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Wikipedia's distinctive layout and styling is a direct result of MediaWiki, the software used to power it. MediaWiki is a free, open source wiki application that many web hosting companies offer on their plans. If you need to set up a wiki for a project, MediaWiki should be on your list of potential solutions.

What is MediaWiki?

MediaWiki was originally released specifically for Wikipedia in 2002, after the site had launched. The online encyclopaedia found that its original platform, UseModWiki, was slowing down as it scaled up, and it needed a better way to host the huge number of articles it held.

The third, stable version of the MediaWiki application took around a year to bring to the fore. The main developer was Magnus Manske, who switched from Perl to PHP and used MySQL as the backend database. The code was soon rewritten by Lee Daniel Crocker and released to the public in 2003.

Its foundations have stood it in good stead, since it was designed to handle massive amounts of content and huge visitor numbers. MediaWiki has essentially been tested by one of the busiest and most demanding sites on the planet, and it shows. Thousands of customers are confident in its abilities; it is used by the US government and WikiLeaks, to cite two very diverse clientele.

The software is free and open source. It is developed and patched by a large number of volunteers and a small team of development staff and continues to be updated and improved.

Use Cases

Aside from Wikipedia, MediaWiki has been used for other projects developed under the Wikimedia brand, including Wiktionary. It supports specialised content, such as mathematical formulae, hieroglyphs and media galleries, making it suitable for practically any purpose. Thousands of other users run their own wikis on the web, on internal intranets and in schools.

Permissions can be granted for users or groups, and users can automatically be added to a group when their behaviour fits a particular pattern. For example, a user that edits articles frequently could be promoted to a group with more rights than a casual editor. Admin users have ultimate permissions, including the ability to change the way the wiki software looks.

Editing Features

MediaWiki uses a particular type of markup, known as MediaWiki syntax. This is different to HTML code, yet follows similar conventions. It's designed to be easy to use for non-technical editors, and was designed specifically to be readable. Despite this, users will almost certainly need a cheat sheet to create formatting and insert images. There's also a toolbar that makes it much easier to quickly format text without typing the syntax by hand.

Links are the primary method of navigation, and MediaWiki automatically detects broken links so that users are prompted to fill in blanks and expand the content. Users can also put their topics into categories and sub pages, and there's a search box to find articles fast.

MediaWiki also has sophisticated tools that make it easier to control edits in real time. If two users go into a topic and edit it, MediaWiki recognises the potential clash and tries to combine the edits into one. The application audits edits and lets users review them and potentially reverse them. Users can flag particular topics as 'watched' to keep a close eye on edits performed by others.

Customising MediaWiki

Like many PHP applications and scripts, MediaWiki's flexibility is enhanced by its plugin library, which currently contains more than 2,000 different extensions. These extensions add new features, or change the functionality of the core application. Users can write their own.

MediaWiki also has hundreds of options in its settings pages, and has been translated into more than 300 languages. Its appearance can be controlled with CSS and scripting. All edits to the themes are carried out within the wiki software, although the permissions should be locked down to admin users only.

Note: in MediaWiki, templates do not refer to the appearance of the page layouts. Templates are snippets of content that can be planted into pages and automatically displayed.

Requirements

MediaWiki should cope with small and large databases alike, but it will be limited by the type of hosting account you have, should it begin to tax the server. You will need sufficient resources to cope with the traffic you're getting, and you may need to liaise with your host if you exceed reasonable limits.

To install the application, PHP is a must, as is MySQL compatibility. You'll need Apache or IIS on Windows, with MySQL, PostgreSQL or SQLite.

MediaWiki Frequently Asked Questions

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