Technical Blog

Ning – the now

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Back when I started using Ning to create Commentosphere I wrote a review of the service. I have since had much more experience in working with the tools provided by Ning and there have been some improvements and so this is an update on my previous review.

Language Support
To the best of my knowledge Ning still only supports PHP and XNHTML. While they expect to support more languages, for now if you don’t like PHP you won’t like development on Ning. Their PHP support, however, is top-notch. Full PHP5 support with numerous extensions installed and many Ning-specific components that just make coding easier (automated comment system, Gmail support, etc). Having previously only worked with servers supporting PHP4, just the PHP5 support seems like a miracle: code is cleaner and I can use some of those nice OOP features I’ve been reading about for ages.

The Content Store
The content store may still be hard to get into for a coder used to SQL, but once you get your head around it, it can be easier to use in some ways. For example, there are some default fields (title, description, contributorName, createdDate, updatedDate) which, if used correctly, can make transferring code between apps easier. Built-in support for tagging objects means you no longer have to have your code manage (sometimes complicated) many-to-many tables for the relationships between tags and content.

  • All query filters still behave like an AND operation, but this limitation can often be overcome through code design. While the lack of a union (OR) operation can be painful to get around and would be very welcome, it is not a crucial thing in many apps.
  • There is still no proper pattern matching, but this too can be partially overcome by storing dummy fields that have appropriate characters (especially non-alphanumerics) replaced by spaces and using their full-text ‘like’ operator. Not the ideal solution, but workable.
  • There is still no way to change the owner of an object, but this is not the biggest problem and it seems Ning is moving towards providing API-style access themselves.
  • The OOP-style of returns still inhibits sorting to some extent, but not nearly as much as I originally feared. SQL-returned arrays are often difficult to merge and sort themselves, and XN_Content objects on Ning are not unsortable, they just require self-written sorting functions. Merging query results is not a common operation anyway.
  • The Content Store has been significantly speeded up. While mass operations begin to bog, or even freeze, when you deal with volumes approaching 100 objects, at least it is fast enough for some mass-updating operations.

Other Considerations and Conclusions
Multi-user development is still basically impossible on Ning. This is probably the feature #1 on my list of things I wish they’d add. The License problems are annoying (there’s a lot of good GPL code out there I’d like to use) but not fatal.

While Ning has not yet fully rectified my main initial points (speed content store to enable large scale importers, group development, pattern matching, better documentation) I have found that some of these points are mitigated as you get used to the service. While the speed limitation on the content store are annoying, they can be got around if you take data in smaller chunks. The documentation is not the greatest, but it is getting better, especially with the advent of the Ning Tech Blog. Group development is definitely my #1 request at this point.

One Response


Superb stuff – thanks for the comments! We definitely need to push harder on multi-user development, but it’s hard finding a good model for it that fits with the rest of the system… we’ll keep working on it, though. Thanks!

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