Virtual Private Server and Other Distractions

Posted on August 15, 2010

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There goes the consistent posting habit. At least a couple of weeks isn’t as bad as it has been before and there have been a number of reasons for not writing a blog post until now.

Virtual Private Servers and Cakes

As some of you may know by now I’ve been working on a new website for my parents’ business, a small cake making and decorating business in North Wales. The main focus of the website is to showcase the different cakes that have been made. However, as more cakes are always being made, the gallery sections of the site need to be updated fairly often. As nice a son as I am I would rather be doing more productive things with my time so I decided to find a better solution.

A full blown CMS would have been overkill for simply adding photos and descriptions and would have, based on previous experience, made the site unacceptably slow with their free host. Therefore I decided upon a PHP solution that would access Flickr where the photos could be uploaded with titles, descriptions, tags, etc with ease. Once it was all up and working on my test area it had been agreed upon I transferred it to their host and…it didn’t work.

As a free host Zymic are more strict about security and have disabled a number of functions that access external websites. Now obviously I should have checked this before creating the whole site but I naively assumed there wouldn’t be a problem, forgetting that one PHP installation can differ a great deal from another. The problem was that the PHPFlickr class I was using needed the PHP method fsockopen() to connect to the Flickr API. This was a problem.

Furthermore I had told them the site was ready and would be online shortly and, although unforeseen, I didn’t particularly want to start from scratch with a new solution or to delay the site launch any longer than absolutely necessary.

Before all of this happened  I had been considering what would happen when I left university and no longer have access to the online web space that I used as my testing ground. This was in addition to my ongoing concerns regarding this blog and the restrictions of hosting it on wordpress.com. A paid webhost was beginning to seem more and more of a necessity. Through research and some canvassing of friends on Twitter it became apparent that a Virtual Private Server (VPS) would provide hosting for a number of websites (restricted only by the server specification and traffic received) and provide a learning experience that would serve me well if I was to continue with web development. A VPS would also allow me to play around with Python, Ruby or anything else that may take my fancy in the future whereas shared web hosting normally has restrictions on what is or can be installed.

Again following recommendations I signed up for RackVM.com hosting and began the steep(ish) learning curve to going from a freshly installed server to a web hosting server. Installing Webmin control panel, Apache and ProFTPD was simple enough with some Googling, as was setting up users and groups for various purposes. After being briefly sidetracked trying to set up and run a DNS Server that ultimately ended in failure, I settled for using the name servers provided by RackVM and using the simpler ‘A records’ and virtual hosts to run the separate sites.

This and NAS

One distraction down. Even though it was a fairly large one, that I may go into more detail about another time, it wasn’t really enough to prevent me writing a blog post for quite so long. A simpler distraction was the purchase of a new NAS hard drive (Network Attached Storage). This was my first foray into NASes but with the recent PS3 purchase I was having to move my external hard drive between an ever increasing number of devices to share music and videos.

In what I think may be the first, and probably only, time that a marketing email has worked I finally decided to buy a NAS when Dabs sent their weekly offer email. In it was a Lacie Network Space 2 for £95 along with a voucher code for £10 off when spending over £100. As I needed a few USB cables anyway this meant I could buy the NAS and cables for £90 (and a few pence).

Upon arrival I’m glad to say it was easier to setup than the VPS and has been happily streaming the music and video collections of myself and my girlfriend to the various devices in the flat ever since. Still, a small distraction that meant I could now watch things on my TV easier, therefore causing a longer distraction.

And Finally…

To round off the distractions has been a number of other web development tasks. After creating a PHP class to access photos from Flickr sets before outputting HTML that works with the Galleriffic JQuery plugin I decided I should tidy it up, add a few more features and release it. As is often the case I have been quite ambitious with what I want to add and it’s still a while away from being ready for release because of the final distraction…

The final hindrance to blogging has been the 10k Apart competition from An Event Apart. With a deadline of 25th August I decided to put most of my other activities on hold to try and ensure my entry would be ready. The idea of the competition is to create a webapp with just HTML5, Javascript and CSS (so no server-side code). Furthermore, the total size of all the files has to be less than 10kb. There are some great apps on the site already and I doubt I can compete with them but the fun is in the challenge so I definitely want to get an entry finished. The app I’m creating will be some kind of Twitter/Flickr mashup although I’m still working out the final functionality details.

An Update

As is often the case I wrote this blog post in the early hours of the morning and I decided that it would be best to try and proofread the post before publishing it. Procrastination and coding the 10k Apart entry took over and it’s now been a few more days. The entry is finished but I will refrain from posting a link just yet until it is on the 10k Apart site. I’ve also had another idea for an entry but with the deadline being even closer I’ll have to get a move on.

I’ll leave you now with my favourite entry so far: Bytes of the Living Dead by Jason Fry. A Night of the Living Dead inspired game that fits the 10kb limit and is more addictive than many of the more complicated flash games available online.

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