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What is a wiki?

Wiki is a Hawaiian word that means quick, and wikiwiki means very quick. At the Honolulu International Airport you can catch the wikiwiki bus to travel between the terminals. Inspired by the name of the bus, Ward Cunningham created and deployed the first WikiWikWeb in 1995 as a place were people could collaborate and comment on each other's work. Since then the name has been shortened to simply be called Wiki, and the concept has grown significantly in popularity in the 2000's. Here is a better description of what wiki is now from
"Wiki is a piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit Web page content using any Web browser. Wiki supports hyperlinks and has a simple text syntax for creating new pages and crosslinks between internal pages on the fly. Wiki is unusual among group communication mechanisms in that it allows the organization of contributions to be edited in addition to the content itself."

Information Technology Services (ITS) has been evaluating wikis for a few years, and has deployed a prototype service using a product called Confluence intended to help our employees collaborate, and this wiki, called Wikispaces, is available to all faculty and staff. The intended use of wiki is to build a body of information or documentation by allowing all participants to directly edit and change the document. The document is actually a web page (or set of pages). It seems to work well as a collaborative tool. The most famous wiki is Wikipedia a free self building online encyclopedia. For an example closer to home - suppose you are working with a team developing a white paper, a book or compiling results of your research. You could parse out parts to individuals to develop with a word processor, have someone act as the aggregator to pull together into a single document, and then send out the merged document with track changes enabled, and then ... Or, you could do the whole thing all at once in a wiki. Who would really do that sort of thing? For starts, we are in ITS. We are working together to collaboratively create our ITS Strategic Plan on Wikispaces.

Why Confluence wiki?

ITS looked at several wiki products, and we deployed a prototype of MediaWiki for faculty and staff use. MediaWiki is a popular product that many people have seen and are fairly comfortable using; however, it has the drawback that you must deploy a separate instance for each case where you want to restrict access to a different group of people. Therefore, we kept looking for a wiki product that would met the need for our users to manage access to their content without deploying additional instances of the wiki server.

Confluence is a really interesting Wiki product from Atlassian . It will run on just about any operating system, as it is written in Java. This is the wiki product that Internet 2 is using , and there are some good capabilities for managing authentication and authorization. Specifically, we have interfaced Confluence to our Penn State WebAccess authentication process and to PSULDAP for authorization. The current implementation at is available to Penn State faculty and staff (PSULDAP group psu.facstaff). Being able to manage who can access the entire wiki service is an important feature, but a key differentiator with Confluence is the ability for individuals to control access to their entries. I'll go into more detail on that later in this article.  Confluence also has good page edit features that make it easy to create and format content, both with a rich text WYSIWYG editor and a well-documented text markup language. This article presents an overview of the Confluence features and points out resources where you can get more detailed information.

Getting Started.

Confluence has a very interesting feature called "spaces". Each Confluence space is essentially a separate wiki. The creator of the space is by default the administrator for that space, and the administrator can control who is permitted to read or update the pages within that space. When you authenticate and connect to Wikispaces, the first thing you will see is called the "Dashboard". It is a list of all the spaces on Wikispaces, and that first view is a bit daunting, but you can make it much more usable.
The two thumbnail images above show a before and after scenario with the first being the default dashboard view and the second being the view of your favorite spaces. You can click on the thumbnail to see the larger image. By default there is nothing in your Favorites, but you can easily add spaces to your favorites by clicking on the gray star at the end of the line with the space name. When you click on the star it turns yellow, and that space is added to your favorites list. Then when you select the "MY" tab to display your favorites only the yellow star spaces show up. One word of caution, just because you add a space to your favorites does not guarantee you can read it.

Now that you have a better view of the spaces in your favorites, you will notice that you can see three items at the bottom left: Create a space; Feed Builder; and People Directory.

Create Space

This is the way that you build your own wiki (called a space here). When you select "Create space" you will be lead through a process of picking a name, what it will look like, and who may read or write in your space. The latter is not real important as you can change that at any later time since you are the administrator for your space. When you create a space it will show up on the dashboard, but unless you specifically create a personal space (kind of like a personal web home page), you will have to add it to your favorites list. Once you have created your space, you could just go into edit and start adding content; however, you probably want to have more structure than that.

Add Page

A good way to do that is by adding "Pages" to your space. You can add a page by clicking on the "Add Page" icon (upper right on the default display theme), and you will be taken to a window that allows you to type in the name of your page, and then to edit in content for your page. When you save your page, you will find there is a link in your space with the name you used that takes you to the page content. There are other ways to add a page, and as you become more comfortable with Wiki Markup, you will probably just want to directly edit in your page title like

[My New Empty Page]

Which gives you the link
My New Empty Page
You will notice that the page link is Red with a + beside it. That means the page link is built, but there is no real page there. In order to create content for that empty page, simply click on it, and you will be taken into edit where you can add content. When you save the content, the page link turns Blue and the plus sign disappears. Like below
My Page With Content

Navigation in The Wiki

Since these are web pages, you can just use the links and the forward and back arrows of your browser to move around. Another interesting way to move in this wiki is displayed at the top of the page in the blue bar (on the default display theme). That shows a hierarchical list of the places to which you have navigated. You can move to any page in that list just by clicking on it in the blue bar. This feature is called "bread crumbs".

Feed Builder

This is the second selection line at the bottom left corner on the screen (in the default display setup). This will guide you through building an RSS feed for the content on Wikispaces. You can pick which things will generate RSS feeds. One word of caution here: Since this is an authenticated access wiki, you will need to authenticate through WebAccess before you will receive the RSS feed information.

People Directory

This gives you a view of the people who are using Wikispaces. It includes information from the profiles of people who have actually set up a profile about themselves.

Space Permissions

This is an important feature for which I will give a brief overview. When you create a space you are the space administrator by default. In order to administer the space, you select the "Browse Space" option (upper right on the default display format), and then select the Space Admin tab. This takes you to a page that allows you to control lots of things on your space, and most interesting - allows you to set who can do what to or with your space. To do that, select the "Permissions" option. You will get a menu similar to the one in the picture below.

In that menu you will see group permissions, individual user permissions, and anonymous permissions. At this point, we do not permit anonymous access to Wikispaces. So, even if you enable anonymous permissions, people will still have to authenticate through WebAccess and be part of the faculty and staff LDAP group to be able to see your space. The Groups option allows you to control access to your wiki space by selecting groups defined in LDAP, and setting permissions for them. This includes User Managed Groups that you can set up with the ITS Accounts group. The Individual Users section allows you to add individuals, and set permissions for each individual. Note that in all these cases, the people or groups must be a subset of the PSU faculty and staff group.

Some Interesting Features

There are lots of interesting features available in Confluence through the markup language, macros and plugins. We have added plugins that allow you to use LaTeX and Gliffy. Gliffy is a product that allows you to draw and share diagrams online. Here is a Simple Gliffy Example. LaTeX is a mathematical markup language that you can use within Wikispaces. Here is a Simple LaTeX Example. Here is an Example of the Chart Plugin that allows you to build a chart from a table of data much like you would in a spreadsheet.

There are macros that you can invoke through the markup language that allow you to do interesting things like display images and insert a table of contents. One way to see how some of these work is to look at This Article in Wikispaces. If you edit this article and select Wiki Markup instead of Rich Text you will see the how things like the {toc} table of contents macro work, and how pictures can be inserted. You can even build Photo Albums in Confluence. One thing you will see about pictures is that they must be attached to the pages where you display them.

One more thing to note - there is a search capability in Confluence. To start the search, type in the keyword you want to find int the search box at the top right (in the default display format) and click on the search button. You will then see the possible targets on the left side of the window and advanced search options on the right side. The advanced search options can help you refine your search. An important thing to remember when you create pages is the ability to assign Labels to your page. Adding meaningful labels to your pages helps people find them when they are searching. There are many many more features to Confluence, but that is beyond the scope of one article. The Documentation section below points you to some detailed information about all the Confluence features.


There is a lot of good documentation available about Confluence including the Atlassian documentation, which is available online. Our ITS Training group has developed a wiki seminar that is based on Confluence. A pointer to the handout for that seminar is below. There is also a space on Wikispaces to keep our own record of Hints, Tips and Gotchas.
Confluence 2.6 Documentation maintained by Atlassian
Wikispaces Tips - Hints, Tips and Gotchas
ITS Training Seminar Handout - Handout from ITS Wiki Training Seminar