wiki-software and wiki-hosting

Back to the Wiki theme for this post, after a couple of diversions.

There are a massive amount of options for creating a Wiki, the two most important being the software and the hosting. If you have a practical background in MySQL or PHP then you can do this stuff yourself, but for the rest of there are wiki hosts and wiki software.

Wiki Software

Wiki-hosting sites will offer some kind of software built in. So the question of which host to choose is bound up with the question of which software you want; obviously you need to know which of those your priority is and act accordingly. For the purposes of the Best Practice Wiki it is, of course, a bit of both – I want software that is friendly enough to use so people aren’t put off from contributing, but I also want decent hosting which won’t suddenly disappear, or bombard users with adverts.

Anyone who has ever contributed to a Wiki will know how important the software is. We’re used to having both simple and complicated instructions acted upon by word-processing programmes etc, with the minimum of fuss. It is unbelievably annoying if you are trying to edit or contribute to a Wiki and the software is anything less than intuitive.

An important feature for many users is WYSIWYG - which means What You See Is What You Get editing (we're encouraged to pronounce this 'wiziwig' but I just can't bring myself to do so). As you can guess, this basically means anything where the end result looks exactly the same or at least very similar to how it looks when you are editing it. Absolutely loads of wiki-software offers WYSIWYG editing, so you'd need a really good reason to go with another type where pages looked significantly different when being edited to when they're live.

I've used MediaWiki for another Wiki in the past, and found it fantastic to use - better than any other software I've encountered. It is clean, simple and intuitive, and I've set up a test Wiki as a precursor to the Best Practice Wiki which has convinced me that it's easy to set access controls and so on. Anyone who has ever edited Wikipedia will be familiar with it as it is what the great Wiki behemoth itself uses (although Wikipedia has been in the news recently as apparently less and less casual users are seeing their edits endure, as a kind of editing aristocracy is taking over and rather going against the 'everyone can contribute' ethos on which it is founded). MediaWiki is the daddy, and it is the software I'd like to use for the Best Practice Wiki. It is also free, and Open Source - you can pay hundreds of pounds or dollars a month to use some Wiki-creation software.

You can view a comparison of Wiki Software on Wikipedia for more information, although be aware that, due to its inherent Wiki-ish nature, it is open to a certain amount of abuse from firms basically advertising their own software by editing the entries.

Wiki Hosting

As I've made my decision with the software as the main driver, I now have to find a wiki-host that supports MediaWiki. I could try and get some server space at the University of Leeds (where I work) but after talking it over with our head of e-Strategy, Bo Middleton, we've decided against this. She's not keen because the only Wiki's hosted at Leeds are very limited-user and aimed at just in-house use, and I'm not keen because I don't want the Best Practice Wiki to be affiliated with any one institution. It isn't a 'Leeds' Wiki, and everyone should be encouraged to contribute to it.

I've heard great things about WetPaint, which I know offers WYSIWYG editing and other HEIs have used it successfully for Wikis, but as it doesn't offer MediaWiki I've ruled it out. Similarly, Peanut Butter Wiki (better known as PBWorks) is extremely highly regarded as a host, and offers excellent Wiki software too. But it also offers both free and paid-for hosting, and I'm always wary of that - things which may start off free could potentially move to the paid-for packages later if they need to boost revenue once they've hooked you in. And most importantly to me, it doesn't offer MediaWiki. In order for this Wiki to work, people have to be comfortable creating and editing content, and for me the best way to ensure this is to use the most fool-proof and instinctive software.

There are paid for hosts, advertising-supported hosts, and just completely free hosts. An example of a completely free host is Wiki Spot, which offer free wikis for non-profit ventures and communities with no advertising at all. This seems ideal, but their example Wiki's look unattractive and pretty dated, so I'm wary of the software. The options left are to pay, which I'm unwilling to do, or put up with advertising, which is a necessary compromise. However after an exhaustive comparisons of all the different hosting companies, I've found one where the adverts are minimal and won't disrupt use. I've opted for is It is free, it offer MediaWiki software, and their revenues come from very minimal advertising. On the test version I set up, small adverts sometimes appear down the right hand side of the page, and it's very unobtrusive. It also has unlimited disc-space and unlimited bandwidth, which could prove absolutely crucial if the Best Practice Wiki takes off. The URL of the Best Practice Wiki would be whatever we choose to call it, then So for example,

[There is a comparison of Wiki Farms available via Wikipedia, but it doesn't look very reliable and is heavily flagged as having 'disputed partiality' etc. A better place to go is - see this comparison guide for free and paid-for Wiki hosting.]

What do you think?

This blog serves as a sort of guide for anyone thinking of doing a similar thing (I'm doing the homework so you don't have to...) but also a sounding board - do you agree with the choices I've made above? Do you have experience with other hosting sites you think could do a better job, or do you feel I should do everything possible to avoid any kind of advertising?

I'd love to hear what you think, so leave me a comment and we can get some discussion going. Nothing is set in stone yet, so you may even change my mind!

- thewikiman

EDIT (15/09/09): Since writing this post, I've discovered WikiMatrix which is an absolutely brilliant resource; a thoroughly comprehensive comparison of all wiki options. If you're planning on starting a Wiki, go there first to find the right option for you...