Adventures in Upgrading: Plugins

I'm blogging through the upgrade process to MT 4.2. You'll be forgiven if you forgot I was doing that since my last post on it was 2 1/2 weeks ago. Someday I might get to the actual upgrade. :-P

One of the questions anyone reading this series (Heh, like someone is going to read this :-D) might wonder is why haven't I upgraded to MT4.x until now? After all, MT 4.0 was officially released over a year ago, MT 4.1 came along back in January and MT 4.2 has been in it's own beta for several months as well. So why haven't I until now?

One word - plugins.

I mentioned in my first Adventures in Upgrading post, Getting Ready, that I thought dealing with plugins was "the Achilles heel of the upgrade process". Many simple plugins haven't changed for years and should work fine on 4.21, but the more complicated and the more integrated into MT, the more likely it is that a plugin will break when upgrading. I use a few like that, three of which are crucial to the function of my blogs, Photogallery, which powers my photo gallery blog, MT Notifier which manages the email notifications and RightFields which I use for uploading my images and automatically adding them to my posts. It turned out that two of these plugins (MT Notifier was upgraded pretty quickly) would tie my hands and prevent my upgrading.

Lots of other software use plugins, they are a great way to extend the functionality of the software by tapping into the expertise, and enthusiasm, of the community. Researching the status of your plugins is part of any upgrade, and any one, in my case two, can put a roadblock in your upgrade path. The irony in my case was that Six Apart played a role, perhaps indirectly, in each situation.

The big one was RightFields. RightFields was a slick plugin that allowed you to add extra data fields to your entries and had some of the best documentation I'd seen, sorely lacking in some plugins.. To make the long story short, after MT4 was released, myself and other RightFields users began asking when an upgrade might happen. "Soon" was the answer we got from Kevin Shay, the developer, and later by Apperceptive, his employer who had evidently taken over responsibility for RightFields. Then, when MT 4.1 was announced in January, it came with the news that Six Apart had bought and integrated a competing plugin, Arvind's Custom Fields (then only if you bought the Pro Pack, now available to all). Even though that sort of made RightFields redundant, we were assured that an upgrade was still coming. Shortly after that, Apperceptive was bought by Six Apart, who also insisted that an upgrade path for RightFields users to Custom Fields would be provided. Ultimately, no upgrade came and no Six Apart solution for converting to Custom Fields was provided that I'm aware of, though I suppose they may have helped out with the solution that did emerge. [See update below]

So, what happened? In May, Chad Everett of Everitz Consulting released a plugin for converting RightFields data to Custom Fields data. He originally created it back in December 2007, but the first version couldn't handle data in a custom SQL table, as was the recommended method for RightFields and how my data was stored. The new version released in May overcame that limitation, finally providing me (and others) an upgrade path. MT 4.2 was in development by then, so I decided to wait for its release. I will still have a pretty significant amount of work because Custom Fields and RightFields work differently and the template language to place the images in posts is different, but at least I have an upgrade path.

The frustrating thing is that Six Apart played a direct role in this road block. As I've said, issues with plugins are expected, but you don't expect the developer itself to create a hindrance to an upgrade. Their buying Custom Fields and then Apperceptive had a direct impact, I believe, on RightFields not getting updated. Perhaps the ramifications were considered and thought through on their part, but from the outside, it seemed that the fallout was considered only after the fact. In the end, a member of the community not affiliated with Six Apart, RightFields or Apperceptive ended up bailing out those who were stuck. I could understand if this had been an obscure plugin, but RightFields has been around a long time (longer, I think, than Custom Fields) and was used by many. Even members of the MT ProNet, folks who make their living implementing MT, were left trying to explain to their clients that they couldn't move to MT4 because of this issue. I wonder if any lost clients over this.

Ultimately, I think MT is better for having Custom Fields integrated, ironically, because it avoids the very drama that I experienced in the future. However, these kind of situations need to be better planned out in the future.

The other problematic plugin was Photo Gallery. Photo Gallery is a plugin implementation of Doug Bowman's slick gallery templates for Movable Type by the MT project manager at Six Apart, Byrne Reese. Photogallery takes all the required plugins (there are many), the complex templates and the mind boggling CSS and adds a one-at-a-time upload mechanism. Without an upgrade, I wasn't sure what my gallery would look like. The gallery isn't a big part of the site (obviously since I've never provided a link to it here), but I've got some 1,300 photos in there of cars from various shows and other things that I'd hate to botch up in an upgrade. So I waited. Finally, in February, Byrne released a version of Photo Gallery for MT 4.1. This converts all the photos to MT assets and updates the galleries to MT 4.x. It's still, I believe, considered beta (or maybe even alpha) software, and it hasn't really been tested (that I know of) with MT 4.21, but I'm tired of waiting so I'm going to give it a shot and see what happens.

This isn't really Six Apart's responsibility. They can't be expected be responsible for what their employees do outside of work,even if it is related to MT. In fact, it's an asset to the community that they have such an enthusiasm for the product that they'd develop plugins for it on their own time. Based on some recent dialog on the ProNet, Six Apart recognizes this and does provide some 'company time' for personal plugin development. However, when I as a user go looking at plugins and I see some that have been developed by Six Apart employees, the very folks who work on MT everyday, my expectations for that plugin are going to be higher. I think that Six Apart ought to have high standards for their employees who make plugins too. Each plugin ought to have a home page on their website, there ought to be clear communication on the plugin's status (what version it works with, version number, if it's alpha, beta or production at the least) and support inquiries ought to be answered in a timely manner, even if it's to say "Sorry, can't help now". My experience with plugins made by Byrne and another Six Apart employee, frankly, has been the opposite. Documentation is lacking and support is hard to come by.

In an ideal world, the standard would be even higher with complete documentation and full testing. But I understand that personally developed plugins will not be built to the same rigor that Six Apart would do in house. I understand that personal resources are limited and choices must be made as to where to spend their time, but in the least good communication on the status of their plugins and timely replies to support inquiries would be extremely helpful. Six Apart employees should be setting the bar high in this regard, not low.

My hope is that sharing my frustrations will help upgrades involving plugins by Six Apart and it's employees go more smoothly in the future. For those reading this for advice with their own upgrade, be aware that if you use any more sophisticated plugins, you will most likely have issues. Hopefully they'll be minor, but don't attempt an upgrade until you know what you're in for.

Next step - time to pull the trigger and actually move to MT 4.21.

Update: I had forgotten this from the MT Wiki detailing a proposed expansion by Six Apart on the solution by Chad (below). However, it was announced on the ProNet in June and the page hasn't been updated since July. They did put up a migration page in the official docs and they also came out with a plugin (still in development) for creating and converting Right Fields LinkedEntry fields to Custom Fields. So to imply that Six Apart has done nothing for Right Fields users is inaccurate.


Which version of MT are you using? It looks like your still using 4.1? I am interested in getting the Photo Gallery plugin to work with 4.1 because I have been unsuccessful with getting it working on 4.2.

There seems to be very little 4.x support for the plugin and am looking for someone I can ask a few questions...


I'm on 4.21, I skipped 4.0 & 4.1 (and 3.4.& 3.5 for that matter). Photogallery doesn't work well at all yet. My gallery hasn't been rebuilt since my 3.33 days. The upgrade script that Byrne has developed worked fine for him and some others, but myself and at least one other had some issues. It's supposed to convert your images to assets, but it botched nearly all the URLs on 1,300 images. Right now it's in limbo as Byrne has promised to work on it.

So, I can't tell you if it works on 4.1 well or not. I'd read the relevant posts on majordojo and give it a shot.

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  • I'm on 4.21, I skipped 4.0 & 4.1 (and 3.4.& 3.5 for that matter). Photogallery doesn't work well at all yet. My gallery hasn't been rebuilt since my 3.33 days. The upgrade script that Byrne has developed worked fine f...

  • Which version of MT are you using? It looks like your still using 4.1? I am interested in getting the Photo Gallery plugin to work with 4.1 because I have been unsuccessful with getting it working on 4.2. There seems ...