Simple registration for files served by EPiServer

With the culture of knowledge sharing and open source spreading, everyone races to show they have something valuable that you may want. And while you may not ask for money for your content you may still want to get something in return, say a contact, an email address that’s verified (or not), to keep in touch with the consumer of your content.

Yet a full fledged registration doesn’t seem like a proper thing to do – cluttering your EPiServer user repository with (let’s face it – for a large part fake or temporary email addresses that user create only to get your content).

While there may be a lot of ways to handle that (streaming it through a page Response.WriteFile might seem as one of the more obvious ones), I would like to show you a cleaner, simpler and more elegant way that I’ve come up with.

We really don’t want people to deep link to our files without them knowing the files are from our site, that’s just rude – so hiding them behind an obscure URL wouldn’t work (thus we cannot use the regular file providers). We’ve already establish that we don’t want to log them in, so setting file rights are useless. But I want all the benefits including client-side caching.

Basically the solution boils down to creating a thin layer over the File provider of our choice, in my case the versioning file provider. The only method we need to override in it is GetFile. I want to allow downloading for logged in users and I want to allow downloading for all users that have a “magic-cookie” set. If either of the conditions are met, the file just downloads using the underlying provider’s routines including all the logic EPiServer has put for caching and rights. But if neither of the requirements are met, the user is directed to a page of our choice.

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Once you’ll update the framework to the extended one, you will immediately notice that… nothing has changed. Hmm… did something go wrong?

Well, not really. By default the framework will be run in the “legacy mode”. Thanks to an old article by our own Marek Blotny, I’ve learned how to build Plugin settings which are just perfect for the purpose!

So to configure and enable the new features you need to open your admin UI and in the “Config” click on the “Plugin Manager” item and select our framework plugin as shown in the picture

WebPartFrameworkPluginSettings1

The available options are:

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Back in the day when we started designing our last project we’ve been presented with a following problem – a big number of templates with slightly different sidebars.

Hmm…

Is sidebar a part of content? No, rather not. We don’t want the editors to have to setup the sidebar for every article they write (and the site has a few dozens of articles created on it every day).

Is sidebar more of a template thing? Well… more like it, but still… we have articles all over the site with different sidebar elements when the articles are in different parts of the site (ok so we could add rules what controls display in which part of the site). But wait! There’s more! The sidebar will be different for every language (region). Now we’re talking a dozen of templates or a rules engine just to make the sidebar different. Customising the template with properties isn’t ideal either as it makes EPiServer UI very cluttered. Additionally we want to change sidebars across many templates so the whole branch/section of the site will be able to share the same sidebar.

To a degree this is an academic discussion as we’ve been through it with the previous version of the site and we already knew that integrating this stuff into templates just won’t work and we will be in a world of pain just changing the templates over and over adding little tweaks and changes while the customer ads promotions and performs ad campaigns. Well, we can do it, of course, but it’s not a work a programmer will enjoy, and we all want to do new and more exciting things, don’t we?

We have an internally developed  module to make something like that, that is fully home-grown by another internal team (we now have 3 “squads” capable or making incredible things with EPiServer and we tend to share a lot of technologies and try to rotate people around to adopt the good habits and experiences) and I was (and still am) VERY impressed by it. The technology uses EPiServer pages for defining every module (which are located somewhere outside the site root branch. and then you can mix and match them either declaratively in the code) or by handpicking them in the UI. It’s really cool, though, during the discussions it turned out that we might have to add big chunks of functionality and might end up with separate branches of module-pages for different languages/regions, but… frankly… about that time an article by Ted Nyberg reminded me about a technology I have read about quite a while ago in an article by Stein-Viggo Grenersen and ooohhhhhh… I got seduced. I really wanted to try if for a long time and Ted’s article made it a snap to try and get convinced, and more important… convince Stu ;) that it’s the right way to explore.

So I started to dig.

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The configuration of the module is a descendant of any EPiServer Virtual Path Provider configuration. This aspect is fairly well described on EPiServer pages.

A sample configuration for the TextImageVirtualPathProvider can look as follows

<configuration> <episerver> <virtualPath <providers> <add showInFileManager="false" virtualName="Text Images" virtualPath="~/TextImages/" bypassAccessCheck="false" name="TextImages" type="Cognifide.ImageVirtualPathProvider.TextImageVirtualPathProvider,Cognifide.ImageVirtualPathProvider" physicalPath="C:\temp\TextImages" allowedReferers="(localhost)" allowNullReferrer="false" replacementStrings="$colon$,:,$gt$,>,$dot$,.,$quot$,&quot;,$amp$,&amp;,$star$,*,$eol$,&#10;,"/> </providers> </virtualPath> </episerver> </configuration>

 

where:

  • physicalPath is where the cached version of images will be stored
  • shownInFileManager is “false” as there is nothing to present for the user in the file manager.
  • allowedReferrers is the regular expression containing the filter for sites that are allowed to access the path provider and get images. This has been added so that your server does not turn into the internet’s text-image open service :)
  • allowNullReferrer should be set to false in production environment but allows for testing by directly creating URL’s without using a page to fill in the referrer.
  • replacementStrings – this one actually turned out to be very useful since some characters are invalid and not even reaching the VPP if EPiServer or ASP detects them. so to allow for characters like colon or < or even a dot (which would make it hard to form regular expression if it was explicitly available) or * you need to create an escape token for them. The string is a coma separated list of token,value,token,value,…
  • virtualPath is something you need to change if you want your VPP to serve images under a different root level folder. (e.g. if you have a page with that name already)

 

Additionally for IIS6 (most common scenario) you need to add <location> node to configuration for the VPP to work.

<configuration>
  <location path=TextImages>
    <system.web>
      <!– Setup the StaticFileHandler for the wildcard mapping to work in IIS6–>
      <httpHandlers>
        <add path=* verb=GET,HEAD type=System.Web.StaticFileHandler validate=true />
      </httpHandlers>
    </system.web>
    <staticFile expirationTime=-1.0:0:0 />
  </location>
</configuration>


Unless you want to change the location of the virtual path provider can be found under, there is nothing you need to change here.

The code is accessible on EPiCode, but you can also download a compiled binary here. All you need to do then is to unzip the archive to the “bin” folder within your site and set the web.config values to your preference.

The module code is already available on Epicode SVN, the relevant wiki pages will be following as soon as documentation is complete.

The use case is as follows:

  • The client wants the site to look exactly as in a template provided as a image,
  • the text is using a non standard font that is not available on 60% of Windows machines,
  • the site does not use flash.
  • the site needs to be equally good looking in IE6 (more about it later)

The solution was to generate images, but how to do it the right way? This has presented us with a once-in-a-lifetime :) opportunity to create a virtual path provider, do something good and learn something new & cool in the process.

Creating a new virtual path provider.

this functionality in itself is fairly well documented on MSDN one thing to pay attention to is to remember to pass the control to the next provider in the provider queue if your provider does not want to serve the request, so in my case:

public override VirtualFile GetFile(string virtualPath) { if (IsPathVirtual(virtualPath)) VirtualFile file = new TextImageVirtualFile(this, virtualPath); return file; else return Previous.GetFile(virtualPath); }

this is necessary so you don’t have to have all-or nothing solution (your provider either serving everything the user requests or not being accessible at all) and honestly I’ve spent quite a while before I found out that… I was just being silly – thinking the technology by itself will resolve that ;)

If your Virtual path provider does not actually implement directories you don’t have to make the very provider to do a lot of complicated things. you are perfectly fine to limit the implementation to providing a custom constructor so that EPiServer passes you the configuration data and a couple of methods to tell whether a file is what you want to handle or not

// this one is actually really cool - whatever values you set in your web.config // will be passed to you in the collection so you can really make your VPP
// as configurable as necessary public TextImageVirtualPathProvider(string name, NameValueCollection configAttributes)
// This one resolves if the file can be generated public override bool FileExists(string virtualPath) { /* ... */ } // Pretty much only passes the info that directory was not found // found if the virtual path matches a path that we should handle public override bool DirectoryExists(string virtualDir) { /* ... */ } // Retrieves the virtual file that generates the image if the // Virtual path matches our pattern or disregards the request if it doesn't public override VirtualFile GetFile(string virtualPath) { /* ... */ } // Again this is only a pass through method as we don't support directories public override VirtualDirectory GetDirectory(string virtualDir) { /* ... */ }

Now that we have ASP passing the request to us we need to wonder how to format the request in a way that is intuitive to the user, I wanted the URL to be straightforward and follow the path of EPiServer’s friendly URL-S so that they are easily formed by editors. So how about:

http://my.server.com/color/font-name/font-size/The%20text%20i%20want%20to%20print.gif

Ok.. well…, that won’t fly for GIFs – the font will be plain ugly if I don’t use antialiasing and if I do I will have an ugly black background underneath it. The solution to that would be using translucent PNG (which the VPP supports) but IE6 does not support those with transparency without ugly hacks. So I need to replace the blacks with a hint so that it generates a background colour when it merges the background with the font for antialiasing. For the sake of this article let’s assume it was an easy switch (IT WASN’T!) and let’s extend the URL to:

http://my.server.com/color/antialias-hint-color/font-name/font-size/The%20text%20i%20want%20to%20print.gif

But I need the font to be bold! Ok… ok…

http://my.server.com/color/antialias-hint-color/font-name/font-size/font-formatting/The%20text%20i%20want%20to%20print.gif

Can I have the image rotated too? Sigh….

http://my.server.com/color/antialias-hint-color/font-name/font-size/font-formatting(optional)/transformatio(optional)/The%20text%20i%20want%20to%20print.gif

The image rotation follows the RotateFlipType enumeration so you can specify any string that is defined in the MSDN documentation for the enumeration.

A sample result for the URL:

http://my.server.com/TextImages/Blue/white/Courier%20New/40/BUI/rotate270flipnone/Hello$eol$from$eol$Cognifide!.gif

Will look as follows

Hello$eol$from$eol$Cognifide! 

For the curious

The final string format matching regular expression looks as follows:

Regex regex = new Regex( @"^(?<colour> # The first match - starting form the beginning of the string
([0-9a-fA-F]{3}|[0-9a-fA-F]{6}|[a-zA-Z]*)) # match either a 6 hex digit string or a name of a known color - this is for text color / # now we expect the first separating slash (?<hint> # next match group is about background hint for antialiasing ([0-9a-fA-F]{3}|[0-9a-fA-F]{6}|[a-zA-Z]*)) # match either a 3 or 6 hex digit string or a name of a known color - this is for antialiasing color hint / # again separating slash (?<font>[\w\s]*) # font family name - accept white spaces / # yet another separating slash (?<size>[\d]{0,3}) # font size / # oh noes! another slash! ((?<style>[BIUSRN\s]*) # font style Bold, Italic, Underline, Strikethrough /){0,1} # this group is optional. ((?<transform>[\w]*) # transformation name as specified with System.Drawing.RotateFlipType - this group is optional /){0,1} # this group is optional too. (?<text>[\s\S]*[^\.]) # the text to render - basically anything but a dot - use relacement strings for dots [\.] # separating dot - now that's a nice change! (?<extension>(png|gif)) # the file extension - so that we know whether to generate png or gif $ # everything comes to an end ", RegexOptions.Compiled | RegexOptions.IgnoreCase | RegexOptions.IgnorePatternWhitespace | RegexOptions.CultureInvariant);

 

Usability concerns

The Colours can be provided as both named Colours (red, green, etc..) or html hex formatted colours (e.g. ff00bb, fob, fff, badfoo) both 6 and 3 hex digits strings are accepted.

The URL accepts spaces, and whatever text string that cannot be passed as a part of the url or is invalidated by EPiServer can be escaped by defining a token for it in web.config so for example as you can see in the above url the end of line “\n” character has been escaped into $eol$.

Obviously the font selection is limited to what is installed on your server.

Performance concerns

The basic concern that comes to mind is – how does this impact the server performance if the image is generated every time? Even though the performance impact seemed to be negligible I’ve decided to cache content. These things simply pile up if you have a high load site so why take the chance? Once an URL is called it is saved on first generation asserting the uniqueness of each parameter. Colours like black and 000 will be treated as same colour and cached only once.

Security concerns

So what was done to prevent our server to be an open server for generating images for everyone on the Internet? The VPP only allows for the images to be generated if the request referrer is in a domain or a host that is specified in the web.config. Additionally for testing you can enable the referrer to be null (direct call to images, as opposed to referring to them from a page).

Also as a seconds line of defence, it’s wise to define the cache folder on a share with a quota so we don’t get our server filled up with images should the referrer limiting measure fail for some reason.

CogniScale – virtual hosting made easy

We’ve not been talking much about it and that’s partially my fault as well (busy with other projects), but Cognifide has a really cool initiative called Cognifide Labs that we intend to grow over time. The plan is to devote up to 10% company time into side projects that help us grow expertise and allow our devs to dwell into interesting technologies, methodologies and languages and develop their skills.

One of the first projects (that I took part in) is CogniScale – an app that allows FlexiScale users to manage their servers. Here’s the story…

Being the agile company taking part in many EPiServer projects we never seem to have enough environments to test our web-apps and software in general in various scenarios. We find ourselves constantly reinstalling and trying to keep our servers in a state that can can at least remotely be called as stable. After all how many deployments and tearing down of various EPiServer, CruiseControl, TeamCity, SQL Server and other "I need to have" apps can a server take before slowing down to a crawl or collapsing all together (that said I bow before our faithful THOTH for taking all the abuse it does). We definitely needed more servers! And we needed them now!

Early this year we’ve started to talk to the guys at XCalibre that came up with a great idea. What if you could have an unlimited amount of servers available for you at any given time? I mean really what if you could have 0 servers one day and the next day have a rich farm of servers for literally no cost, paying only when you power them up and not paying a bit if you take them down.  This turned out to be quite a project for them that turned to materialize as FlexiScale. (you can read more about it here). Looking at all that I’ve mentioned before while eliminating the cost of maintaining the servers locally we decided to give FlexiScale a spin.

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Faceted Service Structure

This article is a part of the series describing the faceted navigation system for EPiServer that we have developed in Cognifide and that’s already proven to be a robust solution for delivering tagged content a heavy traffic site. The engine will be released shortly as an open source project.

So how is the faceted engine structured?

FacetedNavigationSchema

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Faceted Navigation Engine Nomenclature

This article is the second of a series describing the faceted navigation system for EPiServer that we have internally developed in Cognifide, that’s already proven to be a robust solution for delivering tagged content a heavy traffic site, which will be released shortly as an open source project.

First of all we have to explain the nomenclature as it is going to be used quite a bit. A few terms we use pretty extensively are:

  • Facet – this is roughly an elaborate version of an EPiServer (or WordPress) category. One of the problem with EPiServer category is that it is just that and absolutely nothing more. There is no way for attaching metadata and conditional structuring of the category tree. There is no way to assign them roles. Facets provide you with much, MUCH more.

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Silicon Valley says: Do what Cognifide does!

There is a really heartwarming article (if you’re from Poland) on Silicon Valley Watcher about the skills of Polish engineers, the low turnover and the general satisfaction from Polish employees by international companies something that UK as a country discovered and Cognifide in particular have noticed quite a while ago.

And I really can fully relate to that, I would bet any money to stand the competency of any person in my crew against any of the top professionals out there. It definitely is a good time to be in the IT business in here. A small excerpt – worth noting:

Common cultural ties

Polish engineers are also very familiar with Western culture. Common cultural understanding is very important for any company. Poland is now part of the European Union, which gives US firms great access to huge markets, and rapidly developing markets in Poland and in Eastern Europe.

Quality not price

Mr Slawek pointed out that Polish engineers are not chosen because they are cheaper, companies choose them because of the quality of their work. And Polish teams are very good at thinking on their feet, as is shown by their numerous accomplishments in programming competitions, which are won by quickly finding solutions to complex problems.

Posted in Lifestyle, Software, Software Development
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The Wiki Family

Writing user documents for our company, I ‘ve been using our corporate wiki a lot recently.

Confluence is incredible. I can honestly say I’ve not been impressed by a piece of software to that degree for quite a while.

I really like how it provides me with the possibility for creating small pages like “format specifications” and “installation info” which I can then assemble into e.g. “User’s manual” simple and seamless:

{include:InstallGuide}
{include:CommandLineInterface}

It’s so neat, it’s actually a pleasure to work with it. Need a document to provide to your customer? No problem – it will create a PDF file from that page so that the customer can even print it out conveniently. Bliss…

So I’ve decided that I want to get a wiki for myself. I want to create a wiki with some of my code sippets for the everyday use, some small text handling utility classes, simple solutions, with some coding standards for myself to use, and for my family… to be able to share the family annual stuff like birthdays or important dates, phones, addresses, some basic photos, some experiences and some simple facts, like which pizzerias we consider good, where do we plan to perform our next family meeting and so on and so forth. Accessible for all of us online.

The hosting provider however does not allow me for shell access and java, so Confluence is out of the question (it has a free private license for 2 users which would otherwise be just fine).

I’ve asked around and it looked like mediaWiki might be the answer, so our MediaWiki seems to be up and running. I am not sure though if it’s just me being a noob, but the administering of it seems to be a major pain in the rare. Need permissions changed? Edit php. Add new user without enabling public access to the wiki? looks like you’re facing the the grief of dealing with myPHPAdmin.

And the editing support is almost as good as notepad… *sigh*. There is no way my dad is going to use it in its current state. We’re definitely in need of some nicer theme for it that won’t leave him running form it, screaming. Perhaps I can equip it with some plugins as well to make it bareable?

Short of that, I think I’m still in the market for another wiki engine.

[update]
I’ve also setup TikiWiki for testing, although it seems a bit overwhelming for a casual user. I’ll see about customizing it for the family.

I’ll also be looking at Twiki in the following days.

I’m sure soon enough the kids or at least Martuska will want to have access to it. Boy, would it be nice to have a global family wikipedia, or what!?

There seems to be a plethorea of them to the degree that there are sites and huge matrices comparing them point by point.

Wikipedia comparison
WikiMatrix comparing some of the wikis I’m considering

[update 27-01-2007]
I think I’ll settle with media wiki after all. It’s really tedious to administer, but I can handle it. While tiki seems a bit too complicated and I think the family could have had troubles using it.

Posted in Lifestyle, Rants, Software, Web applications
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