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Never underestimate the power of “Word of Mouth”

the title says it all really, and seriously dont underestimate it. lets just give some background, i do occasional freelance systems admin work in my free time, this includes but is not limited to, server setup and maintenance, site migrations and optimisation and other general geekery relating to webservers πŸ™‚

i was contacted last week by a guy called Rick Anderson of Tailoring the Web to optimise and speed up his server hosting one of his sites Build Your Own Business Website he told me that he had paid for to migrate him from bluehost and manage the server for him, he was telling me how since moving his site had in fact slowed down. i set out to optimise the server and also optimise the site by making use of the awesome W3 Total Cache plugin for wordpress, over 2 nights i was able to improve page load times from 4.5-5 seconds down to between 1-2 seconds, i was pretty pleased with that and went to sleep pretty happy.

over the next 2 days i recieved 5 enquiries about doing similar stuff (Migration/Optimisation/Setup etc) now bear in mind i currently only do this in my spare time (will have lots more time to spend on it from October) all of these referrals were as a result of Rick making one single post on the Thesis Support Forum where he is a very active member, i dont currently actively advertise my services so that i dont get swamped with extra work so its a pleasant surprise especially as i need to earn some extra money at the moment (Uni fee’s amongst other things).

Incidentally if you are looking to build your own business website, do take a look at the site as it is a great resource and tool to aid you in that process and walk you through it, and if you ever need hosting services or server setup, do send me an email

in other news, this time next week i will be flying through 2 different countries to go to Zimbabwe for a friends wedding and to meet Marie’s parents and help out with a christian youth conference called Ignite2010 – busy times so please pray for me

Spreading the Load

A nice geeky post again πŸ™‚

been looking into different alternatives to this last week or 2. i started looking after they experienced there major outage at the UK DC taking all there UK Zones/Clouds out of action for anything from 2 hours to 14 hours in the worst case for me. Although i have not really wanted to it would have been just unprofessional of me to not be aware of the current alternatives around just in case the same thing happens again. i need servers in the UK and i need them to be reliable, i thought that putting servers in different UK Zones at would be ok (they didnt need load balancing or anything fancy) my theory was that if a zone went down i would only have to deal with 1 perhaps 2 servers or clients and thats much more manageable. i wasnt planning for all 3 zones to hit out and a total of 7 servers that i manage for clients (including my own) went down at the same time, you can guess my phone got busy quickly! it really hurt me by being at a conference and suffering from the worlds worst wifi and mobile coverage (Brighton) in the UK during the middle of it.

so i started my looking and only came up with a few possibles. my requirements were simple, UK based, reliable and competitive costs or at least on the spec. the main few i found were:

so for my first requirement for UK servers i had to eliminate Slicehost and Rackspace, i remember speaking to Rackspace live chat and asking about whether they had a UK VPS service and the response while not these words exactly, i got the impression the agent was thinking, “why would you want to do that?” and it looks like rackspace dont have any imminent plans to bring it here.

Linode next on my list recently in the last 12 months or so setup a London based zone and they have pretty good pricing, but have reasonably tight bandwith limits that would mean potentially paying more than to make sure we dont have over bandwith issues. the dont offer cpanel (and for transparency even though i hate it, plesk) licenses meaning you have to get them yourself and often have to pay 3-4 times as much as if you go direct through a provider such as going through there UI and i just didnt feel comfortable with it, sure i could use it it just felt overly complex to get things setup quickly and easily. that said i do like there specify how big disk images are (so that you can have multiple images attached to a vps and they are movable) they have some nifty features such as LiSH (Linode Shell) which is basically ssh access for when you mess up network or firewall settings, its like having a screen, keyboard and mouse plugged into your vps direct.

Next up is i got recomended these guys a few months ago when had another major issue (which i was largely unaffected by luckily) they are more traditional vps hosts in that you generally get a fixed instance size but you get good resources for your price (i am getting double ram and CPU than equivalent prices at however this comes at the price of not having hypervisor redundancy like does, but you are on top of the range hardware and drives and they are a company that has been around a lot longer than has (although’s parent uk2group likely has been around longer) and just seem to get on with the job and do it well. the thing about is that its not for normal people (read people that dont really know what they are doing – which seems to be much more prevalent at “big” companies like Linode or which means support resources (FAQ’s forums etc) are somewhat lacking, there support is excellent though and although they dont have a big fancy control panel (it just looks like rebranded whmcs for billing side and support only) they have importantly an ssh based emergency console and full slave dns which is a doddle to slave off your servers and white label – i am actually researching the best way to code up a cpanel module to automate this too. setup is not instant with them but if you sign up within british office hours you generally get set up in under an hour (mine was 20 mins).

so my outcome for me is the clustered is a great choice of provider, in reality all of them are good and i would reccomend the best tool for the job which in a nutshell is: – if you need the flexibility and very easy management system
Linode – if you dont need to worry about the added expense of a server control panel – if you dont need to worry about the management interface and just want guarenteed reliability and good prices

all in all i am keeping most of my services at for now – i am more than happy with the service they provide, one client has moved to MediaTemple and getting round the plesk as control panel its a damn good service even for something based solely in the US and pretty swift. i have moved my personal server off to as i got better resources for the same price and i dont need to worry about the management interface. besides its good to road test properly πŸ˜‰ This will also allow me to look at something that can monitor my servers at and be able to do stuff that via there API that i may not neccesarily be able to do if the server its hosted on is down at πŸ™‚

its always better to have your eggs in lots of baskets in the server hosting world because host’s get targeted, DC’s have issues etc etc, the more you can minimise that impact the better. i will still be reccomending to most people that ask me, however i am much much more informed about the competition and can definitely give a much more objective reccomendation to clients now.

Interesting Statistics

just doing my regular peruse through the backend of my site to make sure stuff is up to date, spam is blasted (not that i get much feedback anyway) and otherwise things kept ticking over, even if i dont have anything to say at the time, i have experienced sites being hacked by not keeping stuff up to date so always spend a few mins checking very regularly.

Google Recent Visitors Map for

Google Recent Visitors Map for

i was briefly looking from my wordpress stats and saw the map of recent visitors and was quite intrigued by the places where some people have been visiting from.

people have visited from as far and wide as china and chile or canada. so apparently i do reach a global audience, the most common posts they seem to hit are my geeky ones, so it looks like they are set to continue for now πŸ™‚

its been an interesting 2 weeks for me. I had a number in mind of how much to put into the Newfrontiers brighton conference offering, and during the thursday night worship and prayer time, i felt God tell me the number needed doubling. I thought my original number was sacrificial! i was thinking at the moment how was i going to do it, but Marie told me “God will bless you more than that”

the reason i didnt say much about this before now is because i realise that in the last 2 weeks i have had more freelance work than before the conference and have including some new semi regular clients – semi regular in the sense that they dont take up my monthly server management services but keep asking me to do server stuff for them πŸ™‚ God has blessed me more over so far with work that has already paid back what i gave into the offering!

One particular project i am working on which is quite exciting is helping a church friend improving the SEO ranking of the website for her business, you should all take a look over at πŸ™‚

Quite a few exciting things in the pipeline over the next few weeks and months including Zim in less than 1 month!!!

for those interested in the plugin i use for stats on my blog, i use wibstats by a fellow christian Chris Taylor

DISCLAIMER – i dont just choose wordpress plugins because the author is a christian, i choose the best plugins available for the job and for that Chris really deserves some credit with his Wibstats plugin

VPS.NET – 9 Months in

thought i would update on my progress with as i have been with them a little bit longer and i also have a couple of clients and friends that i have helped here so by proxy have had the chance to experience a wide variety of setups and situations, including managed support

last time i reviewed them (see: i talked about pricing and some of the issues regarding IP’s and logins etc. firstly it might be appropriate to give an update on new key features, changes etc since last september. firstly nodes have been given a 50% boost, instead of 256MB ram and 400Mhz CPU you now get 600Mhz and 376MB RAM all at the same price! Introduction of Zones within regions to seperate local servers, Rsync Backups as well as snapshots, licensing manager and pricing for litespeed, softaculous and rvskin, free hostbill, FusionIO, delayed storage upgrades on node increases, Akamai CDN, By the Minute Billing and therefore crediting for unused node time and a host of other smaller backend adjustments and lots more new templates to play with including CloudLinux, ClearOS and FreeBSD (Beta still) with Windows imminently expected.

coming back to my last review i pointed out an issue with wanting to reinstall a VPS if a mistake was made or to try a new OS you had to delete and recreate and there was no gaurentees of keeping the same IP address – glad to say this was resolved very soon after with the handy reinstall vps button on the vps screen:

with this function you can create either from the same template originally used – a manual backup you created a template with or even a whole new template and with any of these options you keep the original IP so all the server licenses that you may have had for that specific IP are retained, which is a huge time saver for people.

second issue pointed out previously was security and with regards to staff needing access to servers/ account, since then there have been a slew of improvements including pin based authorisation for key tasks via sms. and also the ability to leave server details securely in a support ticket (without the root password being seen in plain text in the middle of your support ticket) this has allayed a lot of my fears with this aspect.

support over the 9 months or so has been up and down, i guess like any normal team you have good days and bad days, generally support is very good, sometimes not so, and the issues usually are speed of response or support agent not understanding/reading the actual issue/requirements and therefore not giving relevant and correct advice. as a kind of quality control feature the team have now released a report to manager button which is very good for highlighting times when the team are very good or bad so that they can be given more beer or beaten with a stick depending

uptime again has been variable, they have suffered from some quite huge DDoS attacks and as a result learned from the problems and made the correct adjustments and policy changes to eliminate them and i can say that the service has stabilised massively since that time. there are some outstanding niggles that seem to happen with stability and range from Hypervisors locking up and your server going offline but not self healing again, to other san related incidents (with which no self healing currently happens if its SAN related) but they are being addressed and seem to be very minor when you consider the sheer number of VPS’ operated here (pretty sure the number is way above 10k)

Akamai another new addition to in that you can get very very favourable pricing for akamai (pretty much worlds biggest and best CDN), i have the chance to use this for my main work job currently and it has been a large improvement in site load time and taking load off the server for the ChristChurch London podcast. i cant fault this addition at all.

there have been lots and lots of features and changes for and as i write about them i remember more so i could easily turn this into an never ending article but will close it off with what i think are one of there biggest updates and most significant, firstly is by the minute billing, this just means that your usage is tracked by the minute so that if you decide to delete a node mid way through your billing month, you will get an account credit for however many Minutes, Hours and days that deleted your Node early, this is obviously not convertable to cache but it certainly brings in with services like Amazon EC2 and in fact makes them even betterΒ  and more competitive than such services.

the next big thing which is not yet officially been launched but has been talked about and is literally very imminent (i wouldnt be surprised to see the open beta pop up any day) is windows support at long last! obviously details yet to be released but it sounds like the only extra charges to use windows will be licensing (so existing nodes will work fine) this could very well shift a huge move in the server market as very few companies i know do windows hosting well and even windows vps hosting at that. like the Iphone 4 this is likely going to turn into a game changer.

so 9 months in, still a true fan and totally happy with the service i get happy to stay for another 9 months or more πŸ™‚

Amazon Cloudfront

i have been fighting in my spare time set up Amazon Cloudfront to take some of the hit off my server (i can then run it more efficiently and then save money) i wished i could have used‘s akamai offerings but seeing as the idea was to try and save money it would have defeated the purpose. anyway shall post some thoughts now briefly and will later post some more info on how i got things going.

Firstly Cloudfront is a Content Delivery Network (CDN) there core job is to speed up your website by serving all the static files on your website (javascript, css, images and other files – no php) in a normal situation putting these files on another server doesnt neccesarily speed up a site but the core difference between that and a CDN is that the CDN is optimised to serve those files and also a CDN will have what are known as Edge Servers all over the world, the way the CDN works is that it caches all your files on these edge servers and when someone asks for the parts of your website off the CDN they get the server closest to them (closer server is a faster server). There are 2 types of CDN, Origin Pull & Point of Presence and they work in 2 different ways (obviously). by far often the most simple to setup and maintain is Origin Pull, the way this works is you upload your site as normal, you set the CDN to “Pull” its files from your server (like a normal client) and then to get your users to pull from a different CDN’ url for example your site is and your cdn is at your cdn pulls all your images as they are requested on the CDN from but you provide links on your site to obviously for a big site renaming all those links to images and css files etc will be time consuming so you would need to perhaps use a plugin if you are using a CMS, Rails even has this built in as a configuration line! PoP is slightly different in that you still reference a CDN url but you have to prime the caches by uploading your data to your CDN provider, this obviously takes the pressure of pulling off your server but has the added complexity that you have to make sure files are uploaded, there are tools out there that will automate this part of the task though such as CDN module for Drupal or W3 Total Cache for WordPress.

Amazon Cloudfront is a PoP CDN and uses its S3 service as its origin so you have to manually make sure you have your content loaded up to s3 to make use of it, W3 Total Cache takes care of this and even in the sneak peak i had of the next version supported expires setting and gzip, more on that next time. the actual setup of s3 and cloudfront couldnt have been much easier, i got my Amazon Web Services (AWS) account up and running and enabled s3 and cloudfront. i created my bucket for hosting files and setup the cloudfront distribution attached to the bucket in no time, even setting up the CDN Cname record was quick and easy.

next is uploading content for now i am using W3 Total cache to take care of this but i have had one or 2 issues with url’s not being rewritten properly that i have yet to address, there are however many tools that can be setup to run via cron or in the background to sync your files to S3 s3cmd or s3sync are 2 that come to mind first. Amazon have no origin pull which i think is there first negative.

next hiccup i had was when setting up the site i changed the logo file because i had previously set expires for a week (and for some reason it registered as a year :S) i was stuck with an old file until i decided to just rename the file and force the change. there is a big problem here – i couldnt invalidate the cache on cloudfront as is normal with most other cdn providers, this is a big minus point – the only way to invalidate cache was to delete and recreate the cloudfront distribution which then left me at the mercy of dns propogation for changes.

next thing is gzip, cloudfront wont automatically send files as gzip encoding unless your pre gzip it or set the headers, this means you have to have 2 of all your CSS and JS files one compressed the other uncompressed and then rewrite your css and js rules appropriately depending on browsers this is a large overhead (Luckily solved in upcoming version of W3 Total Cache)

that said Cloudfront is decently fast, its extremely cheap although dont forget to factor in storage costs and it can also host html files with some providers such as akamai wont do on there basic object caching services

its early days and i wish i had a full blown cdn like akamai but cloudfront wins the day for me for the cheap pay as you go costs which work out well for me