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December 07, 2012

The History of This

It's been a little over 15 years since I first threw up a web page on the internet, pretty much because I could and wanted to try it out and see what it would entail. It's since grown into a useful hobby and seems to have produced content that other people actually value.

It all started at university. Being in a technical program we were given access to the university computer system years earlier than other students were. With access to the computer system came access to the internet, email, printing and other computing resources. There was even a dial in modem pool and DATAPAC access so you could use all that from home. Of course we all jumped at the chance to get an account as soon as we could, standing in line outside the administrators office to get our log in credentials. I don't recall if we had access to web space hosting immediately, but I didn't take advantage of it until the next year. Since I'd never done it before, and the web was still rather a spartan place, I jumped at the chance to claim my spot and put something in place, while learning about the technology and syntax. I believe I just started with a page of links, mostly just a copy of my bookmarks. Little by little a page here or there was added as I found something useful to share or host online. Maybe something a little more elaborate like some dynamic content, an image or something else new, interesting and useful would get added.

Eventually university ended and my computer account with it. Since my page was somewhat useful to me I dragged it along and put it on the free web space hosting offered by my dial-up ISP. Continued adding pages with information which was mostly for my reference and a little to share with whoever cared to read it. A little bit of maintenance was periodically required to keep things up to date and functioning. I kept tinkering a little bit with embellishments, but there wasn't too much change going on. Timed progressed along, my ISP got bought by another and I eventually upgraded to "high-speed" internet from dial up with the same ISP when it became available at a nice enough price. These ISP changes required a bit of fiddling to keep things working, but were pretty straightforward. With stable hosting, I kept adding reference content for things I was looking for or spent some time researching so I could find it, making it available for anyone else who was looking for the same. I also started adding a little of my own personal commentary, stories and experiences. I still kept the basic main page a link of common links I used, like a bookmark list of those things I would often look at. I also was keeping of abreast of any technical issues and fixing those back end things as well.

After a couple years of hosting my site and also my email with my ISP I started to have a lot of issues. Emails outgoing and incoming would get lost or dropped by their spam filter without notification. Already delivered emails would disappear from my inbox due to their backup issues. Those same backup issues affected my website, with pages going missing and getting corrupted. I fixed it up for a little bit, but was soon frustrated and decided to host the website myself at home. During the dotcom boom someone was handing out free domain names and of course I picked one up even though I had no idea what to do with it. I kept it in my back pocket. With these ISP issues, I suddenly had a use for it. I don't remember if I moved my email or my website first, but both eventually moved to my own hosting on equipment at home. Nice to have control over it and not have worry about changing either address ever again. Things continued on much the same, adding little bits of reference information, a little bit of things I want to share and fixing those technical issues, while responding to the rapidly changing technology.

It would be another couple years before another significant change. It seemed I had actually produced valuable content that people were viewing. I hadn't really been paying attention to who the visitors were if there were any. But soon there were enough people visiting my site that hosting my pages at home was actually becoming a burden and making it difficult to use my internet connection. I asked around friends and peers for recommendations on companies to host with and was referred to a friend who had a dedicated computer hosted in a data centre doing just that. So I packed it all up and moved it over there. It took a bit of work, but with a little effort it was all good to go. With the added cost of hosting the web site now I decided I would put up a few ads to see if I could recoup some of the cost. That turned out surprising well, bringing in more revenue than I expected. Along with the realization that many people were viewing my site I also added and monitored statistics to keep track of it. Otherwise most things were the same, add some more reference content, update things, keep it technically up to date. I also had an eye towards making things work better and look nicer for all those people I now knew were reading my content. I started adding some of the new technology like CSS and started trying some of these other things that were rapidly churning out of the booming internet. I started with a blog software package which I added to make it easier to add little items like stories or experiences I had been collecting manually in other ways previous on my site. Like always I liked to put up reference material that I was interested in. I also liked to explore the technology that was available and tinker with using it. It was one such moment that I decided to take Google Maps API and combine it with data I found at a government website. I wanted to find the location of cell towers to answer a question about my own cell coverage at home. It was a bit of work at first but quite rewarding to see a nice presentation of the data. I answered my question and left the map there for others to explore. I eventually did a couple major overhauls to the map to add cross Canada data, improve performance and adapt to changes in the API. It was easy to leverage that existing map technology and create another map to show all the locations I enjoyed visiting with my geocaching hobby as well. I also started adapting my website with my own mini Content Management System (CMS) to keep from having to edit every page in a growing collection when I wanted to make a change.

While the pace of added material on the site slowing, much of the time I spent was focused on improved the web site for display, presentation or performance. Somewhere along the lines I decided I wanted to explore another new technology and developed a smartphone app that utilized a lot of web back end to bring my cell map experience to an application. Keeping up the maintenance and monitoring was most of what I spent time on, although whenever I felt the urge, I'd dig in and try to improve or add something. A little while ago the last major changed was put in motion. The hosting at a friends dedicated spot, which had served well for many years experienced a significant outage. I had somewhat expected this to happen for some time, but it wasn't directly announced. It was out long enough that I decided to put up a backup copy of the website in the meantime while it was down. When it came back up, not quite everything was as it should be. After a bunch of work, the vast majority of it was restored to the way it should be. But there were a few lingering issues and it was clear that this wasn't going to be a long term supported solution as that friends hosting hobby wasn't of much interest to them anymore. Since I had expected some changes in this hosting already I had researched where I should move my website to. I had short listed some companies, looking for particular features and technologies in shared hosting that would although me to do a better job serving my website. I picked the top one from the list and made a go at it. It always takes a bit of work to adapt an existing website to be served by a different host and this was no exception. There are always things that need to be edited, parameters that need to change and sometimes significant changes need to be made because features don't exist or are implemented differently. All in all, I got it mostly working, but there were a few significant hold outs. Those issues along with some disappointment in the actual service made me re think my decision and go back to look for another host. I've always found it to be a really hard task to shop for shared hosting and this was no different. I was hitting a lot of dead ends and not really coming up with something that I was really behind. I'm sure I could find one that worked, but wouldn't be exactly what I wanted.

One of those light bulb moments sent me down a different track. I checked out what would be involved with and what the costs would be of hosting in the cloud. That seemed to be all the rage. It actually looked quite feasible, but the costs were just a little beyond what I would like. In researching what cloud hosting was all about and what was involved, it actually boiled down to a concept I understood and had seen before, the virtual private server. I'd always avoided them due to the cost and actual issues in creating, deploying and selling such a service, along with the perceived complexity in setting up and maintaining a computer server remotely. But things have changed. The hosting technology has progressed massively with the cloud rage, the costs have shrunk and most importantly I'd been running servers at home for years and understood what was involved. So hosting in the cloud, but not the really big clouds, was actually an idea that I really liked and would add the features I was looking for. I dug around a little more and found a reliable place with lower cost and a good feature set that would host FreeBSD. I was sold and so I set up my own computer instance in a virtual machine floating around the "cloud". I took my time and set things up right, keeping the documentation to recreate it later. Within about the same amount of time as it took to move between hosting providers, I had a whole server setup and my web site moved and running perfectly. Performance was that little bit better than before and it turned out to be simple and easy to get things working. In hindsight I don't know why I hadn't done this sooner, it makes so much sense to have all the control, to be able to set things as I wish and install what I need.

So that's where this is today. I'm happy with the new stable platform I've got things standing on now and hope to leverage that to keep adding valuable content, new features, better performance and keep learning new technologies, software and ideas.


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Created By: Steven Nikkel (steven_nikkel@ertyu.org)
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