Oxwall: Ning Alternative?

I recently found another social networking server app through Twitter. As we know Ning recently changed its terms of service and is no longer offering free social networks. This sent a wave of panic throughout the educational technology community, accustomed to having “free” apps at their disposal. People immediately sought alternatives to Ning. Of course they wanted free hosted solutions in most cases in spite of having had the rug pulled out from under them. I contend that those who have not learned the lesson about relying on such solutions are doomed to repeat the same outcomes as any subsequent solution  runs in to similar problems keeping their business afloat while offering free services.

That aside, a new option I had not heard of before, wall.fm, came to my attention. I immediately went to the website and after a little digging around found that the site ran on software called Oxwall.

Oxwall seemed like a straight forward php/mySQL sort of a site, so I went through the server requirements and found that I had to add some functionality to my server. After a quick recompile of Apache, I set out to install it by uploading it, creating a database, then run the web installer. Installation seemed standard until I got to the point that it told it gave me a bit of code to paste directly into the config file (Delete the text already there–that’s not clear). No big deal, but it might put off some users. In the finale step you are invited to install some plugins.

These are the core plugins. There are a few more available on their site. Most are free, but a few cost $20. Like any new software, the offerings are lean. More on all this later.

Upon installation, one has a simple Oxwall site. An administrator has a Customize this page button which brings up a drag and drop widget management environment that allows you to move and customize each widget.

Without going into detail about each feature, the site is pretty bare bones. In the most extreme case, groups, the only functionality is a wall. To be fair, the developers say that more is coming. Other than that you have a simple blog with very basic formatting and the ability to insert an image. There is also tagging and rating. There is similar functionality in the video and link sharing areas. As it stands though, none of these plugins interact with each other. In other terms, you can’t, for example, embed a video in a blog post.

The administrative interface is attractive and has an important feature built in that Elgg’s and BuddyPress’s core installations lack: granular role and permissions control. Having started with a discussion forum as my first social server app, I have been puzzled by the lack of an ACL system in software such as Joomla, Elgg, and WordPress/BuddyPress. In Oxwall, an admin can create a role and assign any set of permissions to it. Users can then be assigned specific roles with specific permissions. This is particularly important for education sites.

One troubling omission from the basic package is a forum. A forum plugin can be purchased  for $20. I understand the developers’ need to make money, but omitting such a basic tool from the default set renders Oxwall of very little utility until someone ponies up the money.

Oxwall software is an alphabet soup of licensing. The core software is licensed under a CPAL “badgeware” license. This means that you must leave Oxwall links and labels on the site to use it unless you obtain permission to do otherwise. The paid plugins are release under a commercial Oxwall Store Commercial License (OSCL), while the free plugins are under a BSD license.

Those not wanting to install Oxwall on a server can create a free community on wall.fm sponsored by the developers. Like Ning, the developers are going to have to find a way to pay the bills. The question is–will it remain free?

Oxwall is extremely new and has been release in an immature state. It will be interesting to see if the developers foster an ecosystem that fosters a development of  plugins. Unlike other platforms, Oxwall appears to want to support developers by selling their plugins through the Oxwall Store. Indeed there are a number of features that appear to promote making money through Oxwall in the wall.fm sites by encouraging site creators to charge for site access.

Three out of nine wall.fm plugins are for monetizing wall.fm communities

While, I like what I see in the administrative interface–particularly the User/roles/permission system, I’m not sure that the commercial nature of this software will be well suited for educators on limited or non-existant resources. I certainly believe that a discussion forum is an essential part of any social network platform and should be part of the free basic installation. Charging for such an elementary feature leaves me skeptical about the direction of this project.

Is Oxwall a Ning replacement? Without a forum, the answer is a flat no. With a discussion forum–maybe, but I don’t think Ning ex-pats would be satisfied with it yet.

I’ll keep an eye on Oxwall, in spite of the commercial edge of this “open source” package. If I come to believe that it has a place in education, I may delve further into features on this blog. I’d love to hear your impressions of Oxwall and wall.fm.

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10 comments

  1. Matt Leifer’s avatar

    I agree that the lack of a forum is a bit of a downer. However, I wonder what would happen if someone wrote a free forum plugin as an alternative to the one provided by the developers. This would presumably not be too hard to do by adapting an existing open source forum. Is there an Apple style approval process for accepting plugins on their site? Does the license prohibit making alternatives to the plugins provided by the developers? (I can’t see how this would be compatible with most open source licenses, but I’m not too familiar with the CPAL.) If not, then I can’t see how the price of $20 will be sustainable because competition would push it down to the marginal cost of $0.

    1. Steve’s avatar

      I could have done a whole post on the Oxwall’s licensing(s) alone.

      It is my understanding that the core Oxwall CPAL license allows modification, so yes, one could integrate an existing forum, or one could develop a forum.

      Here’s a post on this issue on their forum:

      http://www.oxwall.org/forum/topic/12

      I don’t think they could force developers into a plugin store.

      Have you created a community on wall.fm? They do provide forums there, but not for the self served crowd. Their forum is very basic. There are interface features that I like.

    2. Emil Sarnogoev’s avatar

      Hi Steve,

      Emil from Oxwall here. Thank you for your insightful review. I wanted to comment on the point you make.

      Agree that Oxwall gets “flat no” as an alternative to Ning (and it’s not being touted as such). Not because some plugins are paid.

      The real alternative for Ning is Wall.fm – hosted service that anyone with some social networking experience can master. Oxwall as a software package makes you care about hosting, servers, troubleshooting problems (like recompiling Apache) and is unrealistic solution for the wide audience. Majority of people just will not install software no matter how desperate they get in search for a direct comprehensive alternative. So comparison of Ning and Oxwall is a little bit of apples-oranges type.

      The beauty of the tandem (Wall.fm Oxwall) is like this: Oxwall serves as a guarantee of your content ownership and ability to go independent from Wall.fm if you choose to. Also it’s for those know their way through hosting setups, installation, custom development and such. On the other hand Wall.fm is “Oxwall for simple mortals”, a commodity – anyone can start within minutes. Forum is free on Wall.fm ;)

      Apart from that both projects have different business models: Wall.fm is “fremium” – basic plan is free and ad-supported, some features and extra storage are paid. Oxwall is “open core” – platform free and open source, some features are paid.

      Would love to hear your take on licensing.

      1. Steve’s avatar

        Hi Emil–

        Thanks for chiming in. Let me give you a little context.

        One of the focuses of this site is education. I didn’t really go into wall.fm as the sites are advertising supported. There’s nothing wrong with that. You have bills and payrolls to take care of. I don’t believe that it is appropriate to use sites in which there is advertising for K12 use. There are, obviously, those who disagree.

        Another focus of this site is to explore self-hosted DIY solutions to Web 2.0 in education. It’s admittedly a niche area, but I honestly think that it is more practical than many believe. For example a school could create an account on a shared server with a company such as Hostgator (mentioned because it is one of you suggested hosts) and easily install server software. This way, for a small sum of money a school could have a web site that is free of advertising and adheres to the privacy policies of the institution. This is what our school does. We run several open source platforms on this shared server site. It could be said that I am constantly trying to to find oranges that correspond to apples.

        I really like the fact that the wall.fm terms of service provide for you handing over the data to the community owner upon request. Better yet, the owner could transfer this data to their own self hosted site. This is incredibly important and a big advantage over Ning!

        There is a lot to like about Oxwall and I think it has potential. Robust ACL in the core is incredibly important and strangely overlooked in a lot of software. My question is: Could it have a role in K12 education?

        As far as licensing goes, it is interesting to see the mix. Badgeware is new to me. More shades of “open” are appearing in many places.

      2. Joss’s avatar

        I have looked at Oxwall, Elgg and a pile of others and I have to say I am left bewildered.

        My problem is that I have been using Liferay with an online game that is very Java based. Liferay Portlal 6 (free community edition) with its social network style portlets is just stunning. Incredibly powerful, flexible and with, as standard, just about everything you need. Forums, blogs, galleries, document management, CMS, Communities, customisable roles, user groups, walls, chat, and the rest.

        But the damned thing needs a server that can run Tomcat (or other java servlet container), so is useless outside of a dedicated server with a nice pile of ram.

        Surely there must be something out there that comes at least a little way towards the ease of Liferay, but runs on PhP and a virtual?

      3. Emil Sarnogoev’s avatar

        Just a quick note for Steve and others:

        1) We made all essential social networking plugins (including forum) free.
        2) We have created a bridge for seamless migration from Wall.fm to Oxwall for free in case anyone wants to start on Wall.fm and decide they want to move with Oxwall.

        Also, those who wondered about plugin approval process for our Oxwall store – we will definitely employ an approval process which will make it clean of a lot of duplicate functionality and/or half-baked plugins. On the other hand nothing prevents anyone from installing whatever plugins they come across, we just want to keep the inventory of the main resource comprehensive and high-grade.

      4. Eli’s avatar

        Hi guys,
        Has anybody managed to install oxwall on wamp server, there seems to be an issues with the database connection.it displays “Could not connect to Database ” but my configurations seems just fine. can somebody help?

      5. Eli’s avatar

        Hi guys,
        Has anybody managed to install oxwall on wamp server, there seems to be an issues with the database connection.it displays “Could not connect to Database ” but my configurations seems just fine. can somebody help?

      6. Emil’s avatar

        Eli,

        A lot of problems like this get resolved in our forum: http://www.oxwall.org/forum That’s the best place to ask.

      7. johan stoltz’s avatar

        Thought I’d give it another try. I have just left ning and installed oxwall from my cpanel at hostgator and found it extremely impressive. WAY better than ning I’d say. I am truly VERY impressed. It works for my non-profit Christian site. Will recommend it ANY TIME>
        BUT… I have a problem and have been asking for help since last Friday. no-one seems to notice my outcry.
        My problem is as follows: Cannot upload avatars. Keep on getting a message “please choose an image file” and my members from my 3 year old ning site are busy signing up and all of them want to know from me why they cannot upload their profile pictures. Also the system reports everybody online forever… even though they are logged off and PC’s truned off.. the system still says they are online. Then I also cannot change the colours in any theme or upload my logo. We had a beautiful branded ning site but I was never happy with it’s functionality. Oxwall is way easier to use and more facebook like to my opinion (for my purposes though). So I would love to get the teething problems sorted out.

        Hopefully Emil can shed some light on the problem. The QUICK install in the CPANEL does obviously NOT set it up in detail because things aren’t working correctly at the moment. I don’t know OXWALL enough to
        understand what the issue is and how to fix it.

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