Manager's Blog: BioPortal Virtual Appliance News

Virtual Appliance Release 2.5 Announced

Special News: Some Important Changes In The Appliance

I'm announcing this Virtual Appliance Release through a blog post because, well, we are behind in updating our formal release announcements. So we'll do a proper release document a bit later, but for now, I want to share some important news about the new Virtual Appliance.

The new Appliance is long overdue (2 years?! we do apologize, and while we wanted to get just a few more things into the software, it was past time to let you have it. It contains a lot of software improvements and updates, including new UI layouts, new branding to OntoPortal (because not every ontology is about bio!), and new API capabilities. And it also has quite a lot of bug fixes, as you might expect from following our logs.

Perhaps equally exciting, we hope to be able to make most future changes to upgrade your Virtual Appliance in place, without having to reload all your ontologies. We are still working out all the details but that's our goal, starting with upgrades to this release.

In short, the Virtual Appliance gets you up-to-date with respect to BioPortal software. 

This V.A. Phones Home

There's another feature about the Virtual Appliance that you'll want to know about. We've added the capability in the deployed system to check back with our servers at Stanford to see if there is an update to the Virtual Appliance, and notify the administrator if an update exists.

To do this, the remote Appliance sends its release number and IP address to the Stanford server, which can see whether the remote Appliance's release number is current. If not, the Stanford server returns a message indicating the current release number, which can be displayed at the remote Appliance. 

We wanted to be minimal with this first "call home" feature, because we know there are sensitivities about some VA deployments. So we don't collect any other information, and you have the ability to disable this feature if you want. And if your system is *really* behind a firewall, the call home won't make it anyway. So we think everyone is going to be safe and OK with this capability.

Why Did We Do This?

FIrst, so you can know if the Appliance needs updating. (And in time, we hope to add the ability for some updates to happen much more easily, rather than a complete install. More on that later.) 

But aside from that, we really hope you won't disable it, and you'll let it phone home for another reason. Because to be honest, we're having trouble convincing funders that what we do deserves funds. And while we know over a hundred people have requested the Virtual Appliance, and many of them are still using it, we have no idea how many, and can't make the argument that we are providing value to the scientific community.  (Yes, we have tried surveys, but we did not get a representative response.)

In time, for those of you willing to share information with us, we hope to collect information about your appliance that you are comfortable sharing. Yes, of course to help us justify our work, and also to let us build better software to meet your users' needs. Because we have no idea whether your Appliance is being used often and heavily, or hardly at all, and we don't know which features are most useful. 

What Next?

For you, please use this new Release, tell us what you like and don't like (ideally via the support list, where we will also respond to any issues you have). You can also enter issues directly into our GitHub repositories, as well as make pull requests to them if that's your thing.

For us, we have a lot of documentation to catch up on, and we expect to continue adding features and fixes to BioPortal and the Virtual Appliance. (This time with more frequent releases.)  If you want to be a part of the project, with technical or monetary contributions, we will be very happy to have you as part of our extended BioPortal team.