Two years ago this Urban Semiotic blog was hosted right here on WordPress.com.  Then, we moved this blog first to Media Temple and then to Pair Networks on the — we were soon to learn — unwieldy Movable Type blogging platform from Six Apart.  Matt Mullenweg sent me a kind private note to wish us well on our departure for Movable Type.  This article details our Movable Type hoary road and the bright path we beat back to WordPress.

The Boles Blogs Network was born a year or so ago as we decided to expand our coverage of the world and the unknown universe from one blog to 13 blogs.  We publish on a wide range of ideas as we consecutively addresses tighter moralities and narrower intellectual reader niches.

Movable Type 4.3x, out of the box and installed on Pair Networks, encouraged the easy creation and management of new blogs.  Working in a multi-blog scenario under one installation can be enriching as you manage spam, comments, entries and site searches across all your “blogging network” in one single space.

Movable Type 4.3x was slow and server intensive and we actually moved up to an expensive dedicated server on Pair to try and get Movable Type to behave in a responsive manner in processing comments and site republication. We were generally unsuccessful in getting Movable Type to professionally move our content forward in the manner of excellence we had previously enjoyed on WordPress.com.

I realize now we were chasing the performance of the WordPress.com cloud from a single server.  Over the last two years, I personally spent over $6,000.00USD on hardware and consultants and disk space and bandwidth to try to get my local install of Movable Type to be as snappy and as responsive as WordPress.com — but I could never seem to lift the bar of hoped-for excellence even a little bit.

In January of this year, publishing under Movable Type became untenable with the untimely and misbegotten release of, and our subsequent upgrade, to Movable Type 5.01.

From the first moments of the “upgrade” to Movable Type 5.01, every single one of our 13 blogs broke.  We were lucky we were paying Pair Networks a monthly fee to technically manage our Movable Type upgrades, and any other ongoing issues with the software and, through some magic inspiration we still do not fully comprehend, Tim at Pair was able to manhandle a clunky fix to get all our blogs live again.  Tim filed a bug report with Six Apart.

Our commenting system was also hopelessly damaged after the upgrade to Movable Type 5.01.  We require authentication for all our commenters and all the services we’d set up in Movable Type — OpenID, WordPress, Yahoo!, LiveJournal, Vox, etc. — were all broken.  We reported the problem to Pair Networks. Pair confirmed the problem and filed another bug report and we all sat around waiting for Six Apart to fix Movable Type 5.01.

We were left with no doubt that nobody at Six Apart ever used Movable Type 5.01 to manage 13 blogs in a single install using one database — because if they had — there is no way they ever would have released 5.01 out of the wild and into unwitting mainstream installations.

Nothing was ever easy or simple when it came to interacting with Movable Type 5.01 and things only got worse over the next four months as we waited and waited for basic bug fixes that were not readily forthcoming.  Each month, when we would ask Pair for an update on the status of our Movable Type bug problems, Pair would kindly reply they were still waiting for code fixes from Six Apart.

In an attempt to self-heal our Movable Type 5.01 nightmare, I visited the Movable Type online support forum only to find it rather barren and wanting.  There were few active threads and no active involvement from any Six Apart people or those from the Movable Type developer community.  Plugins were not actively being upgraded to support 5.01 from 4.3x.

The fact that the Movable Type forum was dead after the major release of the buggy 5.01 version — immediately suggested to me that nobody was installing the software!   There’s no way software that awful and broken would not cause outrage in the Movable Type community — if people were actually using the product.  The deadening silence in the Movable Type forum was an echoing harbinger of more terrible things to come.

A user named Ken in the Movable Type forum asked me some questions and he wondered why I wasn’t directly filing bug reports with Six Apart (6A) and paying Six Apart $99.00USD a year for technical support. There was a time when we were briefly hosted on Media Temple that I paid Six Apart for “technical support” for Movable Type.  Here is my forum response to Ken dated January 27, 2010:

Hi Ken —

Thank you for your thoughtful message.  Here are my answers and replies:

1.  FastCGI is installed on my server, but I’m not directly invoking it or renaming files.

2.  Pair offered to set up a test blog for me using my database and MT 5.01.  In my experience as a computer book author, those sorts of tests really don’t reveal all the monsters.  You only get the really good bugs when you go live.  So, I gave the okay to upgrade me even though I felt it might break my blogs in some way and it did.

3.  I’m not big on Plugins.  I find if you change the base MT install in any interesting way, neither 6A or Pair will help you.  Vanilla install keeps the onus on the software and not on me and my changes or Plugins.

4.  I’m not really interested in the back end code stuff.  I am more interested in creating content than babysitting a server and bug reports.  Pair make it easy.  I tell them what’s broken and they tell me if I broke it or not and if not, they report it to 6A.  Simple.

5.  I find 6A to be generally non-responsive to feature suggestions and bug fixes.  Your path may be the way to go, but my past experiences speak a different warning.

6.  I used to pay for the $99 support package but I did not renew past the initial year.  Support responses consisted mainly of 90% links to KB articles that I’d already read, and they love to run you around in circles trying and re-trying things you’ve already tried.  They remind me of Google paid support:  Blame the user first even when you can prove in steps and screenshots the trouble is not with you.  That said, my experience with 6A’s paid support guy David Phillips, was 100% positive and good.  He would actually really help you and I could report bugs to him and I would get email later that he had a fix for me or a workaround.  The frustrating part was you didn’t always get David responding to your tickets.  Now that I pay Pair instead of 6A, the process is generally the same, but Pair support is more real and directly helpful.  I feel Pair have much more muscle with 6A than I do… even when I was a paying customer.

7.  If I didn’t have Pair helping manage my MT install, I would hire an MT expert.  They’re very good and fast and, in my experience, know much more than 6A paid support when it actually comes to making MT work for you.

8.  Are you offering a fix for my broken logins?  If so, I’m not following you.  What do I need to change on my end to get them working again?

9.  I agree the overall MT 5.01 Admin interaction needs some fixing.  From a blog view, it takes 5 clicks just to get to the Activity log.  Way too much wrist strain.  SMILE!

Thanks,

db

From January to May 10th, 2010 we had a Broken Blog Network.  I was not content, but I tried to remain patient and optimistic that Six Apart would step forward and fix their software.

Then, on May 3, 2010, I received an email from Pair Networks telling me they would no longer offer technical support for Movable Type.  They would refund my prepaid technical support.

I was shocked and sick to my stomach.

I’d moved up to a dedicated Pair server only because I wanted to give Movable Type the best and fastest chance to perform, but there was no way I was going it alone in the Movable Type wilderness without Pair backing me up on the backend, and I knew then I had to stop publishing new blog content until we found a way out of Movable Type.

Pair suggested I purchase direct technical support from Six Apart for Movable Type for $99.00 a year.  I told them I’d already slid down that bloody cistern and had no interest in paying for that experience again.

With Pair so severely divorcing itself from Six Apart, it seemed something horrible was going on behind the scenes with Six Apart.  Did Movable Type 5.01 finally deal them the death blow?

After receiving that notification from Pair, I came to believe Movable Type was a dead blogging platform without any visible active development or open communication with its users, and I decided to swallow my pride and bite back the bile of my previous hubris and write to Matt Mullenweg to see if he would be kind enough to let me move all 13 Boles Network Blogs out of Movable Type and onto WordPress.com.

Blogger was never an option.

I wanted WordPress.com instead of running my own standalone WordPress installation because I am more interested in creating content than in ever having to manage a database or install an upgrade.  On WordPress.com I could also buy the CSS and “No Ads” enhancements for all the blogs and give each blog their own domain name.

Matt Mullenweg replied he would be happy to host our blogs on WordPress.com and even offered his expert support team to help us make the export/import transition.  I told Matt I was concerned about breaking all my article hotlinks across 13 blogs, and he said there were WordPress.com hot fixes in place that would automatically interpret the requested URLs and redirect them to the proper posts in our blogs.

I was also pleased to discover WordPress.com transparently redirected all our individual Movable Type RSS feeds without any intervention or fussing on our side.  No feed subscribers would be lost in the scramble!

Matt Mullenweg saved us, and our young Blog Network, and offered us a helping hand out of the creeping Movable Type jaws of death.

It was a massive task for us to move 13 blogs from Movable Type to WordPress.com.  I had to export each blog and then set up a WordPress.com blog to host each blog for content import.

I was able to quickly import 12 of the 13 blogs — Urban Semiotic was a massive 24 MB and it would have to be chopped up for the import — and I was delighted to see WordPress.com recognize all our authors and assign bylines to them.   Categories and tags were also preserved during the import process!

Then I heard from Automattic’s delightful staff support pro Lloyd Budd who offered his assistance in importing our content.  I told Lloyd everything looked go so far with the first 12 blogs, but that I might need help importing Urban Semiotic because the file was so large.

Lloyd took a look at all the imports I’d already completed and told me the URLs appeared to be broken.  I didn’t know what had happened, but Lloyd offered to look at it all, write a script or two, and get everything fixed and looking good.

To make everything right, Lloyd had to wipe all the blogs of the imports I’d already done and start all over.

Lloyd worked diligently and hard for us over long days and into never ending nights — I have preserved the fantastic “all hours” email communication from Lloyd to prove it! — and he came through for us when the easy road would have been to just have us live with broken URLs until Google re-indexed us over the next few months.

The rough part of the broken URL road is that we cross-reference every single article we write with at least one other article we’ve already written.  You’ve seen bright evidence of that in this review.

Living with publicly broken URLs not only leaves us detached and alone — it also ruins all our existing published content — which means we would have had to go in and fix each and every URL called in our articles and edit the raw HTML across all 13 network blogs and then republish everything.

We were fortunate Lloyd did not take the easy road.  He hewn our trouble into his success as all our URLs are preserved moving forward.  Nothing broke.  We are still here and whole and I’m astonished that we’ve come through this massive transition unharmed — and we have only Matt Mullenweg and Lloyd Budd to thank for that blessing.

Movable Type 5.02 was released as a “bug fix” on May 12, 2010.  I have no idea if that fix solved the problems we were having or not, but after four months of waiting for Six Apart to get their Movable Type act together, I no longer care about the product.

The final delight Movable Type provided me was when I deleted its database from my Pair server forever.  All my blogs are now on WordPress.com and all my websites are still hosted on Pair.

Rediscovering WordPress.com after two years of being away is an experience in awesome.  The Admin interface is refreshed and fast and snappy and clean and logical.  The enhancements and widgets are spectacular.  The overall blog speed is completely amazing.

The Boles Blogs Network is back on WordPress.com to stay — and we are honored to finally be home again.

39 Comments

  1. David,

    Good to see you back at wordpress.com, for me it’s the only blogging platform worth considering if you don’t want to self host (and one of the best to consider if you are self hosting). However, since you self hosted with MT, you are somewhat contradicting yourself not to have run a wordpress install yourself. It’s surprisingly easy too – my own blog is a custom install I managed myself in less than a day, on a shared hosting plan to boot, with a couple of days design on top. Upgrading to latest versions is now automatic and with good backup plugins you’re able to just click and upgrade.

    -Simon a.k.a. fruey

    1. Hi fruey —

      I’m not seeing the contradiction. I never had to deal with the backend using Movable Type. Pair took care of all that for me. If I moved to WordPress on my own, I would be responsible for upgrades, plugins and fixing any database issues along with that awful export/import problem with Movable Type and WordPress and broken URLs.

      If your WordPress database goes down, your blog goes down. Movable Type uses a static publishing platform instead of a dynamic one, so if your database dies, you might lose the ability to search your blog and post new comments until the database is fixed, but all your content is preserved.

      One small thing I do miss about Movable Type was the ability to search once across all 13 blogs. I’d have that under WordPress MU, but you can’t do that on WordPress.com even if you have multiple blogs. I now have to remember in which blog I placed previous articles if I want to link them. Yesterday, it took me several minutes to realize the Blogger articles I was searching for were not on Blog.BolesUniversity.com — that used to be a Blogger blog — but rather, on CelebritySemiotic.com instead.

      I used to have a standalone WordPress install years ago — then I moved to WordPress.com and I really enjoyed that experience of just concentrating on content. I didn’t have to worry about speed issues or crashes or breaking something. I have no need for JavaScript and I don’t want to install any plugins or run advertising. WordPress.com is a perfect fit.

      I hired a guy to move me from WordPress.com and into a self-hosted Movable Type on Media Temple. He imported this Urb blog and also took my WordPunk blog on TypePad and — through lots of fits and giggles — was able to finally get it imported into Movable Type.

      Then we discovered Movable Type on a Media Temple VPS box was incredibly slow and sloggy and Media Temple offered no help or solutions. The guy I hired suggested moving to Pair Networks to get a better server and, we hoped, faster performance from Movable Type because of Pair’s tight relationship with Six Apart. We moved to Pair, and while the overall web hosting experience was superior to Media Temple, Movable Type was still pretty slow and disappointing.

      When I decided to move back to WordPress.com, Lloyd Budd gave me a list of options: WordPress self-hosted using WordPress MU and BuddyPress and, I believe, he even mentioned VaultPress. I wasn’t interesting in going it alone. I knew WordPress.com and, after being out in the wilderness alone again — even though Pair were running Movable Type for me — I was keen to return to the platform I knew and where I previously found so many successes.

      As well, if I “stayed rogue” on my own server using a standalone WordPress install, I would have had to try to hire a guy like Lloyd Budd — for a ton of money and not as good — to help me fix the URL problems with 13 blogs exported from Movable Type and imported into WordPress.

  2. Hi David,

    OK it’s not quite contradictory, but you were effectively paying for supported full hosting, something that for equivalent dollar you say you could not get with WordPress.

    That being said, for my setup I would have probably billed a couple of days setup and a small monthly fee. Your problem is more complex because of multiple blogs (a couple extra days), and migration, which would of course would only be a one-off fee. I don’t consult at the moment though, so this is just hypothetical.

    The contradiction is therefore that with a budget of 6000 USD you’d probably cover a year of initial setup & hosting, with much less to pay anually afterwards. But as you say, that would not cover your full requirements.

    MT’s static hosting scenario isn’t that different from a resilient database setup. I get automated weekly backups of my WP database, if my blog goes down (I have it monitored to check if it is down) I can get it back up quickly. Of course you wouldn’t want to handle that, but it would be covered in a reasonably priced support contract. Having two DBs with automatic failover is becoming easier, esp. including cloud services as options for this kind of setup with billing on a pay what you use basis.

    Searching over multiple blogs might be possible with Google custom search (http://www.google.com/cse/) but I know your history with Google is less than rosy 🙂

    Another thought: I also run a blog which includes custom PHP to cover sections of the site that are not driven by the WP CMS, and on a virtual server it never even breaks a sweat. Traffic isn’t massive, but I have proof of concept that it’d scale very well indeed. So on one server I cover WordPress, custom DB/PHP apps, and several domains / site sections. Works like a charm.

    Regards
    -Simon a.k.a. fruey

    1. Hi fruey —

      Your last comment was stuck in the Akismet Spam trap! It’s been a long time since I’ve had to clear a comment like that. SMILE!

      Yes, if I’d stayed with one blog — bouncing back and forth between hosts and such isn’t a very big issue. But now, with the network in place and growing, I have to consider doing something/making changes multiplied by 13.

      That complicates things a lot.

      Any little change on a Movable Type blog meant you had to republish the entire blog. If you wanted add something to one blog, you had to add it to all of them to keep a consistent look across all the blogs, and that meant you had to republish each blog. That took about an hour and a half and it wasn’t an automated process.

      I just added the Boles Blog Twitter widget to all the Network blogs here on WordPress.com. It was a simple drag-and-drop to save the widget and it goes live in 10 seconds. It took me about 10 minutes to add the widget to the sidebar across all 13 blogs this morning, so saving 80 minutes here on WordPress.com compared to doing a similar enhancement on Movable Type is palpable and entirely quantifiable.

      I agree that $6,000.00USD spent on an independent WordPress.org install compared to a standalone Movable Type setup would have, in the long run, been money better spent and a lesson not so bitterly learned.

      Lloyd Budd pretty much made the argument that a standalone WordPress install would more robustly mirror the sort of setup I had with Movable Type, but I really prefer WordPress.com.

      I like your failsafe setup. Does VaultPress — http://blog.vaultpress.com/ — interest you as an enhancement to your current setup?

      When I mentioned to Gordon Davidescu that I would now have to not only remember the titles of all my articles, but also where I published them now that we’re on WordPress.com, he told me he always used a regular Google search to find his articles for linking. He didn’t search in Movable Type backend. He searches on his name and a few keywords he remembers from his articles and Google does all the heavy moving.

      It sounds like you have a robust setup and I’m glad you know how to get it all working for you. That’s the most important part about going it on your own — you really need to want to do all the backend stuff by yourself or expect to pay a lot of money to have someone else do it all for you.

      1. Hi David

        Vaultpress looks v. interesting.

        I think that content is king too. I wonder from time to time if I shouldn’t set myself up as a consultant on bespoke hosting solutions with tech support – but the market is in the US primarily and I’m in the wrong time zone (GMT+1) though could do delivery for next working day 9am :). If only I had the courage to do it!

        -Simon a.k.a. Fruey

  3. fruey —

    Yes, VaultPress is directed to filling a necessary niche — a “set it and forget it; we’ll do the worrying for you” sort of thing that is pleasing. I do wonder what the price points will be and if the product is meant for the masses or the monied elite.

    The USA certainly needs reliable and affordable Tech Gurus — who actually know what they’re doing! I think you would do well in some sort of support dyad where you are able to cover the overnights because they’re your days. SMILE! That would be appealing to a lot of people who like 24/7 eyes and immediate hand holding when something blows up.

    1. Thanks for all your help and patience during the move, Gordon.

      We were at a major watershed moment. We were dead on Movable Type. So where from there? No reason to put new articles in a dead publishing platform.

      We put the brakes on new articles as we searched for a righteous alternative. I’m glad we made it to WordPress.com. Now we just need to catch up on missed articles publication!