A Squarespace Hat Tip

About nine months ago I switched from a hosted VPS running Wordpress to Squarespace for my blogging needs. At the time, Squarespace had recently made a major overhaul of their platform. I had tried it out for a few weeks and, overall, I really liked what I saw. So I decided to take the plunge.

The following months were hit or miss for me. Things started off well enough; I really enjoyed using the service and was quite happy using it for blogging. But gradually I started experiencing problems, and I even started to get a bit of buyer's remorse.

At one point I had a major performance problem that ultimately turned out to have something to do with the theme I was using. There have been occasional outages, one of which recently brought my own site, among many others, completely down for several hours. There have also been some rather annoying UI glitches, and scheduled posting has worked only intermittently. Lastly, the state of mobile blogging has been pretty abysmal, by which I mean practically non-functional.

The kind of amazing news is, Squarespace seems to have turned things around in the last month or two. I don't know if all the problems I've been having were a result of growing pains due to the platform update, but lately things have been much better. In fact, pretty much every complaint I just listed has been addressed in a way that makes me excited to use the service again, and that deserves mention.

 Some UI glitches remain; hey, nobody's perfect.

Some UI glitches remain; hey, nobody's perfect.

Performance has been good again — not just acceptable, but really quite good. The majority of the UI glitches seem to be corrected. Scheduled posting is working again. And perhaps best of all. Squarespace has released new versions of their mobile apps which not only now work properly, but which also work extremely well. The new Blog app has gotten a complete overhaul, and it's really quite nice. I can now post blog articles with images from my iPad! This is just fantastic!

Squarespace still isn't perfect, but it's gotten significantly better over time, not worse as has been the case with every web hosting package I've ever used.

I know there are lots of people behind the scenes at Squarespace who've worked really hard to make all this happen. I just want to say to them, and to the entire Squarespace team, thank you, and well done!

And Happy New Year!

A Good Time to Leave Wordpress

Speaking of leaving Wordpress, it looks like the blogging platform is under a major attack. Wordpress has long been known for its security holes. Not that they're necessarily any worse than similar platforms, but the fact that Wordpress is both so prevalent and so insecure makes it an obvious target. 

Huge attack on WordPress sites could spawn never-before-seen super botnet
Security analysts have detected an ongoing attack that uses a huge number of computers from across the Internet to commandeer servers that run the WordPress blogging application.

I was always pretty good about keeping my Wordpress installations updated with the latest security patches, which is part of what made it such a bear to manage. Glad I don't have to mess with that anymore.

Talk about good timing!

A Site Update

So, yet again, I'm trying something new. Isn't that what life's all about?

First off, you may notice the site looks a bit different. Not radically, but enough that you might get a little weirded out if you come here a lot. Is this still The Adventures of Systems Boy? What's with this weird header nonsense? Who the Hell is Mike Barron?

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Then, upon further investigation, you might notice that the URL has redirected to malcontentcomics.com. Huh... That can't be right. I'm sure it used to be systemsboy.com.

Rest assured, you've not gone mad. Here's what's going on.

If you come here a lot you probably also know that I haven't been posting much lately. This is due in large part to the fact that writing about systems has begun to increasingly take a backseat to my artistic endeavors, most particularly the making of comics. I've had a comic site for a while now, and after lots of thinking and hand wringing I decided that it was time to unify all my online projects into a single site. Since comics are my primary focus these days I've decided to go with my comic identity for the top level domain: Malcontent Comics.

I must admit, though, that this entire changeover was, in fact, prompted by a distinctly systems-oriented problem, as well as an interest in trying a new approach to hosting this site. First, the problem.

THE PROBLEM

I've posted before about my trials and tribulations with web hosting. I've used Blogger, Web Hosting Buzz, Media Temple and most recently 1&1 to host this site, and each has had its good and bad points. But after spending the past few years self-hosting, during which I've added numerous Wordpress sites to my stable of online homes, I'm getting sick of it.

About a year ago, I switched to 1&1 for hosting these sites. I'm using a VPS plan, paying $30 bucks a month, and I'm still having problems. Everything was fine for a while, but gradually I started having problems with SQL. Suddenly all my categories will disappear on the site, and when that happens I have to SSH in and reboot the VPS because SQL is so locked up I can't even run Plesk.

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Honestly, I haven't really tried very hard to solve this problem. I did Google it, and mostly what I read seemed to suggest that 1&1 Support would have one of two responses: either they would tell me, "You have root, it's your problem, you're on your own;" or, "you need to upgrade your plan." Now I have not contacted 1&1, nor do I intend to, so I don't know what they'd actually tell me, though I do get the impression, from my years of experience as a webhost client, that you just won't get anything decent under $50 a month (which is what we pay for Mediatemple's VPS at work, which works pretty well). But I've just been doing this too long, I have to do it at work, and it's not really fun anymore. I'm done. This is no longer how I want to spend my free time, nor my money.

Yes, there was certainly a time when this would have been an intriguing challenge for me to tackle. But not anymore. I'm paying someone decent money to host and run my server, I do nothing that should place undue strain on that server, and yet it doesn't work reliably. Frankly, if someone were paying me to run some computers for them (oh, wait, someone does, every day) and they didn't work, I'd be fired.

THE INTEREST

At the same time all this has been stewing, I've been increasingly aware of and interested in a site hosting company called Squarespace. Squarespace hosts everything for you and you build your site with their online tools. It's a lot like Blogger.com or Wordpress.com, but much more sophisticated — with features like custom CSS and Code Injection — and with a terrific graphical authoring environment. Squarespace recently updated their platform to version 6 with much fanfare, and after reading about it for the bajillionth time I finally decided to take the free two week trial and kick the tires. While testing out Squarespace I tried two other similar services: Mediatemple's Virb and the well-known Weebly.

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All these services are actually quite nice and their performance is surprisingly brisk and consistent. But Squarespace's ability to import — and export, should the need arise — all my Wordpress site data really carried the day. I also like the design tools best in Squarespace. They just do more of what I want, from the amazing and gargantuan selection of fonts to very flexible templates that let me brand my site and all its sections in ways the others don't. And last but by no means least, Squarespace's gallery functionality was my favorite, and this is a key component of my comic sites.

The more I played, the more I liked what I saw, and the more I started to think that Squarespace could probably do the job for me and my many sites. But more than that, Squarespace allows me to never have to worry about managing the server side of things again. This means that not only will I never have to SSH into my VPN and reboot because of a SQL lockup, but I'l never have to update — and possibly break — another Wordpress install (I have three I maintain regularly); I'll never have to update — and possibly break — all the plugins for each of these Wordpress installs.

And the icing on the cake? What will eliminating this huge time sink cost me in terms of dollars? Sixteen bucks a month. Not thirty. Sixteen. Or, to put it into perspective, slightly more than half what I've been paying. Less work, as good or better performance, ostensibly better reliability and terrific design tools, all for less money? That, my friends, is what I like to call a no-brainer. 

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The downside to all of this, of course, is that I lose a certain amount of flexibility. To be sure, Squarespace and its ilk have far more limitations that the wide open spaces of a 1&1 VPS plan. But the limitations just happen to be in areas that don't really concern me all that much these days. And what I lose in flexibility I believe will easily be made up in productivity. That is to say, all the time I spent maintaining that damn VPS and those Wordpress installs will now go towards writing and drawing more. And after all, that's what I'm really here to do.

Especially now that the flow of Systemsboy posts has pretty permanently slowed to a trickle, it seems even sillier and more pointless to self-host to the extent I've been doing, and the systemsboy.com domain no longer seems particularly relavent or necessary. There's just no reason to suffer for it anymore.

ANOTHER CHANGE

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Commensurate with the change of hosts, and the general unification of my online presence is another kinda big change to the way TASB works: I am no longer anonymous. Maintaining my secret identity, now that I no longer blog about specific work issues, is no longer particularly important to me. And I really like the idea of having everything under one, big umbrella site that represents me as a person, rather than a set of fragmented brand identities.

So, hi. I'm Mike Barron nice to meet you.

SAME OLD SYSTEMSBOY

Despite all these changes, though, The Adventures of Systemsboy! should be much the same as ever. You can continue to expect very occasional and oft-cheeky posts that contain my personal observations on a variety of my favorite technology-oriented topics with a focus on the Mac and iOS platforms. But no punditry. I'm terrible at punditry.

And, oh yeah: Enjoy the comics.

-systemsboy

Web Hosting Is Hard

Two and a half years ago I switched from Web Hosting Buzz to MediaTemple for the web hosting of this site. When I made that switch I made it clear that I would be monitoring the situation, and that if MediaTemple's hosting service ever became problematic, I would move on to yet another provider. Today I've done just that and I wanted to share my experience with you, because let's face it, finding a web hosting provider is hard.

Why The Switch?

If you've ever moved to a new hosting provider you know it's a real pain in the ass. Files and folders must be moved, databases modified, DNS entries changed. And I've been with MediaTemple for over two years. So why, a sensible person might ask, did I decide to go to all the effort to switch, and why now?

In a nutshell: my needs changed. But let me add some detail.

The plan I use — the only MediaTemple plan I can really justify the money for — is called the Grid Service, or GS for short. The GS is billed as being shared hosting that can handle a sudden, huge spike of traffic, so, in theory, your site never goes down. When I first began using the GS, it seemed fine. In fact it was fine, at least for this site, for systemsboy.com (or TASB, for short).

Over the years I've built several other sites that I use to showcase my other non-systems creative pursuits. And I've frequently had a great deal of trouble with them. This was always perplexing to me; TASB ran fairly well most of the time, and other GS-hosted sites seemed perfectly speedy as well. But my other sites were always dog slow, and as I've spent increasing amounts of time on them, it's become a bigger and bigger problem.

After a great deal of research I found, buried amongst the Internets, an article on Media Temple's GS that completely described the symptoms I was having. According to the article, the GS does indeed handle sudden traffic bursts gracefully, and performs fine for sites that receive a certain level of daily traffic. But for sites that don't get much traffic, the GS's performance leaves much to be desired. Since my new sites were new, they weren't really getting a lot of traffic, and, if the article is correct, this explains why they were so slow. It also explains why TASB was okay; TASB gets a decent amount of traffic.

The Plan

MediaTemple's GS is 20 bucks a month. That's expensive for shared hosting these days. These days, commodity hosting is ubiquitous and extremely cheap. And while Host Gator's 5 dollar hosting doesn't offer protection against traffic spikes, it's essentially the same idea: You share server resources with other users on your server. If someone on your server is hogging all the CPU, for instance, you can see major performance issues on your site.

These days, however, an alternative to shared hosting, VPS hosting (short for Virtual Private Server) has dropped dramatically in price, to the point where it's quite competitive with the GS. In a VPS scenario, the server hardware is still shared among users, but each user's share of the resources is dedicated and walled off from the other users. This, I'm told, generally yields significantly better performance than shared hosting plans.

So I decided to give VPS a try.

The Provider

Choosing a web host is like choosing a doctor: it's a huge pain in the ass, requires a great deal of both research and faith, and you don't want to have to do it twice, at least not in a short space of time. It's also similar in that one good way to go about it is to ask a friend. So when a good friend recommended 1&1 hosting, I read up about them, checked out their plans, and, in the end decided to give them a go.

Aside from the glowing recommendation, 1&1's VPS provided the best value for the money. In fact, 1&1 offers a VPS plan for $30. That's only ten bucks more than I was paying on Media Temple.

Purchasing 1&1

A note about the actual purchase of my 1&1 VPS. I ordered my service on a Friday night (hoping to have it for the weekend), but I had problems with the online order system. Specifically, the system expects you to purchase a domain name from 1&1, and if you, like me, already own a domain name and aren't planning to get one from 1&1, the site gets confused, or at least confusing. I got to a point in my order where I just ended up having to close the page and start from scratch. Not cancel the order, mind you, as that option was gone, but close the browser window and pray. Having received no confirmation email, I decided to try ordering a second time, and this time I was able to complete the order successfully. I then did receive an email confirming the order and telling me that my VPS was being provisioned and would be ready within 24 hours. When it was not, I sent an email to 1&1 explaining my situation.

In under 24 hours I received a call from a human at 1&1 telling me that the order was ready and apologizing for the delay. Seems my failed initial order had likely caused a flag on the order requiring some sort of verification. So, though I didn't have time to use it that weekend, the order did at least go through without too much pain. And though the online order was a bit wonky, at least 1&1 provides humans to help with problems, and on weekends no less. All good things to know.

The Test

Before migrating all my sites, I decided to set up a test site based on my slowest site and see if 1&1's VPS truly did perform better than Media Temple's GS. If you're considering making a similar switch, and you can afford to overlap for a few months, I highly recommend you do something similar. Buy a domain or recycle an old one. Sign up for the new service. And then set up a site, preferably one you know was problematic on the old host. It's very useful and a real confidence boost to know whether or not all this work you're about to do will be worthwhile. As I said, migration's a bitch, but having some assurances that it's worth it is a real boon. It will also give you a chance to see how the provider's systems work — they're all a bit different — and if you can refine your migration process it will speed things considerably when the time comes to actually move your sites.

There were two main things I gleaned from my 1&1 tests: 1) Their server setup tools are a bit more complicated and harder to use than Media Temple's; and 2) the performance of my slowest site on 1&1's VPS was far superior to that of the GS. Pages that used to sometimes take 12 seconds to load on the GS now generally appeared in as little as 2-3 seconds on the VPS. A huge improvement, well worth the extra cost.

Getting Started

I actually had five separate sites that needed to be migrated, and four of them were Wordpress sites, so migrating was no small feat. I did this over a couple weeks, and, yes, it was a huge pain, but it got done and so far it's been worth it.

The biggest difference between 1&1 and Media Temple is the tools. And I'll be the first to admit that Media Temple's tools are a bit easier to use. Media Temple's Grid Service provides a single control panel for all server administration. There's an overview section where you can add domains, and an admin section where you can install databases and CMSes and what-not. It's all fairly self-contained and very well done. I believe Media Temple has custom-made this tool, and they've really done a great job.

I happen to know that Media Temple's VPS is a bit different. Their VPS service has a control panel for account management, but all the server administration is done via a wholly separate interface, the venerable Plesk. This seems to be par for the course where VPSes are concerned. Media Temple's done a good job here too, though, and managing one of their VPSes is a fairly straightforward affair once you get familiar with Plesk.

1&1's service is not so well organized. 1&1 also provides an account management control panel, as well as Virtuozzo Power Panel and Plesk — three separate areas — for server management. But when my VPS was first provisioned it was still up to me to install Plesk via the 1&1 control panel. I assume this is because there are a few options for which version of Plesk to install.

But after installing Plesk and kicking the tires by attempting to set up a test site, I found that there were a number of problems. The most dire was that MySQL and PHP were woefully out of date, so much so that my Wordpress sites would not run properly. I attempted to update them via the command-line, but this only ended up completely hosing my server. My only recovery option was to re-image the server.

Re-imaging the server is really easy, and it's kind of cool thing to be able to do. It essentially lets you put everything back into a pristine state, as if you'd never done anything on the server at all. Most VPSes have this capability. But the big bonus I got when I re-imaged my 1&1 VPS was that all of a sudden I had a newer version of Plesk and updated MySQL and PHP. Moreover, this new Plesk version allowed me to update MySQL and PHP to even newer versions, though doing so took a few attempts for some reason.

I don't understand why my 1&1 VPS started out so crippled, and I don't understand why re-imaging it brought it to a state that was actually better than when it was new, but I'm happy it did. It would seem that their initial image is a bit out of date with the image used for re-imaging. All I can say is that if you ever end up using 1&1 for VPS, my advice is to re-image the VPS first thing.

Site Migration and Management

Once my server was finally usable I went about the odious task of migrating my sites. I won't go into too much detail. It's pretty much been the usual: copy files, recreate databases, fix inconsistencies and change anything that's specific to the new server.

I will say, however, that Media Temple's tools are superior in this realm as well. The main problem with 1&1's tools is that there are too many of them, with too much redundancy, and this makes setting up services far more confusing and difficult than it is on Media Temple. For example, to set up a domain to be hosted on Media Temple's GridService you simply go to the control panel and add it, then make the appropriate DNS changes at your domain registrar. There's only one way to do this, only one interface for it at Media Temple.

On 1&1 you do most of your work in Plesk, but there are certain things that must be done in the 1&1 control panel, outside of Plesk. Things like domain management. Unfortunately the tools for domain management exist in both places — both in the control panel and in Plesk — so it's unclear where you need to make the change. And since you're usually working in Plesk, there's a tendency to attempt setting everything up there when, in actuality, you can't; it must be done in the control panel. Until you realize all this, you may spend quite some time setting things up in Plesk, realizing they don't work, and re-setting them up in the control panel. I know I did. It's a drag, and far more confusing than it ought to be.

Media Temple's online help is also really, really good. They provide you with a terrific knowledgebase, forums, server information and guides for doing most anything you'd want to do with the GS. 1&1's online help is much more scattered, poorly organized and just has less information.

Nevertheless, once you've finally ironed out all the procedural kinks, migrating and managing sites is pretty straightforward. SSH and root access are all there and working normally at the outset. Coda is easy to set up, if that's your thing. And I was even able, with some difficulty, to get my local SQL editor to connect and edit databases.

So: Is 1&1 VPS Better Than Media Temple's Grid Service?

I guess the thing is this: when it comes down to it, while Media Temple clearly has better, easier tools to use, once you're done setting up your server, you probably won't use them all that much. What you will access — and what your users will access — every single day is the site. And this is where 1&1's VPS just kills the Grid Server.

As I stated earlier, some of my sites used to run very sluggishly on the GS. And now these same exact sites run very fast on the 1&1 VPS. I'd say on average maybe five times faster, and that's a fairly conservative guess. That increase is totally worth a bit of extra setup hassle and ten bucks a month. I finally feel like I have a decent server behind my sites now, and I feel like I can send people there with confidence. The speed of my sites before this switch was, frankly, embarrassing. And I'm fairly certain I lost traffic because of it. Even my mom said, at one point, "Honey, I go to your website, but nothing happens." Even with easy setup, that's just depressing. And, in the end, untenable.

The Future

I've only been running on 1&1's server for a few weeks now. So far, I'm a very happy customer. As with anything, if my happiness levels fall, I will again go in search of yet another host. But for now I can confidently say I'd recommend 1&1's VPS service to a friend. It's not perfect, but the bang-to-buck ratio is pretty great.

All About the Money

Oh, and one last thing: If I've managed to convinced you to order from 1&1, use this link to do so and I'll apparently get some sort of kickback. Mmm... Icing...

Thanks! And happy hosting!

A Few Modifications

I've made a few changes to the site's appearance. Hopefully these will help with readability, which was the intent.

To start, I've pretty much gone with a black and white color scheme. Body text is now a dark gray and links are black. The only place we see color, really, is in the rollovers. Hopefully this is easier on the eyes than the muted blue-gray I had before.

But perhaps more importantly, to my tired aging eyes at least: body text size has been increased to 16 pixels and the line height has been increased as well. This (for me anyway) greatly increases the readability of posts. Before I found myself hitting command+ all the time; now it feels just right.

As I've said before, I'm not a designer by any stretch of the imagination, so I'm totally open to comments and suggestions. But hopefully most folks will find the changes to be an improvement.