Recent Improvements (May 2016)
The primary concern that motivated the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University to apply for a Digital Humanities Implementation grant for Pleiades from the National Endowment for the Humanities was website speed and reliability. The grant was awarded in August 2015 and work began in earnest in January 2016.
Late on the 13th of May, 2016, software developers from Jazkarta, Inc., who are working on the grant under subcontract to NYU, deployed a series of software upgrades designed primarily to address site performance. These upgrades were deployed to a new, more capable web server, provided under contract by long-time Pleiades hosting provider Tummy.com. During the subsequent two weeks, Jazkarta and Tummy personnel have collaborated with members of the Pleiades editorial college to monitor, analyze, and tune these upgrades for optimum performance.
Compared with the same period two years ago, the average download time for Pleiades pages has improved by nearly 75%, from a painfully-long 12 seconds down to about 3 seconds. The following plot, generated with Google Analytics, provides a day-by-day visual comparison.
Google defines average page download time as follows: "the average amount of time (in seconds) it takes for pages from the sample set to load, from initiation of the page view (e.g. click on a page link) to load completion in the browser."
Improved and Reinstated Features
These performance improvements have been achieved even though we have re-enabled or upgraded several features that were aging, had failed, or had been disabled previously in order to combat periodic site slow downs and failures. These include:
The Flickr "Photos" Portlet
The Pleiades Flickr Photos Portlet once again appears on each place page. It automatically queries the Flickr photo-sharing website for images that have been "machine tagged" using Pleiades identifiers. The portlet constructs a link to all such images. Moreover, if the editorial college has identified one of these images as a "place portrait image" by adding it to the Pleiades Places Group on Flickr, that image is displayed in the portlet. The portlet was updated to work with the latest version of Flickr's Application Programming Interface (API).
The screen capture at right shows the Flickr Photos Portlet as it appears on the Pleiades place page for ancient Nemea in Greece. The featured portrait photo was taken and published on Flickr under open license by Carole Raddato (a.k.a. Following Hadrian).
The Pelagios "Related Content" Portlet
The collaborative Pelagios Commons project (funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) has been a long-time Pleiades partner. Through its Peripleo website, the Pelagios community collates and maps open data about the ancient world that has been published online by over twenty (and growing) academic projects, museums, libraries, and archives. Following procedures laid down by the Pelagios team, these data providers include in their publications information about the relationships between ancient places (as represented in Pleiades) and the artifacts, art works, texts, historical persons, and other objects of interest registered, described, or depicted in their data.
The Pleiades Pelagios Releated Content Portlet appears on each place page (screen shot at left from the Pleiades place page for ancient Ara Ubiorum, modern Cologne). It automatically queries the Pelagios Peripleo website for related records in other databases and returns a summary of matching records. The portlet creates links to a Peripleo query for each matching dataset. The portlet has been updated to work with the latest version of the Peripleo API.
Dickinson College Commentaries (DCC) and the AWLD.js
Prior to the most recent upgrade, the Pleiades website was vulnerable to performance degradation when receiving multiple page (or JSON serialization) requests in a short amount of time. Consequently, a web page with several Pleiades links and AWLD.js (especially when visited by multiple users at one time, as might happen during a class session) could significantly slow or even disable Pleiades for a period of time. To mitigate such effects, we had configured our server to block large numbers of requests coming from a particular external page. This meant that users of sites like DCC often got incomplete pop-ups or even non-working links. The upgraded website is no longer vulnerable to these effects, and so we have updated the server configuration to ensure the best possible user experience for our AWLD.js friends.
Bots, Spiders, and Crawlers
Requests for Pleiades resources don't just come from browsers. A variety of automated agents (often called bots, spiders, or crawlers) gather information from websites for all manner of purposes. The major search engines (e.g., Google, Bing, Baidu), as well as many minor ones, employ bots to maintain and update the digital indices of web content that underpin the services they provide. The Internet Archive operates a bot that retrieves web pages for inclusion in the Wayback Machine. Some Pleiades and Pelagios partner projects use bots to gather, check, or update local copies of Pleiades data for project use. Still other bots serve commercial data-mining purposes, or academic or student research projects in computer and information science. And there are bots that serve more nefarious purposes, scanning servers and software for security vulnerabilities that can be exploited or hacked. Bots that make many rapid-fire requests, that ignore usage guidelines set forth in the Pleiades robots.txt file, or that happen to visit concurrently with other bots have all caused performance problems for Pleiades in the past.
The same, old traffic-limiting factors described in the preceding section were also designed to reduce the impact of bots. These restrictions have now been removed. The upgraded site is now serving the Google, Bing, and Archive.org bots -- as well as all other third-party bots without a history of misbehavior -- at full speed and without restriction.
Another key aspect of the upgrade was the installation of tools to perform "software analytics" on the Pleiades website. This new feature, which has been implemented with the commercial New Relic service. It provides Pleiades software developers and managing editors with performance metrics gathered from within each component of the Pleiades web application. The resulting insight enables us to tune performance in specific areas and to target code components for additional, performance-enhancing upgrade or replacement. We will continue in coming weeks to monitor site performance, using New Relic and Google Analytics, to seek additional improvements.
We are also undertaking a number of feature enhancements, as outlined in the original proposal. At present, planning and coding work is underway on upgrades to our:
- JSON serializations and new comprehensive JSON dumps);
- Time Periods Vocabulary (to include integration with the PeriodO gazetteer of time periods);
- Place Types Vocabulary (to include integration with the Getty Art and Architecture Thesaurus and the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire);
- Bibliographic citation system (to include integration with the Zotero.org citation management system).
Updates will be announced on this blog.
Major changes incorporated in the recent upgrade include:
- Moved to a new dedicated host, running Ubuntu 16.04 LTS, with more memory and faster processors
- Upgraded the web application framework and content management system from Plone 3 to Plone 4.3
- Bug fixes in core code for speed, lower memory footprint, and more efficient use of the Zope catalog and database
- More efficient population of pages, maps, and editors' dashboards and review lists
- More efficient creation of alternate serializations of content and export "dumps" via the downloads page
- Removed under- and un-used code components and plugins
- Eliminated LDAP for user account management
- Fixes to icons, map symbols, and vocabulary displays
- Scripted deployment with Ansible
Users are invited to follow progress, report problems, request features via the Pleiades gazetteer issue tracker on Github.