Appfire’s Firestarter – Confluence wiki on a stick

At Atlassian Summit a couple of weeks ago, Appfire handed out some early releases of their new product. It’s called Firestarter, a portable wiki appliance. Basically, it’s a Confluence wiki on a USB stick! I was lucky enough to get one, so I’ve been trying it out.

Friendly warning: This is an early adoption release of Firestarter. It’s interesting and exciting to experiment with and to plan what uses you can put it to. It’s not yet ready for use with production systems or data.

Why would you want a Firestarter portable wiki appliance?

I’ve often heard people say that they’d love to be able to work on Confluence while they’re away from their desks. There’s a very useful iPhone app, with an enterprise edition for iPhone, Blackberry, Palm and Android too. But what about those times when you’re offline? Firestarter to the rescue.

Appfire also point out another use case that is particularly interesting for us technical writers: Distributing documentation on a stick. OK, pretty cool videos.😉 Appfire suggests that you can package the Firestarter USB sticks with your product, containing the latest version of the documentation at the time the product is shipped. In addition, you can configure Firestarter to sync automatically with your server-based Confluence documentation whenever the customer is online. That way, they can get the very latest documentation even after the date of shipping.

I decided it would be interesting to give Firestarter a whirl. The first thing was to get hold of a Mac machine, since the early release of Firestarter is for Macs only. Appfire intends to produce a Windows version soon. Now I’m working on a MacBook Pro, borrowed for a few days. If there are any fumbles in this blog post, or any weirdness in the screenshots, please put it down to the combination of me and Apple!

What does Firestarter look like?

Here’s a photo of the Firestarter USB stick inserted into a MacBook Pro:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

“Hottt!” Here it is with its protective cap and the box it comes in:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

What does it do?

The Firestarter USB stick contains a fully-functional installation of Confluence. You can, of course, have more than one Firestarter. Each one has its own installation of Confluence.

In a nutshell, Firestarter offers:

  • A Confluence wiki, running off the USB stick, that supports up to 10 users.
  • Easy start of Confluence (no installation necessary).
  • Syncing with an “enterprise” Confluence server. This means that you can synchronise the content of a Firestarter with the content of a Confluence wiki on a server machine. To do that, you need to install the Appfire Enterprise Sync plugin on your enterprise Confluence site. The plugin will soon be available on the Atlassian Plugin Exchange. I’m lucky – I got a special edition to try.
  • Syncing from one Firestarter Confluence to another (peer to peer).

Getting Firestarter up and running

It’s very easy, even for me as a Mac noob. The Windows version will probably be just as simple. There’s a useful quick installation guide, printed on a card, that comes inside the box with the Firestarter USB stick.

I loved these bits of the installation guide:

  • “Firestarter will not function if you install it backwards.”
  • “Caution: The indicator light flashes rapidly during data transfer… Firestarter is hot! (Not so much burn your hand hot. It’s more ‘you’re going to love this thing’ hot.)”

Talk about a user guide with a sense of humour!

Following the instructions on the printed installation guide, I inserted the USB stick (taking care not to have it backwards, of course) and saw the Firestarter icon arrive on the Mac desktop:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

I double-clicked the icon to see the “firestarter-start-stop.jar” file, and then double-clicked the JAR file to start:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Firestarter fired up (heh) Confluence on the stick. This took a short while. When it was ready, it gave me a “localhost” URL to click:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

I clicked the link to see Confluence in my browser, running off the Firestarter stick:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

My Firestarter came preconfigured with an administrator username (“firestarter”) and password. I’m not sure if that’s because it’s an early adoption version, or what will happen in the final 1.0 version.

Next, Confluence asked me for a licence key. You will need to get a Confluence licence from Atlassian. Firestarter is designed for the Atlassian 10-user licences, also called “starter licences”: $10 for 10 users. Firestarter also works with an evaluation licence – that’s what I used. To get an evaluation licence, go to http://my.atlassian.com. Sign up for an account if you don’t already have one. That will give you a username and account for the web site. Then follow the links to generate an evaluation licence, choosing “Confluence” as the product. You will receive a licence key (a big block of meaningless text). Copy it and paste it into the text box on your Firestarter’s Confluence screen.

Once I had applied my licence key and logged in, I saw the Confluence dashboard:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Cool, that’s the Connie I know and love, albeit of a more fiery hue.😉

Working in Confluence on Firestarter

I decided to create a documentation space on my Firestarter wiki. So I downloaded the XML backup of one of our documentation spaces, in this case the SharePoint Connector documentation backup. Then I used Confluence’s “Back up and restore” administration option (see our guide) to upload the XML file to my Firestarter Confluence site. Ta da ♫ ♪ here’s the documentation space, complete with the Documentation theme, running on the stick:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Setting up a desktop version of Confluence

I decided to try syncing my Firestarter Confluence with a server-based, standalone installation of Confluence. First I installed a standalone version of Confluence on my Windows-based desktop. I’m using Confluence 3.2.1_01. You can get an evaluation version from the Atlassian web site.

Next I installed Appfire’s Enterprise Sync plugin onto my desktop Confluence. This is a pre-release version 0.2.0 of the plugin, made available especially to me after I cajoled and promised not to put the plugin anywhere it shouldn’t go!🙂

To start off with, I did some configuration of both Confluence sites. I’m not sure how much of this is necessary, but I did it just to be sure:

  • On my desktop Confluence, I configured the base URL to use my machine name rather than “localhost”. You’ll need to do this if you want Firestarter to access your desktop, unless you decide to use an IP address instead of the machine name. I ended up using an IP address anyway.
  • On my desktop Confluence, I turned on the remote API. (You can configure this setting in the “General Configuration” setting of the Confluence Administration Console.)
  • On my desktop Confluence, I granted my username access to the Firestarter sync functionality, using the new “Enterprise Sync Permissions” option on the Confluence Administration Console. This option appears when you install the Enterprise Sync plugin. I also made sure my username has Confluence global permissions to create a space.
  • Now on my Firestarter Confluence, I granted my username access to the Firestarter sync functionality, using the ‘Enterprise Sync Permissions’ option on the Confluence Administration Console.

Preparing to Sync Firestarter with my desktop Confluence

As you can see on the screenshot of the Firestarter Confluence dashboard up above, my Firestarter Confluence came with a wiki space called “Getting Started”. I clicked through to the page called “Firestarter – Getting Started Guide“, which has instructions on how to sync with other Confluence sites.

Running through the steps in that guide, this is what I did.

There’s a new menu option in the Firestarter Confluence user menu, called “WikiSync Settings“. To get to this option, I clicked my username at top right of the Confluence screen (my username in this case is “Firestarter”, but it could have been “SarahM” or whatever) and then selected “WikiSync Settings”:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Firestarter’s “WikiSync Settings” screen appeared, where I can manage my sync spots. A “sync spot” is another Confluence site that you want to sync with:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Adding a sync spot is pretty simple. I clicked “Add a Sync Spot” to get this screen:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Hint: If you have problems with your Sync Spot URL, try using an IP address as I’ve done.

Syncing a documentation space

As described above, I’d created a documentation space in my Firestarter Confluence by importing a real documentation space from our documentation wiki. Now I decided to sync my Firestarter Confluence with my desktop Confluence, to see if I could copy the documentation space to my desktop Confluence.

Here’s the dashboard of my desktop Confluence before the sync, showing that it has only one space, the “Demonstration Space” that you get when you install Confluence:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Now I went to the Firestarter “WikiSync Settings” screen and clicked “Prepare to Sync” next to my new sync spot:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Firestarter asked me for a username and password. I entered the username that has access to my desktop Confluence. I’d also given this username wiki sync permissions on the desktop Confluence and permission to create a space on the desktop Confluence. Now Firestarter presented this screen, showing the new content on my Firestarter Confluence that was not on my desktop Confluence. Cool, this is looking very exciting!

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

On the above screen, the first space listed is the Confluence SharePoint Connector documentation space that I’d created on the Firestarter Confluence. That’s the one I want to copy to my desktop Confluence. The second space is the Getting Started guide provided by Firestarter. I don’t need that one on my desktop Confluence.

I selected the space I want. Firestarter automatically selected all the pages, and allowed me to change the selection if I wanted to:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

I clicked “Sync (Push Selected Content)” and sat back to watch the update. Woohoo:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Success!

Going back to look at my desktop Confluence, I saw that the new documentation space (Confluence SharePoint Connector 1.2) had appeared:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

I clicked through to the pages in the new space. They looked great. All images and attachments had come across, as well as the text:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

The platforms and versions in my setup

This is the setup on the laptop where I inserted the Firestarter USB stick:

  • My laptop (the borrowed one) is a MacBook Pro, running Mac OS X version 10.6.3.
  • I have the Firestarter early adoption release (EAR), given to me at Atlassian Summit 2010.
  • My version of Firestarter is running Confluence 3.2.1_01, on a MySQL database.

I also have a desktop machine running a standalone installation of Confluence:

  • My desktop is running Windows 7 Professional, version 6.1.
  • I have installed Confluence 3.2.1_01, standalone distribution, using the built-in HSQL database and Tomcat server.
  • I’ve also installed Appfire’s Enterprise Sync plugin, version 0.2.0. This is a pre-release version, made available especially to me, after I cajoled and promised not to put the plugin anywhere it shouldn’t go!

Notes:

  • Firestarter is currently available only for a Mac. In other words, the USB stick will work only on a Mac. The Windows version will be available soon.
  • You can’t use the same Firestarter on a Windows and on a Mac. You need separate USB sticks. This is because they run on the supported Confluence platforms, which do not support cross-platform installations.
  • For more information on supported platforms and features, see the Appfire Firestarter FAQ.

Some feedback from me

Here’s a collection of ideas and feedback. I’ve passed these notes on to the Appfire team too.

  • It would be handy to be able to mark the USB stick easily on the outside, especially if you have more than one of them. Would it be easy to put a small, flat, writeable portion on the casing?
  • When syncing pages, it would be useful to give the option of retaining the author information (usernames of the people who created/updated the pages) and the page history.
  • When syncing an entirely new space, Firestarter created a new space with a flat page hierarchy. Instead, it should retain the page tree of the original space.
  • When creating a new space, it would be awesome if the theme of the original space was transferred too, and the configured home page for the space.

I really like the popup hints that appear when you hover over a question mark or an information icon on the Firestarter screens. Here’s an example:

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

Appfire's Firestarter - Confluence wiki on a stick

What’s left for you to try?

I’ve only tried one part of Firestarter’s functionality, the push of content from Firestarter to an enterprise Confluence site. There’s a lot more to try, such as pulling content from an enterprise Confluence site to a Firestarter Confluence, and syncing from one Firestarter to another (peer to peer). Let me know if you try them out.

Since this is an early adoption release, it doesn’t yet have the full functionality that will be in the 1.0 release. The Appfire Firestarter FAQ show a list of planned features. I’m especially interested in the automatic upgrade offered by the planned “Auto Update” plugin. It would be cool to upgrade Confluence by just clicking a couple of buttons.

What do you think?

Will you find a wiki on a stick useful? Especially from the point of view of technical documentation, I’d love to know what you think.

Thank you to the Appfire team for letting me experiment with this early adoption release. I’m excited about the possibilities it offers, and interested to see what other people think. Playing with Firestarter is fun.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 27 June 2010, in atlassian, Confluence, technical writing, wiki and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Speaking of manuals with a sense of humour, in case you’ve missed it, Nobody Knows Shoes is a thing of beauty: http://github.com/downloads/shoes/shoes/nks.pdf .

    I really like how it’s as much literature as it is documentation. The one is not more important than the other, and while it might look silly, it does a very good job of sticking to the user’s perspective, and not getting lost in details.

    • Hallo puterman
      That sounds intriguing. I haven’t seen the book and I’d love to, but alas the PDF file linked to in your comment is broken. I’ve done a search but can’t find a downloadable version. The hackety.org press link is broken too. Any ideas? People rave about it as the best API documentation ever.
      Cheers,
      Sarah

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