External Network Unification Part 4: The CMS Goes Live

NOTE: This is the latest article in the External Network Unification project series. It was actually penned, and was meant to be posted several weeks ago, but somehow got lost in the shuffle. In any case, it's still relavant, and rather than rewrite it accounting for the time lapse, I present it here in it's original form, with a follow-up at the end.

Last Thursday, August 10th, 2006 marked a milestone in the External Network Unification project: We've migrated our CMS to Joomla and are using external authentication for the site. Though it was accomplished somewhat differently than I had anticipated, accomplished it was, nonetheless, and boy we're happy. Here's the scoop.

Last time I mentioned I'd built a test site — a copy of our CMS on a different machine — and had some success, and that the next step was to build a test site on the web server itself and test the LDAP Hack on the live server authenticating to a real live, non-Mac OSX LDAP server. Which is what I did.

Building the Joomla port on the web server was about as easy as it was on the test server. I just followed the same set of steps and was done in no time. Easy. And this time I didn't have to worry about recreating any of the MySQL databases since, on the web server, they were already in place as we want them and were working perfectly. So the live Joomla port was exceedingly simple.

LDAP, on the other hand, is not. I've been spoiled by Mac OS X's presentation of LDAP in its server software. Apple has done a fantastic job of simplifying what, I recently discovered, is a very complicated, and at times almost primitive, database system. Red Hat has also made ambitious forays into the LDAP server arena, and I look forward to trying out their offerings. This time out my LDAP server was built by another staff systems admin. He did a great job in a short space of time on what I can only imagine was, at times, a trying chore. The LDAP server he built, though, worked and was, by all standards, quite secure. Maybe too secure.

When trying to authenticate our Joomla CMS port with the LDAP hack, nothing I did worked. And I tried everything. Our LDAP server does everything over TLS for security, and requires all transactions to be encrypted, and I'm guessing that the LDAP Hack we were using for the CMS just couldn't handle that. In some configurations login information was actually printed directly to the browser window. Not cool!

Near the point of giving up, I thought I'd just try some other stuff while I had this port on hand. The LDAP Hack can authenticate via two other sources, actually: IMAP and POP. Got a mail server? The LDAP Hack can authenticate to it just like your mail client does. I figured it was worth a shot, so I tried it. And it worked! Perfectly! And this gave me ideas.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that our LDAP solution is nowhere near ready for prime-time. I still believe LDAP will ultimately be the way to go for our user databases. But for now what we want to do with it is just too complicated. The mere act of user creation on the LDAP server, as it's built now anyway, will require some kind of scripting solution. I also now realize that we will most likely need a custom schema for the LDAP server, as it will be hosting authentication and user info for a variety of other servers. For instance, we have a Quicktime Streaming Server, and home accounts reside in a specific directory on that machine. But on our mail server, the home account location is different. This, if I am thinking about it correctly, will need to be handled by some sort of custom LDAP schema that can supply variable data with regards to home account locations based on the machine that is connecting to it. There are other problems too. Ones that are so abstract to me right now I can't even begin to think about writing about them. Suffice to say, with about two-and-a-half solid weeks before school starts, and a whole list of other projects that must get done in that time frame, I just know we won't have time to build and test specialized LDAP schemas. To do this right, we need more time.

By the same token, I'm still stuck — fixated, even — on the idea of reducing as many of the authentication servers and databases, and thus a good deal of the confusion, as I possibly can. Authenticating to our mail server may just be the ticket, if only temporarily.

The mail server, it turns out, already hosts authentication for a couple other servers. And it can — and is now — hosting authentication for our CMS. That leaves only two other systems independently hosting user data on the external network: the reservations system (running on it's own MySQL user database) and the Quicktime Streaming server, which hosts local Netinfo accounts. Reservations is a foregone conclusion for now. It's a custom system, and we won't have time to change it before the semester starts. (Though it occurs to me that it might be possible for Reservations to piggyback on the CMS and use the CMS's MySQL database for authentication — which of course now uses the mail server to build itself — rather than the separate MySQL database it currently uses. But this will take some effort.) But if I can get the Quicktime Streaming Server to authenticate to the mail server — and I'm pretty hopeful here — I can reduce the number of authentication systems by one more. This would effectively reduce by more than half the total number of authentication systems (both internal ones — which are now all hosted by a Mac OS X server — and external ones) currently in use.

Right now — as of Thursday, August 10th, 2006 — we've gone live with the new CMS, and that brings our total number from eight authentication systems down to four. That's half what we had. That awesome. If I can get it down to three, I'll be pleased as punch. If I can get it down to two, I'll feel like a super hero. So in the next couple weeks I'll be looking at authenticating our Quicktime server via NIS. I've never done it, but I think it's possible, either through the NIS plugin in Directory Access, or by using a cron-activated shell script. But if not, we're still in better shape than we were.

Presenting the new system to the users this year should be far simpler than it's ever been, and new user creation should be a comparative cakewalk to years past. And hopefully by next year we can make it even simpler.

It's been several weeks since I wrote this article, and I'm happy to report that all is well with our Joomla port and the hack that allows us to use our mail server for authentication. It's been running fine, and has given us no problems whatsoever. With the start of the semester slamming us like a sumo wrestler on crack, I have not had a chance to test any other servers against alternative authentication methods. There's been way too much going on, from heat waves to air conditioning and power failures. It's been a madhouse around here, I tell ya. A madhouse! So for now, this project is on hold until we can get some free time. Hopefully we can pick up with it again when things settle, but that may not be until next summer. In any case, the system we have now is worlds better than what we had just a few short months ago. And presenting it to the users was clearer than it's ever been. I have to say, I'm pretty pleased with how it's turing out.