Technical Blog

The Ning Playground

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The Ning Playground is a webservice for the creation of webservices. It is where the code and data for Commentosphere resides. While great efforts have gone into making the service easy for novices to jump into, this results in a less powerful toolset overall.

Application Creation
Ning handles application creation and setup admirably. Although I did not investigate starting an app from scratch with no files, such a thing is likely possible. If it is not, cloning an app and deleting all code would serve the purpose just as well. There are numerous example applications with working code that can be easily cloned from the omnipresent Ning Pivot sidebar. Once this has been done one merely has to visit the (unchangeable) URL chosen for the new app and perform some minor setup functions and there is a working application. Nothing could be easier, although if left at that it is mostly useless. Selecting ‘edit code’ from the same sidebar presents you with a directory structure where you may add or edit files to build the app.

Language Support
Ning supports both PHP and their own XNHTML. While the focus on PHP may be a negative aspect to some, for me it made it easy to get right into development, as PHP is the language I am familiar with. All standard PHP methods, as well as quite a number of extension packages are supported admirably and without the contstraints usually found on free (or even cheap) hosting. They also provide thier own set of classes to enable interfacing with their Content Store and other things, such as Gmail, Google Maps, and reading/writing RSS feeds.

XNHTML is a very nice, very easy XML derivative that enables basic output control and data access. While I did not investigate it thoroughly (being more apt to the PHP side of things) I did use it for outputting the app name (for which there is a handy tag provided), displaying certian code only if the user is logged in / a specifi user is logged in (a matter of wrapping the code in question inside the provided user test tags), and addind data to the Content Store via form for the Aggregator (which was a simple matte of using the XNHTML form tags instead of normal XHTML and using standard XHTML ‘input’ tags for the form itself). I found XNHTML to be very easy to use, and very conveniant for simple operations.

The Content Store
Here is where things got a tad more confusing. To a novice, the Ning Content Store is very easy to use and easy to learn, but to a programmer used to SQL it is a pain to learn a new data access method, no matter how easy. To its credit, the Content Store has many benefits, including easy sharing of data between all Ning apps and the ability to perform basic queries with ease using the objects provided. It has also, however, some drawbacks, including :

  • No boolean operators for filtering (ie OR / NOT), all filters applied overlap as though put together using AND.
  • No pattern matching quieries analogous to the SQL LIKE operator. The ‘like’ and ‘likeic’ operators in Ning are full-text search operators. They claim that such a feature is on their wishlist for the service, but currently it does not exist because of the load they fear it would place on the servers.
  • The object owners can only be set to NULL (anonymous) or the currently logged in user. This creates a problem for services wanting to provide bidirectional third-party APIs.
  • All data returned is in the form of XN_Content objects, which support many nice operations for the transformation of data (htmlentities, urlencode) but are sadly unsortable, making the merger of multiple queries impossible without writing your own sorting function (which I plan to get to eventually).
  • It’s slow for adding content, and if you’re adding a lot of content (either one large record or a great many records at once — read importer) painfully so. They claim to be working on this as part of their plan to optomise the entire Ning backend, but for now things such as my importer are doomed to lock up connections and cause browsers to do funny things, which messes up the import and basically makes the operation impossible.

Other Considerations
While Ning is about social applications, developement is currently anything but social. In fact, only the creator of an app can modify its code, and this permissing cannot be given to anyone else. While others may clone the app to experiment with the code and then send their modifications back to the creator, group development is virtually impossible. In response to my inquiry about this they said that they are working on solving this, but who knows when that will come about.

All code on Ning is licensed under a fair, but GPL-incompatable license, making the use of GPLed libraries impossible.

Documentation is in plenty, but not always easy to find. For example, when looking up documentation on the nature of the ‘like’ and ‘likeic’ operators none was to be found under their appropriate classes / methods. I had to go to a mammoth article titled Querying the Ning Content Store to find it.

I like Ning, I really do. I like the concept, I like the implementation, but it needs some work. For small-scale apps or non-developers the way it is makes coding easy. Even as a more experianced developer I am not one to complain about ease of use. They need, however, to add features that cater more to the power market as well as the easy market. Above all else I would like to see (1) a faster backend that doesn’t hang on running import scripts and the like (2) group development (3) pattern matching (4) better documentation.


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