Bridge solutions

Many of us have found ourselves in this position. Your business or group make use of an online system, such as a forum, wiki, blog etc., which you then wish to augment or combine with some other system. How you go about doing that, of course, depends entirely on your goals and the systems you’re trying to use together. Design and styling are usually the least of those worries.

The problem which consistently presents itself when attempting such a combination is what to do with the userbase. Whilst this issue can sometimes be simply ignored, in the hope that only a small number of the users of one system will need access to the second, this isn’t always the case. When it comes to one userbase requiring access to two or more systems, the first question that needs to be answered is whether the user information should be shared, enabling a unified login procedure amongst other benefits. Requiring users to sign up to various different pieces of the puzzle is a time-consuming process, and one that many will find confusing and unnecessary. And since different online systems often have conflicting requirements when it comes to usernames and passwords, for example, this can also lead to more lost password checks and work for the system administrator. However, programming such functionality oneself certainly isn’t within the realms of the abilities of all of us, and keeping such modifications functioning across various systems and versions can be a painful procedure.

Fortunately, in certain instances such functionality may well be freely available, usually in the form of third-party hacks or bridges, as they are often known. ((Take this list of WordPress/forum bridges as an example.)) Installing such addons is, in comparison to a home grown solution, much easier, safer and reliable. But reliance on a third piece of software does not guarantee that all of the features required will be available, and it also presents its own set of security issues. Aside from the software hiding its own potential security pitfalls, it can also lead to services being inoperable after an upgrade, if it isn’t kept regularly up-to-date with the latest versions of the systems it is meant to bridge, and in so doing advocates running outdated software.

This post provides no answers or alternatives. In fact, I’m not even sure if what I’m proposing is already available, or otherwise feasible or not. The news on the OpenTTD project website was the first to jog my mind about this, wondering exactly how they had solved their problems, and whether or there might be a simpler, more user-friendly option. Essentially, my idea would be for a new open source project, to offer a simple solution to the issue of shared user details across a variety of different online systems, be they forums, wikis, blogs, bugtrackers, etc. Beyond handling simple login information, the system could be used by administrators for handling various user-related issues, such as assigning general rights and permissions, handling groups, cookies, password requirements, user info and so on, but the basic benefit would be a central one-key-fits-all solution for unifying user accounts across a variety of different systems.

Does such a system already exist somewhere, one that is user-friendly, free-to-use, and supporting a wide variety of platforms? If not, would such a system even be feasible, given the different requirements and standards of the different systems, and the various issues of security and privacy involved?