It's been a great few of months working on our MSDN/TechNet Social Platform.  It's hard to believe we're ready to go live today. 

I've been very focussed on the forums side of things but we've got some great other new features like Social Bookmarking, a new profile page and improved MSDN/TechNet/Expression Search Autocomplete.  Check out Jeff Day's blog: http://blogs.msdn.com/dawg89/ for some details on the social bookmarking.

So what's this forums release all about? Well let me tell you, but I'll start with a little history.  We went live with our 3.0 release with a brand new code base back on February 14th (happy Valentines Day!) which was also my last blog post.  The expression team partnered with us to be the first product to use our new platform and thus we had our original set of forums hosted on http://forums.expression.microsoft.com we also have 3 other brands we support, one for developers http://forums.msdn.microsoft.com  one for IT Pros http://forums.technet.microsoft.com and a generic Microsoft branded site for everything else http://forums.community.microsoft.com

Then about a month later we release what we called our 3.1 release with some performance improvements and some new features that were driven from customer feedback in our suggestions forum.  My favorite was adding the new "UnRead" filter and the new Telerik Editor upgrade (the editor you see when posting or replying).

From day 1 our plan of course was to migrate all the existing forums from our old system over and that's what our main focus of this release was.  We want to eventually shut down the old forums site.  We have been targetting TechEd as a time to start our migration and plan to have many forums migrated by next week.  Of course we also wanted to get some new features out there which were driven again by suggestions/feedback we've had over the past few months.  So if you provided any feedback a big thank you, without that we'd have nothing to do, my job would be boring I'm sure.  Well we also have a lot of feedback we haven't had time to implement yet but hopefully we'll get to those in the next couple of months.

Here's the list off the top of my head that's included in this release, I've also added a few tips on things you probably won't discover on your own!

Forums migration

As I mentioned our top priority is migrating forums from our older system (http://forums.microsoft.com/msdn) This involves a good amount of scripting to convert the data over.  We've also had to create a new release for our old system that would redirect links of migrated threads and forums to their new home since we didn't want to break anyone's bookmarks.  You will get a redirect message telling you it's been moved and then redirecting you after a couple of seconds.  We'll start migrating several forums over this week and do them in batches.

Internal Tools

This isn't as interesting to our external customers but we've made some great improvements to our internal tools we use to manage the forums like ability to order categories and forums, bulk permission assignments for forums, easier categorization etc...

Thread Preview

Personally this is my favorite forums feature that I haven't seen any other forums site do.  You can see the thread from the thread list without going into the thread which really speeds up looking at threads in a forum, especially for moderators or other heavy forum users.  We've made several improvements here.

  1. New expand/collapse icon that changes as you hover over it to the left of the thread title for better discoverability (we use to have a link that said "(preview)" which was hard to find).  We've also made the whole title area "hot" so you can click anywhere to expand/collapse the preview.  As you move around the hot area, you'll see the expand icon change to signifiy you're in the hot area. 
  2. Added a "close" link at the bottom of the preview.  We had several requests for this, most people found themselves scrolling down to read but then had to scroll back up to close it.
  3. Added a "Show next 20" link that brings in the next 20 posts.  Our old preview only showed the first 20 posts, you then had to go into the thread to see all the posts.  Now you can keep bringing in the next 20.  We also added a link to the thread at the bottom of the preview to go into it.

We're going to keep working on thread preview in our next release and have the ability to reply from here as well so you don't have to drill into the thread to do that.  We're also looking at adding a hierarchical view of the posts so you can see which replies were to which posts.

Forums Search

Our first release only had the ability to search "All forums" now we've also added the ability to narrow the search to the forum you are in, or a category of forums.  We've also added the forum name in the search result so you know which forum it belongs to, in fact we added that to the tagged result list, "My Threads" list and "My Alerts" (Pretty much any thread list that isn't scoped to a single forum).

Category Announcements

We've added a new way for our admins to create announcements for a category of forums or for our brand home page.  This allows the teams that manage those sets of categories the ability to set system wide announcements.  Prior to this you could only add announcements at the forum level.

Tip #1:  Here's a handy tip, when you're on our root home page you may end up seeing a few dozen categories and hundreds of forums as we migrate more forums over.  You can click on a category to limit the results to the forums in that category which will result in a URL similar to: http://forums.msdn.microsoft.com/en-US/tag/officelivesmallbusiness/forums/ Notice the category name here is "Office Live Small Business" you can add more categories here by comma separating them and get a custom view of only the categories you want and then make that your home page, example: http://forums.msdn.microsoft.com/en-US/tag/officelivesmallbusiness,sqlserverdataservices/forums/ This would give you a view of the two categories "Office Live Small Business" and "Sql Server Data Services"

Email Alerts

We had more than one person mention they shouldn't get emailed about their own posts, ya that's kinda pointless!  So we fixed that.  We use MSN live alerts to send our emails and had to re-implement our code to do this.  The old way used a multi-cast solution, so when you signed up to get alerted on a thread we signed you up to that alert, when a thread change occurs we just told the live alert system to send a notification to that group. It was nice from our end since we didn't need to query for the list of users who needed an alert, but proved to have some other issues, like you can't exclude a user.  So we've changed this to use a Uni-Cast method, it's still a single call from us but they take in the list of users to get the notification and it's pretty easy to exclude the user who made the last update.  The other advantage to this is we can now send more info in the payload, the multi-cast solution had a limit on the size of email we could send and that's why we don't have a lot of data in the email alert.  Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to get more data into the alert but we will for our next release, so for now the emails won't have the full post when someone replies to a thread you're monitoring.  So my goal is to get as much data in the email so the user doesn't have to come back to the site unless they need to reply.

CDN (Content Delivery Network)

We did a bunch of code refactoring to take advantage of CDNs to help spread the load on our static resources to help with performance.  This should help greatly with our global customers.

Tip #2: We've added a few hot keys to speed things for power users.  Try ALT-N to start a new question when your in a forum or in a thread to bring up the start new thread editor.  When in the thread view hit ALT-R to reply to the root post of the thread.

Authentication Improvements

Our first release required the user to be signed in to enable any of the signed in options like "Reply" or "Start New Thread"  we've now enabled some of these to send you to the sign in page if you're not signed in, then bring you back to the action you clicked on. 

Assigned Threads

This new feature is internal only but it allows Microsoft employees to assign unanswered threads to other Microsoft employees to answer.  When they log in they will be able to see a list of threads that they should answer.  They also get an email when one is assigned to them.  This will help MSFT moderators get more help answering posts from internal folks.

Moderator Features

These are moderator only fixes we made but worth mentioning:

  • When a thread is deleted you now get redirected back to the forum you were in instead of the home page. 
  • After moving a thread you get redirected back to the forum you started in instead of staying on the moved thread.
  • Threads can't be deleted if they have answered posts.
  • Moderator Only forums now are restricted by brand/locale.  So if you're a moderator in an EN-US MSDN forum you won't be able to see moderator forums for other languages and brands.

Private Forums

We've create a new forum type that are only viewable if you belong to the users group for that forum. 

Other Stuff

A few more features\fixes we've made are: Recent users list is now scoped to the brand and locale that you are in, we've added more post history when a post is marked/unmarked as a proposed answer, increased the default font size on our posts.  We also fixed dozens of other bugs that I don't have time to mention here.

What's next? Well I mentioned a few things above that we're working on next, but we'll be focussing mostly on DB scaling and performance for the next month to ensure we perform well as we migrate all the forums over from our old system.  Some new features we're looking at for our next release include, private messages, user badge, mobile support, new "Browse Users" page, persisting thread filters, multi-forum thread list.

I hope you enjoy the new features!

thanks,

Sam 

PS:  Are you a Rock Solid Web Developer looking to work on cool stuff like this with the latest greatest .Net Technologies? Send us your resume at: stojobs@microsoft.com, say "Sam sent me" in the title.