Recently, I found a hidden gem; fab-manager. I was looking for a solution to manage machine reservations for customers. Possible alternatives are: writing a custom Google Forms application, using other generic resource management system, or — drum roll — Excel. I do not like any of them, and accidentally found fab-manager. It looked great, and it actually is. If you are a makerspace with unique subscription models, or need tight integration with other systems, you might better wait for a while. But if you are flexible, fab-manager is a great candidate.
Here is my review — or my feature requests. I hope my review does not sound like rants.
It is a rails application for makerspaces. You can manage users, machines, reservations, subscriptions, and training classes. The official website explains better than my poor English does. As they have a live demo, give it a try. If you are running a makerspace, you will quickly understand what it does and why you need it.
The documentation is sparse
This is the first issue I encountered.
The official user guide is a PDF file, written in French. If you don’t speak French, you have to cross your fingers and hope Google Translate does a good job. The PDF is not generated from code or files in the repository. That means it is possible that the file is out-of-date. I don’t understand French, but noticed some screen captures in the file are not the latest.
Managing items like machines, users and other simple settings is not very difficult. They are very similar to ones in other systems. However, settings related to business logics, such as payment, subscriptions, and pricing, are very complicated and, quite possibly, they might cause serious troubles if you don’t understand correctly.
Each management UI has feature tour, which navigates you to each UI component and tabs in the page. It is helpful for beginners to learn general ideas.
The most difficult part was pricing and subscriptions. The system assumes a business logic, probably a common sales strategy. I cannot find what their assumption is. After a few hours of trial-and-error, I, kind of, was able to guess how they implemented pricing, subscriptions, groups, and tags. If you have a different strategy, it is not possible in the current system.
Created subscriptions are shown to users, but it is not clear that what users will get from the subscription. Usually, a subscription offers cheaper rate for reserving machines, and free trainings, but the system shows just subscription name, and expiration date. You can add a text to a subscription, but it is a fixed explanation, meaning, it will not reflect changes when you change the subscription settings. It is possible to attach a file to a subscription, but, of course, the file will not reflect changes.
It would be nice to have English documentation.
It would be nice if each form fields has a clickable tool-chip help button so that help texts have more details and explanations, and do not overwhelm UI.
It would be nice to have a knowledge base article to explain how to implement a sales strategy.
It would be nice to have the official knowledge base so that users can jump to a knowledge base article of the current UI.
It would be nice to show subscription details with rates, the amount of discount, and other benefits. A comparison table would be nice, too.
At the moment, OAuth2 authentication support is limited. It is all or nothing. The default authentication uses the database. If you enable OAuth2, you cannot use the default authentication in addition to OAuth2. It was a surprise that, when I tested OAuth2, my administration account, the one created during the initial installation, was disabled, and I could not manage the system because the account was in the disabled database. You can configure OAuth2 from the web UI, but CLI access is required to actually switch. You are out of luck if you want to support multiple OAuth2 providers.
It would nice to have an wizard to setup OAuth2 for common OAuth2 providers, such as GitHub and Google.
It would be nice to support multiple OAuth2 providers.
Registration process asks too much private information
The sign-up form asks 11 questions, including nine required fields. It asks “Sex”, “Birthday”, and a cryptic checkbox, “I am an organization”. Optional fields include “Phone” and “Address”. You can make them required or optional field, but you cannot remove the fields.
The current trend in sign-up process is that, ask fewer questions. If some fields are necessary, such as real name, ask the user to add the field after registration is completed, saying “To use this and that, you need to register your real name”. I hope the developers to follow the trend. All I want is an easier sign-up process, and let them explore what they can do with the system.
Almost everywhere, you have to click a Save button whenever you change a setting. If you forget to do so, and move to another management module, your change will be lost without a warning. There is no Save changes.
It would be nice to have a “Save changes” to save all the changes you have made.
It would be nice if the system ask “you have unsaved changes, do you want save them? Otherwise, your changes will be lost”.
Slot management needs improvements
Trainings and machines are managed by slot. A slot is a duration of time, such as one hour, and assigned to machines or trainings. Users choose slots of machines or trainings they want to reserve. You need to create slots for machines and trainings. That means users cannot reserve a specific slot if the slot does not exist. You may create a training at 13:00, but what if it is not convenient time for users? Users cannot ask a reservation at different time or date. For that, you need to create all the possible slots for each machine or training. Creating slots is not a great user experience, requiring many clicks.
You can create recurring slots, slots assigned to dates at specific interval, say, “once in a week”, or “once in a month, but no “everyday”, “every weekends”, or “every Monday”.
You can create tags. Tags are, probably (I can only guess), designed for a proof of clearance. Tags are assigned to users and machines (actually slots of machines) so that you can require users to achieve a tag before using a machine. Say, “you need to take a safety training before reserving and using 3D printer”, which is a very common criteria. The tags tab in “Users Management” does not explain anything. When a user does not have a required tag to reserve a machine, the slots in the calender are simply hidden. There is no way to know why 3D printer is not shown, what requirements users should have, and how to achieve the requirements.
Hopefully, slot management will improve in the future as it is one of the planned features.
Single language in i18n
The system supports i18n, but you can choose only one language. Users cannot choose their languages.
It would be nice if the system supports multiple languages at the same time. Of course, you would have to manage all your own texts in multiple languages. That would be a lot of efforts, but with default fallback language, it would be possible.
Even as a amateur programmer, I am scary when I see a huge commit with a line of commit log without tests. Thousand lines of code need detailed commit log, and tests. In the repository, I could not find automated tests other than a vulnerability scanning.
As an administrator, I hope the user experiences will improve. I can only imagine how hard to improve the system, and how complicated the business logics in the system are. Time will tell.
Current limitations, or features, probably come from their marketing strategy. It seems like the majority of their customers are a makerspace at a university. They probably don’t need registration, or paid subscriptions. They need Active Directory support than OAuth2. Just my guess.
If you are thinking about hosting the system on premises, think carefully. The development is active, and they do not support skipping releases. You have to follow every release and update your installation. Is that worth the effort? I deployed my instance on AWS because I had been a system administrator for a long time, I know how to make it easier, and I need my local patches to the code. If you are new to Unix, or don’t know system administration, you should choose one of the cloud offerings. The cost of AWS EC2 instance is not very cheaper than their price. If you are still interested in self-hosting, my ansible fole, trombik.fab_manager, may help. My deployment project is also available at trombik/ansible-project-fab.
Fab-manager is a great system for makerspaces. I do appreciate their decision to make it open-source for a very niche market. The system implements common business requirements, such as machine reservation, training course, pricing, and subscription. I researched on alternatives before finding fab-manager, but none is practical. I don’t want to manage reservations in Excel sheets. Without doubt, fab-manager is the way to go.