A waiting game

Having been away every weekend in July, I was looking forward to a quiet one at home to start August. However, there was a problem with one of my websites hosted by Fasthosts that was set to occupy me for the weekend and a few weekday evenings afterwards.

The issue appeared to be slow site response so I followed advice given to me by second line support when this website displayed the same type of behaviour: upgrade from Apache 1.3 to 2.2 using the control panel. Unfortunately for me, that didn’t work smoothly at all and there seemed to be serious file loss as a result. Raising a ticket with the support desk only got me the answer that I had to wait for completion and I now have come to the conclusion that the migration process may have got stuck somewhere along the way. Maybe another ticket is in order.

There were a number of causes of the waiting that gave rise to the title of this post. Firstly, support for low costing isn’t exactly timely and I do wonder if it’s any better for more prominent websites. Restoration of websites by FTP is another activity that takes up plenty of time as does rebuilding databases and populating them with data. Lastly, there’s changing the DNS details for a website. In hindsight, there may be ways of reducing the time demands of these. For instance, contacting a support team by telephone may be quicker unless there is a massive queue awaiting attention and there was a wait of several hours one night when a security changeover affected a multitude of Fasthosts users. Of course, it is not a panacea at the best of times as we have known since all those stories began to do the rounds in the middle of the 1990’s. Doing regular backups would help the second though the ones that I was using for the restoration weren’t too bad at all. Nevertheless, they weren’t complete so there was unfinished business that required resolution later. The last of these is helped along by more regular PC restarts so that unexpected discovery will remain a lesson for the future though I don’t plan on moving websites around for a while. After all, getting DNS details propagated more quickly really is a big help.

While awaiting a response from Fasthosts, I began to ponder the idea of using an alternative provider. Perusal of the latest digital edition of .Net (I now subscribe to the non-paper edition so as to cut down on the clutter caused by having paper copies about the place) ensued before I decided to investigate the option of using Webfusion. Having decided to stick with shared hosting, I gave their Unlimited Linux option a go. For someone accustomed to monthly billing, it was unusual to see annual biannual and triannual payment schemes too. The first of these appears to be the default option so a little care and attention is needed if you want something else. In order to encourage you to stay with Webfusion longer, the per month is on sliding scale: the longer the period you buy, the lower the cost of a month’s hosting.

Once the account was set up, I added a database and set to the long process of uploading files from my local development site using FileZilla. Having got a MySQL backup from the Fasthosts site, I used the provided PHPMyAdmin interface to upload the data in pieces not exceeding the 8 MB file size limitation. It isn’t possible to connect remotely to the MySQL server using the likes of MySQL Administrator so I bear with this not so smooth process. SSH is another connection option that isn’t available but I never use it much on Fasthosts sites anyway. There were some questions to the support people along and the first of these got a timely answer though later ones took longer before I got an answer. Still, getting advice on the address of the test website was a big help while I was sorting out the DNS changeover.

Speaking of the latter, it took a little doing and not little poking around Webfusion’s FAQ’s before I made it happen. First, I tried using name servers that I found listed in one of the articles but this didn’t seem to achieve the end that I needed. Mind you, I would have seen the effects of this change a little earlier if I had rebooted my PC earlier than I did than I did but it didn’t occur to me at the time. In the end, I switched to using my domain provider’s name servers and added the required information to them to get things going. It was then that my website was back online in some fashion so I could any outstanding loose ends.

With the site essentially operating again, it was time to iron out the rough edges. The biggest of these was that MOD_REWRITE doesn’t seem to work the same on the Webfusion server like it does on the Fasthosts ones. This meant that I needed to use the SCRIPT_URI CGI variable instead of PATH_INFO in order to keep using clean URL’s for a PHP-powered photo gallery that I have. It took me a while to figure that out and I felt much better when I managed to get the results that I needed. However, I also took the chance to tidy up site addresses with redirections in my .htaccess file in an attempt to ensure that I lost no regular readers, something that I seem to have achieved with some success because one such visitor later commented on a new entry in the outdoors blog.

Once any remaining missing images were instated or references to them removed, it was then time to do a full backup for sake of safety. The first of these activities was yet another consumer while the second didn’t take so long and I need to do this more often in case anything happens. Hopefully though, the relocated site’s performance continues to be as solid as it is now.

The question as to what to do with the Fasthosts webspace remains outstanding. Currently, they are offering free upgrades to existing hosting packages so long as you commit for a year. After my recent experience, I cannot say that I’m so sure about doing that kind of thing. In fact, the observation leaves me wondering if instating that very extension was the cause of breaking my site. In fact, it appears that the migration from Apache 1.3 to 2.2 seems to have got stuck for whatever reason. Maybe another ticket should be raised but I am not decided on that yet. All in all, what happened to that Fasthosts website wasn’t the greatest of experiences but the service offered by Webfusion is rock solid thus far. While wondering if the service from Fasthosts wasn’t as good as it once was, I’ll keep an open mind and wait to see if my impressions change over time.

Are ten seconds enough?

Fasthosts, the hosting provider for what you find here has, in their wisdom, decided to limit the execution time for ASP scripts to 15 seconds and 10 seconds for any others. I haven’t used Perl sufficiently in this shared hosting set up to determine how that is affected. In contrast, I can share my experiences on the PHP side and you may have noticed occasional glitches. They have also disabled the set_time_limit PHP function so you cannot easily address the matter yourself where you need to do it. You almost get the feeling that they don’t trust the abilities, actions and oversight of their users. Personally, I reckon that the ten second limit is too short and that something of the order of 20 or 30 seconds would be better. If it all gets too restrictive, I suppose that there are other providers though I think that I would avoid resellers after a previous less than glorious experience. There’s the dedicated server option too if I was feeling flush, not so likely¬†given the economic times in which we live.

A bumpy ride

Yesterday, this blog got a bumpy ride from its hosting provider, Fasthosts. For several hours, it was down and there have been occasional errors returned since then. I’ll be keeping an eye on this but I hope that things stabilise sooner rather than later. There’s no question of moving things lock, stock and barrel at this time; patience is a very important virtue when it comes to these things…

A web development toolbox

Having been on a web building journey from Geocities to having a website with my own domain hosted by Fasthosts, I should come as no surprise that I have encountered a number of tools and technologies over this time and that my choices and knowledge have evolved too. I’ll muse over the technologies first before going on to the tools that I use.

Technologies

XHTML

When I started building websites, HTML 4 was not long in existence and I devoured most if not all of Elizabeth Castro’s Peachpit Visual Quickstart guide to the language in a weekend. Having previously used fairly primitive WYSIWYG tools like Netscape Composer and Claris Home Page, it was an empowering experience and the first edition (it’s now on its third) of Jennifer Niederst Robbins’ Web Design in a Nutshell took things much further, becoming something of a bible for a number of years.

When it first appeared, XHTML 1.0 wasn’t a major change from HTML 4 but its stricter more XML compliant syntax was meant to point the way to the future and semantic mark up was at its heart at least as much as it was for HTML 4. XHTML 2.0 is on the horizon and after the modular approach of XHTML 1.1 (which I have never used), it will be interesting to see how it develops. Nevertheless, there is a surprising development in that some people are musing over the idea of having an HTML 5. Let’s hope that the (X)HTML apple cart doesn’t get completely overturned after some years of relative stability. I still bear scars from the browser wars raging in the 1990’s and don’t want to see standards wars supplanting the relative peace that we have now. That said, I don’t mind peaceful progression.

CSS

Only seems to be coming into its own in the last few years and is truly an amazing technology in spite of the hobbles that MSIE places on our ambitions. CSS Zen Garden has been a major source of ideas; I wouldn’t have been able to customise this blog as much as I have without them. I was an early adopter of the technology and got burnt by inconsistent browser support; Netscape 4 was the proverbial bête noir back then, fulfilling the role that MSIE plays today. In those days, it was idea of controlling text display and element backgrounds from a single place that appealed. Since then, I have progressed to using CSS to replace table-based layouts and to control element positioning. It can do more…

JavaScript

Having had a JavaScript-powered photo gallery before my current Perl-driven one, I can say that I have definitely sampled this ever pervasive scripting language. Being a client side language rather than a server side one, it does place you rather at the mercy of the browser purveyors and it never ceases to amaze me that there is a buzz around AJAX because of this. In fact, the abundance of AJAX cross-browser function libraries is testimony to need for browser-specific code. Despite my preferences for server-side scripting, I still find a use for JavaScript and its main use for me these days is to dynamically control CSS elements to do such things as control the height of a page element or whether it is shown or not. Apparently, CSS may get some dynamic capabilities in the future and reduce my dependence on JavaScript. In the meantime, Jeremy Keith’s DOM Scripting (Friends of Ed) will prove as much of an asset as it has done.

XML

These days, a lot of the raw data underlying my personal website is stored in XML. I did try to dynamically transform the display of the XML into something meaningful with CSS and XSLT when I first scaled its dizzy heights but I soon resorted to other techniques. Browser support and the complexity of what I required were the major contributors to this. The new strategy involved two different approaches. The first was to create PHP/XHTML pages from the precursor XML off-line and this is how I generate the website’s directory pages. The other one is to process the XML as text to dynamically supply an XHTML page as the user visits it; this is the way that the photo gallery works.

Perl

This still powers all of my photo gallery. While thoughts of changing it all to PHP linger, there is a certain something about the Perl language that keeps it there. I suppose it is that PHP is entangled in the HTML while Perl encases the whole business and I am reasonably familiar with its syntax these days which is why it still does a lot of the data processing grunt work that I need.

PHP

PHP is everywhere these days, though it doesn’t attract quite the level of hype that used to be the case. It still appears with its sidekick MySQL in many website applications. Blogging software such as WordPress and content management systems like Drupal, Mambo and Joomla! wouldn’t exist without the pair. It appears on my website as the glue that holds my visitor directories together and is the processing engine of my WordPress blog. And if I ever get to a Drupal element to the site, by no means a foregone conclusion though I am spending a lot of time with it at the moment, PHP will continue its presence in my web site scripting as it powers that too.

Applications

Macromedia HomeSite

I have a liking for hand coding so this does most of what I need. When Macromedia (itself since taken over by Adobe, of course) took over Allaire, HomeSite sadly lost its WYSIWYG capability but the application still soldiers on even though Dreamweaver offers a lot to code cutters these days. Nevertheless, it does have certain advantages over Dreamweaver: it is a fleeter beast to start up and colour codes Perl syntax.

Macromedia Dreamweaver

There was a time when Dreamweaver was solely a tool for visual web page development but the advent of Dreamweaver UltraDev added server side development capabilities to the Dreamweaver family. These days, there is only one Dreamweaver version but UltraDev’s capabilities still live on in the latest version and I would not be surprised if they were taken further in these database-driven times.

Nowadays, Dreamweaver isn’t an application where I spend a great deal of time. In former times, when my site was made up of static HTML pages, I used Dreamweaver a lot even if its rendering capabilities were a step behind the then current browser versions. I suppose that it didn’t fit the way in which I worked but its template driven work flow would have been a boon back then.

However, my move from a static site to a dynamic one, starting with my photo gallery, has meant that I haven’t used it as much since then. However, with my use of PHP/MySQL components on my site. its server side abilities could get a the level of investigation that its PHP/MySQL capabilities allow.

Altova XMLSpy Professional

Adding MySQL databases to my web hosting costs money, not a lot but it could be spent on other (more important?) things. Hence, I use XML as the data store for my photo gallery and XML files are pre-processed into XHTML/PHP pages for my visitor directories prior to uploading onto the server.

I use XMLSpy to edit and manage the XML files that I use: its ability to view XML in grid format is killer feature as far as I am concerned and XML validation also proves very useful; particularly with regarding to ensuring that DTD’s and XML files are in step and for the correct coding of XSLT files. There are other features that I need to explore and that would also take my knowledge of the XML further to boot, not at all a bad thing.

Saxon

For processing XML into another file format such as XHTML, you need a parser and I use the free version of Saxon to do the needful, Saxonica offer commercial versions of it. There is, I believe, a parser in XMLSpy but I don’t use it because Saxon’s command line interface fits better into my work flow. This is a Perl-driven process where XML files are read in and XSLT files, one per XML file, built before both are fed to Saxon for transforming into XHTML/PHP files. It all works smoothly and updating the XML inputs is all that is required.

AceFTP

If I were looking for an FTP client now, it would be FileZilla but AceFTP has served me well over the last few years and it looks as if that will continue. It does have some extra features over FileZilla: transfers between remote sites, and scheduling, for example. I have yet to use either but they look valuable.

Hutmil

In bygone days when I had loads of static HTML files, making changes was a bit of a chore if they affected every single file. An example is changing the year on the copyright message on the page footers. Hutmil, which I found on a magazine cover-mounted disc, was a great time saver in those days. Today, I achieve this by putting this information into a single file and get Perl of PHP to import that when building the page. The same “define once, use anywhere” approach underlies CSS as well and scripting very usefully allows you to take that into the XHTML domain.

Apache

Apache is ubiquitous these days and both the online and offline versions of my site are powered by it. It does require some configuration but it is a very powerful piece of kit. The introduction of 2.2.x meant a big change in the way that configuration files were modularised and while most things were contained in a single file for 2.0.x, the setting are broken up into different files in 2.2.x and it can take a while to find things again. Without having it on my home PC, I would not be able to use Perl, PHP or MySQL. Apart from this, I especially like its virtual site capability; very useful for offline development.

WordPress

My hosting supplier offers blogs on Blogware but that didn’t offer the level of configuration that I would have liked. It is true that this is probably true of any host of blogs. I can’t speak for Blogger but WordPress.com does have its restrictions too. In order to make my hillwalking blog fit in with the appearance of my photo gallery, I went popped over to WordPress.org to download WordPress so that I could host a blog myself and have maximum control over its appearance. WordPress supports themes so I created my own and got my blog pages looking as if they are part of my website, rather than looking like something that was bolted on. Now that I think of it, what about WordPress supporting user created themes? I support that there is the worry of insecure PHP code but what about it?

MySQL

I am between minds on whether this is a technology or a tool. The SQL language certainly would be a technology but I am not so clear on what MySQL would be. In any case, I have classed it as a tool and a very useful one at that. It is the linchpin for my WordPress blogs and, if I go for a content management system like Drupal, its role would surely grow. While I do have a lot of experience with using SAS SQL and these helps me to deal with other varieties, there is still a learning curve with MySQL that gets me heading for a good book and Kofler’s The Definitive Guide to MySQL5 (Apress) seems to perform more than adequately in this endeavour.

Paint Shop Pro

As someone who hosts an online photo gallery, it won’t come as a surprise that I have had exposure to image editors. Despite various other flirtations, Paint Shop Pro has been my tool of choice over the years but it is now set to be usurped by a member of Adobe’s Photoshop family. Paint Shop Pro does have books devoted to it but it seems that Photoshop gets better coverage and I feel that my image processing needs to be taken up a gear, hence the potential move to Photoshop