Being a Good Host

Server room. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The delivery of a book, from author to press and then press to reader, despite its complexity, is pretty well established. Stanford University Press, for example, has been doing it for 125 years. University presses outside the United States have been doing it for as long as 430 years or better. Much can be streamlined in book production when you have over a century to perfect your processes.

Digital publications, on the other hand, are still in their infancy. And the kinds of digital projects SUP is publishing, which move beyond the basic text-centric ebook, are even newer. Although scholars have been creating these kinds of projects for years, only now has any press taken on the challenge and responsibility of advocating this kind of scholarship by publishing it. And part of that process is implementing a plan for delivering the final product to readers.

As many authors of interactive scholarly works know, a project needs a secure and well-maintained hosting environment. For most authors, this environment is one managed by their university, whether by a department or college technology initiative, or a library’s or university’s IT department. These operations are usually fairly well staffed (though rampant nationwide budget cuts to higher education may imperil these assets). But university presses don’t usually have the resources or the need for such dedicated, highly staffed departments. Just as modern presses outsource the physical making and moving (printing, binding, shipping, etc.) of their books, our digital publishing initiative has required that we choose an appropriate hosting provider to manage our growing library of diverse digital publications.

As many authors of interactive scholarly works know, a project needs a secure and well-maintained hosting environment.

With all the commercial hosting companies currently in operation, the options seemed virtually endless. Many of them offered the latest standard features like cPanel, WHM, SSD, or HDD options, sliding scales for storage, automatic backups, anywhere from 24/7 to 48-hour-response support, and certificate inclusion. But with names that conjure overweight cattle or marketing campaigns dependent on perpetuating harmful sexist stereotypes, we wanted to look past the corporate farm and find an organization whose purpose and philosophy matched the mission of the Press, part of which entails “digital pioneering” and forwarding “creative and sophisticated scholarship.”

Limiting our search to solutions that focused on scholarship, education, and the advancement of knowledge narrowed the field quite a bit. In fact, only one organization seemed to match our values and also offer all the technological needs of our program. Reclaim Hosting is a paradoxically small operation (four staff members) that drives an immense and immensely rich sector of the education field (over one hundred institutions). They “provide educators and institutions with an easy way to offer their students domains and web hosting they own and control.” In other words, one of their driving missions is to provide universities with a system for hosting student and faculty web spaces, where they can build lifelong-accessible projects and portfolios of their work through open-source platforms like WordPress, Omeka, and many others. They also offer low-cost hosting for scholars to share their work, whether it’s a custom-coded project or a Scalar book. In addition to these shared server spaces, Reclaim offers custom built products and services tailored to institutions like ours, whose mission is academic but not necessarily limited to student and faculty web projects.

Our purposes required a lot of space, security, and customization, so when we chose Reclaim and signed the contract, we opted for a dedicated server that would allow us the option of adding storage space as the program grows and a dedicated support team for technical operations, maintenance, and updates. With nearly thirty digital projects in the pipeline, we need a hosting environment that can not only immediately install but also sustain different kinds of platforms, from Scalar to Drupal to Grav to custom-coded websites. And we also need a support team that values our mission and knows the developers of similar missions. Reclaim’s relationship with Scalar, for instance, has already proven invaluable to us as we migrate our first project leveraging that publishing platform into our own hosting environment. Not only am I certain of the quick and knowledgeable support of both Scalar developers and Reclaim owners (yes, the owners handle support tickets), I also know they are talking to each other.

In the field of scholarly communication, the point is to build on each other’s strengths, to collaborate toward a better and more knowledgeable society.

Open communication is a very academic value. Too many businesses in the tech industry are closed. They’re in competition with each other and their clients rather than in partnership toward a common goal. But in the field of scholarly communication, the point is to build on each other’s strengths, to collaborate toward a better and more knowledgeable society. Like us, Reclaim is trying something new: offering a focused version of an existing service or framework. For us it’s extending publication to interactive scholarly works. For Reclaim, it’s offering a hosting environment loaded with all the tools digital authors use and bolstered by the support of a team devoted to education and shared knowledge.

We’re under no obligation to promote the company, and there are certainly improvements to be made in any technological infrastructure, but to accurately document our experiences evaluating hosting services, it’s inevitable that we’re going to sound a bit like cheerleaders, at least here at the beginning. But in the roughly three months of our service agreement so far, any glitches I’ve encountered have been fixed with amazing speed. And as we migrate and activate more of the projects in the pipeline, there are sure to be more details to document. Choosing a reliable provider for project delivery is only one step in implementing SUP’s digital publishing program.

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