Monthly Archives: October 2012

Google Sites first impressions

In a month where pleasingly many things got crossed off my long-term To Do list, the St Columba’s website was happily no exception. Like so many church and charity websites I’ve run over the years (the eight years since I was sixteen, in fact!), it was a pile of static content which meant I was stuck maintaining it and those producing the content couldn’t easily chip in.

So, what to do? I could spend several weekends hacking together a CMS in Django – actually, no I couldn’t, on the evidence of failing to have found time for that in three years – or I could use somebody else’s second-rate pile of PHP. What I really wanted was a system which removed all dependency on my servers, cost nothing and was reasonably easy for non-techies to be carefully steered into using.

Google Sites was suggested by Tony, and since we already had Google Apps set up for the domain in question, it seemed like a good place to start, with a reasonable chance of being a long-term solution.

I started by sitting down for a few hours and dumping what content was worth keeping from the old site. Here’s an assortment of things I noticed:

  • All our outgoing hyperlinks were mangled by Google Sites to bounce via a URL of the form google.com/something?url=<our actual link>. As well as looking ugly, this is a particular pain in the neck for users on mobile connections, since the high latency makes the extra redirection from Google’s URL to the real one painfully obvious. I’ve no idea why this happened, but it went away after a couple of hours, so that’s OK
  • In order to avoid having tedious stuff about comments and attachments at the bottom of every page, you need to make a template with those options turned off, and base your pages on it. And if you’ve made 80 pages before discovering that, you need to fix each one by hand on the page settings box for it. Sigh.
  • On a more positive note, the integration with Google Calendar,Google Groups signup, and Google Docs is top notch as you might expect.
  • The CMS seems pretty capable – my not-especially-techie co-conspirator was able to bash out most of the design and not make it look too bad, and the page editing tools are simple enough for non-technical users.

The Google Site backed site is now live, and I’ll post more later on smoothing off some of the rough edges.

EDIS’ Raspberry Pi colocation

A few weeks ago, the story broke that hitherto unheard of (by me, at least) Austrian hosting firm EDIS was offering free co-location of Raspberry Pis in their data centre. Since I hadn’t really found a use for mine (like almost every geek I know who bought one ‘just because’), I decided to give it a go. The plan is to use it to run Nagios to keep an eye on various machines I run back here in the UK.

This guy describes how you can make a start, and I pretty much followed his lead – install the basic Debian image from the official RPi site, then rip out everything graphical, set up an SSH server, firewall it and expand the root partition to fill the SD card. In my case, I didn’t bother shipping a USB stick in it – the 16GB SD card should be all the storage a basic monitoring installation will ever need.

The last thing to do before posting it (along with a USB cable to power it) is configure the IP addresses they gave you (you were cool enough to ask for IPv6 too, right?). I wrote /etc/network/interfaces like this:

auto eth0
allow-hotplug eth0
iface eth0 inet static
  address w
  netmask 255.255.255.0
  gateway x
iface eth0 inet6 static
  address  y
  # we're assigned a /112, but the routing is /48 based
  netmask 48
  gateway z

Obviously, replace the ws, xs, ys and zs with the settings they e-mailed you.

It’s worth noting (I had to ask EDIS to clarify this) that they don’t provide IPv4 DNS servers for you to use – go for Google public DNS or similar, with /etc/resolv.conf like this:

nameserver 8.8.8.8
nameserver 8.8.4.4

There’s not much you can do to test you’ve got the networking right, but I did boot it and check eth0 came up when a cable was plugged in, with the right IPs on it. You can also check the output of ‘sudo route -a’ to make sure the default route goes via the gateway it should.

I posted my Pi (Royal Mail’s standard air mail – cost about £2) this morning. I’ll write a follow-up when it’s arrived and running.

ADSL vs Virgin Media – round two

Those of you who know me will be aware that the happy coalition of housemates I assembled for the year July ’11 to August ’12 ended up being For One Year Only. So, just over 12 months since I last had this problem, I was moving into a new place and in the market for an Internet connection.

On paper, the choice here in Oxford is obvious – Virgin Media have cable everywhere, and it significantly outperforms ADSL over copper phone lines.

However. That’s what I thought a year ago, and our year with the cheapest Virgin Media internet package was pretty poor. Although it ran at a healthy 10mbps most of the time, it slowed to the point of being unusable quite often, especially at peak times. Sometimes it cut off altogether. Whether this was a problem of poor infrastructure, the not-so-superhub (which I had to chain another router off to get decent wifi coverage, even in a tiny terraced house), or something else, I don’t know. And I don’t care. I was resolved not to go back to Virgin.

Being an unbeliever isn’t easy, though. For starters, my new place didn’t have an active BT line. For sure, it was riddled with a dozen or so phone sockets dating from the 80s and 90s – at least one of which looked like it might be a master – but none of them had a dial tone. At this point, most ISPs want you to fork over £120 to BT to get a line with a number before they’ll do business with you. This saved me quite a lot of research, since it bought me inexorably to the door of The Post Office.

The Post Office’s ADSL offering is just a re-branding of BT’s service, but it looks like it covers all the basics – no usage limits, and the maximum speed your line can support, for £27/month (including rental of the BT line you’re not going to use). Most importantly, though, if you take broadband and the line rental from them, they’ll waive that installation charge in exchange for a 12 month contract.

 I made the call on the day I moved in – 3 September – and after some preliminary stuff, the lady informed me apologetically that they couldn’t get an engineer round until the 9th. Of October. I almost wavered at that point – Virgin have plastered our street with posters offering same-day installation – but I held firm and decided to tough it out.

[Digression – try living for a month without the Internet at home. It forced me to go outside and talk to people a lot more, which was very healthy].

I should point out that the month delay is in the hands of BT Openreach, the division of BT which runs the infrastructure other ISPs can rent for resale. Whichever way you go for your ADSL, you can’t entirely escape the BT monopoly.

The 9th of October rolled round soon enough, and I was given a time band of 1pm to 6pm during which the bloke would come round. After a tedious afternoon of working from home and burning through my mobile data allowance for a month in a few hours, he knocked on our door at 17.56. Hats off to him for bothering to keep the last appointment of the day rather than get off home.

Our line was installed and became live the next day. As new ADSL lines tend to, it started out at a fairly feeble 2mbps, but over the next ten days it worked its way up to about 6.5. That’s not spectacular, but it is (on the evidence so far) rock-solid stable and completely consistent. And, according to the BBC’s own figures, it’s enough for all three of us in the house to watch different iPlayer shows simultaneously. Which, if we’re honest, is what we’ll use it for.

Other thoughts? Although the slightly flimsy Zyxel black box router supplied didn’t exactly inspire confidence, it does give a decent WiFi signal. And it obtains the username/password magically when you plug it in, which is a neat touch.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on things, but on the basis of the first few weeks with this connection, I’d much rather have a slow and consistent ADSL line – and not have to deal with Virgin Media ever again.

Don’t deal with the XKCD store

Just a quick note to say, don’t ever even think of buying anything from the XKCD store.

My experience:

16 July: placed order on behalf of myself and several friends, and forked over £61 via PayPal. Warned shipping might take 5-7 weeks

16 September: no sign of anything. Chased by e-mail.

18 September: reply apologising and saying my order must be lost in the post by now. No online tracking? No way of chasing it? Seriously? In fairness, they offered me a replacement or a full refund, and I replied saying I’d take the refund.

3 October (after chasing several times!) – refund issued. I lost £2 to the exchange rate and two months’ interest on my money.

XKCD may be a good laugh, but its store seems to be a joke, and not the funny sort at that.