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.

On Upgrading to Linux Mint 11

For a Linux distribution that focuses on user friendliness, it does surprise me that Linux Mint offers no seamless upgrade path. In fact, the underlying philosophy is that upgrading an operating system is a risky business. However, I have been doing in-situ upgrades for both Ubuntu and Fedora for a few years without any real calamities. A mishap with a hard drive that resulted in lost data in the days when I mainly was a Windows user places this into sharp relief. These days, I am far more careful but thought nothing of sticking a Fedora DVD into a drive to move my Fedora machine from 14 to 15 recently. Apart from a few rough edges and the need to get used to GNOME 3 together with making a better fit for me, there was no problem to report. The same sort of outcome used to apply to those online Ubuntu upgrades that I was accustomed to doing.

The recommended approach for Linux Mint is to backup your package lists and your data before the upgrade. Doing the former is a boon because it automates adding the extras that a standard CD or DVD installation doesn’t do. While I did do a little backing up of data, it wasn’t total because I know how to identify my drives and take my time over things. Apache settings and the contents of MySQL databases were my main concern because of where these are stored.

When I was ready to do so, I popped a DVD in the drive and carried out a fresh installation into the partition where my operating system files are kept. Being a Live DVD, I was able to set up any drive and partition mappings with reference to Mint’s Disk Utility. What didn’t go so well was the GRUB installation and it was due to the choice that I made in one of the installation screens. Despite doing an installation of version 10 just over a month ago, I had overlooked an intricacy of the task and placed GRUB on the operating system files partition rather than at the top level for the disk where it is located. Instead of trying to address this manually, I took the easier and more time-consuming step of repeating the installation like I did the last time. If there was a graphical tool for addressing GRUB problems, I might have gone for that instead but am left wondering at why there isn’t one included at all. Maybe it’s something that the people behind GRUB should consider creating unless there is one out there already about which I know nothing.

With the booting problem sorted, I tried logging in only to find a problem with my desktop that made the system next to unusable. It was back to the DVD and I moved many of the configuration files and folders (the ones with names beginning with a “.”) from my home directory in the belief that there might have been an incompatibility. That action gained me a fully usable desktop environment but I now think that the cause of my problem may have been different to what I initially suspected. Later I discovered that ownership of files in my home area elsewhere wasn’t associated with my user ID though there was no change to it during the installation. As it happened, few minutes with the chown command were enough to sort out the permissions issue.

The restoration of the extra software that I had added beyond what standardly gets installed was took its share of time but the use of a previously prepared list made things so much easier. That it didn’t work smoothly because some packages couldn’t be found the first time around so another one was needed. Nevertheless, that is nothing compared to the effort needed to do the same thing by issuing an installation command at a time. Once the usual distribution software updates were in place, all that was left was to update VirtualBox to the latest version, install a Citrix client and add a PHP plugin to NetBeans. Then, next to everything was in place for me.

Next, Apache settings were restored as were the databases that I used for offline web development. That nearly was all that was needed to get offline websites working but for the need to add an alias for localhost.localdomain. That required installation of the Network Settings tool so that I could add the alias in its Hosts tab. With that out of the way, the system had been settled in and was ready for real work.

In light of some of the glitches that I saw, I can understand the level of caution regarding a more automated upgrade process on the part of the Linux Mint team. Even so, I still am wondering if the more manual alternative that they have pursued brings its own problems in the form of those that I met. The fact that the whole process took a few hours in comparison to the hour taken by the in-situ upgrades that I mentioned earlier is another consideration that makes you wonder if it is all worth it every six months or so. Saying that, there is something to letting a user decide when to upgrade rather than luring one along to a new version, a point that is more than pertinent in light of the recent changes made to Ubuntu and Fedora. Whichever approach you care to choose, there are arguments in favour as well as counterarguments too.

Do I still need serial numbers?

My spot of bad luck with Windows in August highlighted the importance of hanging on to serial numbers for software that I had purchased over the internet and downloaded. I could at the ones that I needed but they were retained in a motley mix of text files and emails; one even was rediscovered by pottering back to the website of the purveyor. The security of the installation files themselves was another matter of some concern but I was rather more organised in that regard. Both of these are things that need checking before Windows falls to pieces on you and needs to be reinstalled. Of course, human nature being what it is means that we often end up picking up the pieces after a calamity has struck when a spot of planning would have made things that bit easier.

Linux does make life easier on this front: commercial applications are anything but the dominant force that they are in the world of Windows. That means that serial numbers are few and far between and I only need the one for VMware Workstation. The mention of VMware brings me to my retention of Windows so knowing where serial numbers are located remains a good idea. Even so, I cloned my Windows VM so that any Windows restoration following a destructive crash should be a quicker affair. Now that I am a Linux user, Windows crashes should not encroach as much on my home computing any more and Linux should be more stable anyway…