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Dokuwiki - A Practical Open Source Knowledge Base Solution

Easy-to-use, intuitive and full-featured

(SYS-CON Media) - Whether you're a company of one or 100, managing knowledge is a core concern and implementing a knowledge base is a sensible way to capture your content. Dokuwiki is a practical open source Web application for creating a knowledge base that's easy for novice Webmasters to set up but flexible and full-featured.

The Dokuwiki Web site (www.splitbrain.org/projects/dokuwiki) describes the Dokuwiki as "a simple to use wiki aimed at a small company's documentation needs. It works on plain text files and thus needs no database. It has a simple but powerful syntax which makes sure the data files remain readable outside the wiki." Dokuwiki runs on a variety of Web servers, including Apache and IIS and requires PHP 4.3.x or higher. If you do not have your own Web server, you can install Dokuwiki on a hosted Web site, as long the Web host includes PHP access.

Features
Dokuwiki has many of the features you'd expect in a Web application, such as version control, templates, and plug-ins, and for the most part, you can quickly learn about them as you use the software. However, before you deploy Dokuwiki, you should learn how to use syntax, namespaces, and Access Control Lists (ACL), which will let you organize the site layout during installation, not three months from now.

The syntax is a text mark-up that formats the content on the wiki pages for display. For example, **text** displays as text. For me, typing the extra characters is easier than using a tool bar. For the point-and-click crowd, formatting can be inserted using quick buttons on the tool bar like a word processor.

Namespaces organize the page layout and the directory structure of the raw text files and do require specific syntax knowledge to implement when editing a page. The best way to explain namespaces is with an example. Suppose I want to organize my wiki into Support Documentation and Writing Projects. I'd edit my Dokuwiki start page and add the following text:

[[Support:Support Documentation]]
[[Writing:Writing Projects]]

This is Dokuwiki's simple syntax at work. The text in the double brackets signifies a link. The text that follows the colon is the page name, and the text preceding the colon is the namespace. When I save the edits, new hyperlinks to Support Documentation and Writing Projects are created. When I follow the links, and edit the new pages, Dokuwiki creates the dokuwiki/data/pages/support and dokuwiki/data/pages/writing directories. The text files for all pages created in the Support Documentation and Writing Projects pages will be stored in their respective directories, which let you easily retrieve the text files later.

If your wiki is going to have more than one user, you need to think about access control because Dokuwiki is wide open by default, which means that anyone can create or edit pages. That's the default wiki way but not necessarily the right way for you. Dokuwiki controls access with ACL, which can be used to grant levels of access based on users, groups, pages, or namespaces. The levels of access include read, edit, create, upload, and delete. Upload and delete access refer to media files.

Installation and Configuration
Assuming you already have a Web server configured, installation is straightforward and can be summarized in three steps. Download Dokuwiki to the Web server. Unzip the download file to the Web server's root directory. Configure the installation. For specific help, consult the installation instructions at http://wiki.splitbrain.org/wiki:Install for your server platform. You can have a functioning installation in 20 minutes, less if you skip the coffee break.

File permissions are the one sticking point of the installation, and every installation or upgrade I do ends up with a permission problem at some point. Dokuwiki, however, handles its errors well and if your data directory has insufficient write permissions or you're missing the changes.log file, the error will tell you that. To help troubleshoot page problems, append ?do=check to the end of the Dokuwiki URL to display the current page's permissions along with site installation details.

Even if you don't require users to register an account, you should set up ACL so you can specify a superuser. Only the superuser can access the administration page, which provides a graphical interface to manage users, plug-ins, access, and site configurations. Setting up ACL and assigning a superuser requires several extra configuration steps, and is the most convoluted process in a Dokuwiki installation.

Much to my surprise, project founder Andreas Gohr published a release candidate as I was writing my review. The release candidate included an installer that automated the creation of a superuser login and specified a default access level. Run the install.php script in the dokuwiki installation directory, and a form like the one pictured in the screen shot will display. Enter the requested information and save the changes. Login as the superuser to access the administration page and fine-tune the configuration settings as needed. The documentation covers the configuration settings in detail.

You are now ready to add content.

Use
Dokuwiki is easy-to-use and intuitive, in part because users create, edit, and read pages from a browser. To create content, select "Edit this page" to display an editable page. When done adding and formatting content, save the page to make the changes live.

While the "Old revisions" button is easy to spot, the process to restore a previous version is not discernible while looking at the page. To go back to an old version, use the "Old revisions" button to view changes by date. Select the desired version to display it in the browser. Edit and save the page to restore the previous version.

At first glance, Dokuwiki's default view appears basic and lacks the side-navigation panels we've grown to expect from modern Web applications. Several templates are available from the Dokuwiki site, including one with a Wikipedia feel; however, I prefer the clean look of the default template because it puts the emphasis on my content, not graphics or panels.

Dokuwiki's navigation aids include backlinks, the wiki title, breadcrumbs, and a table of contents. Click on the page name to get a list of backlinks, or pages that refer to the current page. The page name displays left-aligned at the top of the page such as [[start]]. The wiki title displays right-aligned at the top of the page such as "Wiki on Coyote" (the current name of my site) and is a link that takes you back to the default start page, while the pages viewed most recently are available as "breadcrumbs" letting you trace the last few pages in your history. Each page builds a table of contents based on the header levels defined in the page, which facilitates navigation within the page itself.

Not all navigation is done with a mouse, and Dokuwiki includes several access keys that you can use as keyboard shortcuts. For example, use ALT + E to edit a page and ALT + H to return to the start page; use ALT + B to make text bold. Check out the documentation or hover your mouse over a button to get more access keys.

Final Review
As I leave you to build your knowledge base, remember that Dokuwiki is only a tool. It will not make your documentation better, but I've focused on the features that will help you deploy a well-organized and easy-to-manage knowledge base. Your wiki needs human attention and editorial control to grow into a useful resource for you, your teams, and your customers.

More Stories By Mike Badger

Mike Badger is a technical Ccmmunicator and author of 2 books - Zenoss Core Network and System Monitoring and Scratch 1.4 Beginner's Guide, available from Packt Publishing. He's also a project manager for MoJo Active, an marketing and web design firm in Central Pennsylvania.

He raise honeybees, pigs, and a family.

Michael Badger is a technical communicator who has devoted his career to translating technical concepts in a way that helps people learn, adapt, and troubleshoot their computer software. He wrote two books with Packt Publishing: Zenoss Core Network and System Monitoring and Scratch 1.4 Beginner's Guide.

For fun, he grows pigs, raises honeybees, fishes, and spends time with his family.

For more information visit, badgerfiles.com.

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