sure the memory requirements for each server fitted into the miserably small 1GB of memory available. This was done without much trouble, and each server was brought up with manual commands. This is quite important, as automatic starts are not wanted on this server. If it rebooted for some reason, and a second instance of the same virtual machine tried to come up on the network , address clashing would occur.
The commands are quite straight forward – “virsh create <XML Definition file>” to set up the virtual machine followed by “virsh start <MACHINE_NAME>” to start it.
So within an hour or two the basic system was back up and running. We were a tiny bit fortunate in that no work at all had been done on the Archive itself since the last backup, so it was possible to restore the systems to the last backup point quite quickly. What is more, the entire process was done remotely, in this case from just 7 miles away, but it would not have mattered had the systems been on the the side of the planet.
Later, Stevan was able to go in to the Archive, the additional flexibility of virtual system then came to the fore. A small desktop machine was brought into service running Debian Squeeze, and some of the virtual machines were transferred to this machine, reducing the load on the brave little microserver.
This was obviously a full DR exercise rather than a mere test, and worked well. Some learnings to ease the process have been noted for future reference, but in these instances, it is often less of a case of blindly following a disaster recovery plan and more of a case of having the required flexibility to work with what one has. A virtualised Free Software environment certainly provides that. While a community archive suffers merely inconvenience rather than business or financial peril in the event of a complete disaster it is still a source of professional pride to be able to deliver such a robust and resilient solution.
The cause of the main server failure, as noted in the title, was the failure of three of the four disks in the IBM RAID array. All three (bit not the fourth) had the same manufacturing date. All three were Seagates, which, had they been bought from Seagate, would have had a five year warranty, but IBM only offers a year on the exact same disks. Details about this event are included here