Kwolla; shows promise but lacks professionalism.

Over the years I’ve seen several social network scripts and applications pop up, dolphin, socialengine, buddypress and so forth. I’ve worked with SocialEngine on two major occasions (2.8 and 4.1.2), and still determined it to be a very temperamental piece of software that suffers far worse under the hood than an uncached copy of wordpress. I’ve already went thru the painstaking process of making a script like SocialeEngine work rather decently with a fast Nginx server configuration. So naturally any time I see a social networking script pop up that wasn’t specifically built for a website, I consider it bloatware.

I originally learned of Kwolla earlier this month from a friend noticing it on reddit. As of March 4th 2011 according to his development blog was made free as part of a promotional effort. Kwolla originally came out in January 2011 for a price of 149 USD, and was dropped to 49 USD until it was eventually made free less than a month later.

Product Website

I first visited roughly around the 5th, shortly after the free promotional announcement. The website was clean, somewhat easy to understand but lacked specific information I was seeking, namely server requirements.

The main site has plenty of features listed, themes, modules, video capability, translations and so forth. However there is no wiki, forum, and the knowledge base is empty. No mentions on the website on what server, php, mysql versions are required. However there is a “free” compatibility download to test your hosting.

Customer support area at the time was a contact form. It is now something of a discussion panel, with no current discussions and an empty knowledge based hosted on TenderApp.

Because there’s no technical specification listed on the main website, you either have to click on a host that Kwolla works with (half of which are affiliate links… can you blame him?) or you have to download the Kwolla Compatibility check.

Checking Compatibility

When you download the kwolla-compatibility package which is available as a “Free Download”, and unzip it, you’ll notice approximately 21 files, with only one that really matters (the rest are graphics such as suggested host logos).

Now if you don’t have MySQLi extension for PHP installed… you’ll likely never know as the compatibility crashes to a blank page during the check due to lack of the MySQLi extension. While it checks for the existance of various functions, it just uses MySQLi functionality blindly which of course won’t be handled properly if you don’t have that extension installed.

I noticed that it said my Apache version was of the ‘right version’. Problem is I don’t use the Apache webserver at all, and it checks by means of the apache_get_version() function. If the function doesn’t exist then the compatibility check considers it valid. Likewise every other apache module passed as well since it uses apache_get_modules() function to test for the availability of such module. Like before, if the functions don’t exist, it considers the tests passed. However most potential customers are going to be using Apache, and will likely see a more realistic compatibility report.


When I originally tried Kwolla it was version 1.1.0, which based on the installation guide (another “free download”) was probably written with the idea that another developer would be installing it. There was command line instructions for setting up a MySQL database, and importing the provided kwolla.sql file. This was later changed to screenshots of Cpanel with phpMyAdmin for Kwolla 1.1.1. (Should note, due to using MySQL 5.5, I had to change every instance of TYPE= to ENGINE= in the sql file in order to get it to import correctly)

Originally you had to upload the 1.1.0 framework, and set the virtualhost to point to the httpdocs folder while the rest of the application logic was above the web-accessible location. In 1.1.1 this was changed to where the upload folder was the root of the application, with a sole index.php in the root. This of course would be friendlier to your typical end users. I noticed the user guide for 1.1.1 was changed to state that other webservers were untested after my initial query with the developer regarding Nginx, and that some requirements were updated in the install guide, but still missing on the main website.

The installation guide also instructs you to assign all files to a permission of 755, particularly the shell scripts provided for cron jobs. However doing so is incredibly insecure especially when you consider social networking allows for uploads of files that could potentially be processed by the server.

Needless to say installation wasn’t too bad for me, since I’m used to working with the command line interface, and handling sql dumps as well as configuring virtual hosts from a text file. My only real obstacle was converting the .htaccess to something that would work within Nginx, as such this is the converted configuration I came up with:

server {
       access_log off;
       listen 80;
       error_log /var/log/nginx/kwolla.error.log;
       root /usr/local/www/;
       location ~ ^.*.svn/* {
               rewrite ^ / last;
       location / {
               try_files $uri $uri/ @rewrites;
       location @rewrites {
               rewrite ^/profile/(.*)/(status|friends|comments) /index.php?u=profile/$2/$1&$query_string last;
               rewrite ^/profile/(.*) /index.php?u=profile/view/$1&$query_string last;
               rewrite ^ /index.php?u=$request_uri? last;
       include drop.conf;
       include php.conf;

It is far from perfect, but it has been working thus far. Except in a few instances where links were hard coded as relative paths, or direct to index.php such as placing comments on other members profiles.


Initially I had just a blank screen, since I had left out the mysqli extension on this particular jailed installation, and support didn’t help too much other than stating that there was a secondary log file for debugging. But also making emphasis that only apache was supported at this time (though will be providing compatibility with nginx, lighttpd and others soon). Once I was able to identify the error as a missing mysqli extension I was able to move on with the installation.

Once the script was installed (correctly), I was presented with an empty community. As the installation guide suggests you should go ahead and create your profile first. So in my line of thinking, I was assuming that either the site is controlled by the primary participant, or controlled by whatever member shares the same email address as the owner in the configuration file.

Needless to say there really is no control other than for your own profile. On version 1.1.1 every member that signs up appears to have the same ability as yourself. While functions like comments, sending private message, uploading photographs or videos appeared to work fine, you essentially had no ‘command central’ so to speak.

So I shot off an email with a few questions and suggestions, namely:

  • MySQL 5.5 note
  • Nginx configuration (0.8.x-0.9.x)
  • The Curious Missing Admin panel

On march 6th I received the following response;

Hi Karl,
The install script will work with MySQL 5.1, it's what I'm running.
You're right, TYPE has been replaced with ENGINE, but 99% of all users
will be using MySQL 5.0 or 5.1 because it's what comes with a shared
hosting account or whats by default in most major Linux distributions.
Thank you for the nginx information and configuration.
>> Though I'm a tad confused... where's the administrator panel, 
>> or area to set member's permissions on the site?
There isn't one. It will be available in version 2.0.

Not exactly pleasant about the lack of an administrative control panel. Since its one feature I would consider especially important for any kind of ‘social networking’, especially if you have spam accounts, or disruptive members. What is an end user to do but figure out how to remove or change such a profile via the MySQL database and files? For something that was once sold for $149, the lack of administrative control seemed like a deal breaker to me.

Kwolla 2.0 Pre-Sale

Earlier yesterday I received a promotional email that the next version 1.2.0 was going to become 2.0, and it would be available at a $359.95 Savings. Essentially the savings are from:

  • $110 discount off the normal $249 Kwolla 2.0 Pricing
  • Free 2 hour premium support, which is valued at $200
  • Free installation of Kwolla 1.1.x valued at $49 (yes same one I mentioned above)

The fact that Kwolla 2.0 will have an admin panel and web-based installer is particularly nice, however the admin panel is something I feel that should have been included since 1.0.

Now being the facetious type of person I am I shot back a remark regarding the lack of a administrative panel, particularly at the $249 pricing which happens to be the same price as SocialEngine.

When you can get back to me about some of the most basic features like an
admin panel, and so forth, then I'll consider Kwolla even worth close to
that of pricing.

Mind you while SocialEngine is more complicated, and I do not really care for it, most of the features like ‘photo albums’, music, videos, so forth are ‘extras’ on top of SE’s $249 pricing. So in that sense Kwolla did have a competitive advantage. However as much as I loathe SocialEngine (clients use them, I do not), I would not have expected the following reply from them in the same circumstances.

Kwolla 2.0 will have an admin panel. I prefer you never use my
software or contact me about it again. Please use Social Engine, Elgg,
Dolphin, or any of the other pieces of social network software out

The software itself shows plenty of promise. And the free version 1.1.1 can be a great starting point for any developer wishing to develop a custom social networking site, assuming they downloaded it during the promotional period. However such a response carries a heavy reflection on what you might expect from customer support down the road if you are dissatisfied with the product. Granted I did receive the product for free, and I was better equipped at trouble shooting issues myself, such responses are all too common of signs of things to come.

Can you imagine what a typical end user would do if faced with a blank screen due to older software? There goes the 2 hour premium support over such a simple issue. Also I hope for his customer’s sake that when 2.0 is available the migration from 1.1.1 will be quite painless, and that he doesn’t receive plenty of emails asking where the admin panel is prior to 2.0’s release.

It’s a shame too, because I know plenty of clients who would like to escape from scripts like SocialEngine and others.

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