Like writing the encyclopedia itself, MediaWiki development is collaborative; so, for a long time, was the fine-tuning of Wikimedia's technical setup, with volunteers routinely being added to the list of system administrators. As the Wikimedia family grew, however, so the ability to break whole Wikimedia sites through the omission of a single semicolon began to depress both volunteer interest in the role and institutional willingness to give out the requisite permissions. It is reversing this trend by "opening up" infrastructure development to the wider community that forms the primary aim of the relatively new Wikimedia Labs project, wrote Operations Engineer Ryan Lane in a recent blogpost.
Therefore, at a fundamental level Wikimedia Labs approximates a large collection of (virtual) sandboxes, with complex virtualisation techniques allowing swathes of users to try out new server setups without affecting the underlying configuration. Of course, the value that administrators like Lane see in Labs is its potential to put server administration on a par with software development in terms of ease of collaboration – not a bad thing, considering the detailed and often highly specialised nature of the different parts of system administration that come together to form a top-ten website.
The potential doesn't stop there, however: once the virtual environments have been established, they can then be put to use by their respective projects (of which there are now some 79). Each project reflects a real world initiative; Lane uses the example of "testing and developing MediaWiki extensions for Incubator", but others abound. Other high profile projects include support for several major bots, the central development centre for a "web based version of Huggle" and emulators useful for testing MediaWiki versions before release. Unlike with a normal (non-virtual) server setup, new projects are quick (and hence cheap) to establish and dissolve. Nevertheless, with the project still in its early stages, it is as yet unclear what the full implication of the creation of a WMF-hosted "Labs" environment on development practices will be.
MediaWiki releases edge forward
New diff styles are the feature of 1.20wmf1 most likely to be noticed as it goes live to Wikipedias this week, following on from successful deployments to sister wikis on April 16 and 18.
In deployments across April 16 and 18, MediaWiki 1.20wmf1 went live on Wikimedia Commons and all other non-Wikipedia wikis (i.e. Wiktionaries, Wikisources, Wikinewses, Wikibookses, Wikiquotes, Wikiversities, and other miscellaneous wikis). Although several issues were reported, none has yet proved major enough to cause the deployments to halt (one individual change – to IRC formatting – was reverted on the grounds that its cost was like to be greater than its benefit). As of time of writing, the deployment to the English Wikipedia has just been completed; other Wikipedias will follow on April 25. As noted earlier this month (see previous Signpost coverage) the deployment's importance does not lie with radical changes to the look and feel of the site; indeed, with the notable exception of diff colours (which have already begun to divide opinion) and a handful of other minor tweaks, the success of the deployment is likely to be measured in terms of how inconspicuous the whole process ends up being.
Elsewhere, with the resolution of bug #34885 (correcting bad fallback behaviour in Internet Explorer 7 and the compatibility modes of later versions), Wikimedia developers are now ready to begin the process for releasing MediaWiki 1.19 to external wikis this week (wikitech-l mailing list). The update went live to Wikimedia wikis in February, but has since had to take a back seat during the turmoil of the Git switchover and, more recently, the 1.20wmf1 release. A final version of MediaWiki 1.20 (including not just the contents of 1.20wmf1 but also of subsequent WMF deployments) is unlikely to be released to external wikis before August or September.
Not all fixes may have gone live to WMF sites at the time of writing; some may not be scheduled to go live for many weeks.
Sorry! We could not process your edit due to a loss of session data: A number of Wikimedia editors experienced far higher than usual rates of session expiry this week. The phenomenon, indicated on the English Wikipedia by a "Sorry! We could not process your edit due to a loss of session data" and by similar messages on other Wikimedia wikis, is a usual part of website security; this week, however, some users managed to trigger it five or more times in the same hour – when compared to the usual ability of users to go hours without receiving the message, a clearly abnormal rate. As of time of writing, the problem is thought to have been related to an individual malfunctioning server, since fixed.
MathJax enabled on MediaWiki.org: MathJax, a system designed to render mathematics-related TEX (most familiar to Wikimedians as the content of <math>...</math>) without resorting to PNG conversion, has now been enabled as a <math>-rendering preference on MediaWiki.org for testing purposes (wikitech-l mailing list). The move follows years of on-off discussion and development of alternative options to the current PNG-based system (including a MathJax-based user script). Among other features MathJax boasts a lightbox-style facility, selectable equations and perfect typographical clarity at all zoom levels. Users are encouraged to try it out on MediaWiki.org, ahead of a wider rollout.
Google Summer of Code participants named: Shortly before publication of this issue of the Signpost, the names of those students who have successfully gained a place on the WMF-hosted part of this year's Google Summer of Code programme were officially announced: Ankur Anand, Harry Burt, Akshay Chugh, Ashish Dubey, Suhas HS, Nischay Nahata, Aaron Pramana, Robin Pepermans, and Platonides will all work on Google-funded MediaWiki projects over the summer. Accordingly, next week's issue will try to probe at the projects and what they might mean for both the Wikimedia and broader MediaWiki-using communities.
Old contributions, history pages fixed: With the resolution of bug #34981, history and contributions pages now display the correct change in the number of characters between revisions made in the period October 2007 to April 2008 and the previous revision of the page. The character change numbers were introduced with MediaWiki 1.19 to put history and contributions pages on a par with watchlists and Special:RecentChanges; a glitch had caused those numbers, soon hidden, to be wrong for many of thirty-eight million revisions made during the six month period in the question. Projects other than the English Wikipedia were unaffected by the problem.
More new staff join the Foundation: Following on from the double hiring of technical staff covered in last week's "Technology report", this week also saw two additions to the WMF engineering department: Florida-based Tauhida Parveen, who joins as an "independent consultant specializing in software testing and quality assurance", and San Francisco-based Chris Steipp, who joins as a Software Security Engineer. Both are slated as bottleneck reducers: Parveen will be (at least initially) working on testing the controversial TimedMediaHandler (all-round video improvement) extension, whilst Steipp's broader remit will effectively double the number of members of staff routinely undertaking security reviews of new code to two. In addition, Steipp will also be devoting time to "improved HTTPS support, better/different authentication features, and other [features relating to the] handling of sensitive data", said Director of Platform Engineering Rob Lanphier (wikitech-l: 1, 2).
Hackathon update: The number of places still available for registration at this year's Berlin Hackathon (to be held in the German capital in early June) is rapidly approaching zero, it was announced this week. Registration is free, and gives attendees the option of applying for a Wikimedia Foundation scholarship to assist with travel and accommodation costs. In related news, a new Bangalore Hackathon has also been announced; the Indian city will host the smaller-scale event on 19 May.