Adventures in Servertude

Stephen Yagielowicz
Regardless of how the economy is treating you for better or worse, it behooves all adult operators to periodically evaluate their infrastructure and its suitability to today's needs. For some that may mean downsizing office space and staffing levels, for others it may mean going hi-def, mobile or both. For me right now, it means consolidating websites and parked domains spread out across multiple web servers and hosting companies.

Like many webmasters, I have my share of old and unused hardware and more bandwidth capacity than I'm using. While there can be tremendous benefits to such redundancy, cost and maintenance issues aside, for me, the lack of consolidation is a process inefficiency that must be mitigated; and besides, if my hosting needs change again, adding another server is really easy.

In addition to this, I had another consideration: some of my new software is licensed for all of the domains on the same server as the software is installed: so the more the merrier!

And speaking of changing hosting needs, one of the criteria that I had when deciding which service to use to hold "everything" was that I wanted to have as much control as possible (read: "root access"), plus all the capacity I needed, so that I wouldn't have barriers to software and script installation and could perform common chores like adding domains or email addresses quickly and easily without having to bother support staff — or wait for their response.

Since I'm not pushing a lot of bandwidth right now, I chose a Virtual Private Server (VPS) with a generous feature set as the best fit for my needs. It uses Plesk and Virtuozzo — two software packages I've not used before and whose deeper concepts befuddle me, but as I learn more about them, you'll be sure to receive a few tips and tricks as well.

The VPS was an easy upgrade to the standard hosting I already had, only requiring a five-minute phone call and the retrieval of an email with new login info that arrived just as I hung up the phone — that's pretty much as painless as it gets and I hoped that everything else would go as smoothly.

One of the first steps that I took was to update my domain name inventory list — a spreadsheet listing my domain names along with any associated email addresses plus server and login info. While I try to stay on top of such things, it was clear that the list was suffering from the old "I'll just jot that info down on this paper here and add it to my spreadsheet later" syndrome. Once I had reconciled this spreadsheet to my registrar's listing of my portfolio, and to the active email accounts that I am using, I had a list of all the sites that needed to be moved or simply added to the new server. For the first time in at least several years — perhaps ever — all of my web properties will be under one roof, with all of the pros and cons that entails.

Since I had already done a fairly thorough job of scraping files from the other servers that had recently been hacked (the tale of which I've told here at XBIZ over the past months), I simply used the domain list to make sure "I got it all," and cleaned up any remaining files on the old servers while making sure that all the sites were accounted for, and then used it as a checklist to ensure that all those sites were re-added to the new account.

And it was right off the bat, while adding my first domain, that I ran into a problem I couldn't solve. Sure, it's my fault because it's as likely to be 6 a.m. and my first cup of coffee when I'm trying to do this as it is midnight with my milk and cookies. Either way, new data comprehension is not my strong suit at those times and the wicked temptation to avoid reading the instructions fully and just begin clicking won out.

I usually dread calling support numbers these days, as I tend to end up talking to someone on the other side of the world. Language and dialectical barriers aside, the first level of folks you get to talk to don't like to deviate from their script (and rightfully so), which results in having to run through a laundry list of "are you sure the computer is plugged in to an electrical outlet and the power switch is on?" questions.

Me, I just needed to know the DNS information, thinking naively that it was a simple matter of seeing "use" on a FAQ somewhere, since it didn't appear in the drop down list of servers I was used to dealing with. I couldn't find this information listed anywhere, so I called the support line.

I went through a few phone menus and waited less than a minute to be connected with someone who seemed eager to help and started trying to walk me through the domain setup process — but as I am an impatient fellow who thought he knew what he wanted, I kept interrupting the tech, getting more agitated with each repeat of my request for the damn server name.

"Sir, you're not letting me finish," he kept saying; and since I felt bad for him having to constantly deal with irate bastards like me, I stopped long enough to listen to him explain that a specific DNS would automatically be assigned to me once I pushed a button in the Account Manager. They have a long list of DNS and he just couldn't tell me which to use until I pushed the big button.

As my lovely wife Dawn is fond of saying after she produces an item from the cupboard that I failed to locate (and subsequently and loudly lament our lack of): "You have to bend down and look in the back!"

I'm sure the chap I spoke to was likewise annoyed by having to deal with me, another client who just didn't scroll far enough down the page to find the link he needed to click.

After the DNS issue was resolved, the technician commented that a few of my settings seemed wrong — I explained that that would be a case of operator error — and he helped me to get everything working correctly.

"This is going to be a long process," I thought to myself, as I began wading through the dozens of Plesk and Virtuozzo video tutorials in their support section, hopefully teaching myself enough to keep the machine humming along nicely.

While I'm delighted to have this level of flexibility and control over my web-hosting infrastructure, it is indeed much easier to send an email to your hosting support staff to ask for this or that to be done. The problem is that sometimes, like when requesting root access to install a script, they simply won't allow it — depending on the host and plan.

Although I've always considered server issues to be "problems with the plumbing" that require the help of specialists, managing some of these resources in-house may provide greater opportunity — but at the risk of busting something that you use to make a living.

Of course, there is always the support line.