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Hosting Futures

Yesterday I was part of a call between Reclaim Hosting, Cloudron, and Bates College to talk about what piloting a mashup of LAMP and Docker-container based hosting might look like for Bates’s newest academic program Digital and Computational Studies (DCS). It’s a fascinating program, and description below gives you an idea of what this program is all about:

It is neither a computer science department, nor a data science program, nor media studies, nor a digital humanities program… but instead, a bit of all of these. DCS is charged with bringing academic computing to the full breadth of the liberal arts at Bates.

This means that we hope to develop a program that introduces students to the fundamentals of programming, but also provides computational/digital space for students, regardless of discipline, to discover the intersection of their course of study and the networked, computational world that field is now and forever steeped in.

I really dig this description, the idea of making the fundamentals of programming and computational thinking the foundation of an interdisciplinary program seems truly unique. I was asked by a college-age student in Berlin a couple of weeks back what I would recommend in terms of programs, and I have to say this one strikes me as a very interesting disciplinary approach to the digital world. The first of what’s soon to be a triumvirate of faculty, Matthew Jadud, has a Computer Science background and studies the behaviour of novice programmers, and this summer mathematician Carrie Diaz Eaton (who focuses on Mathematical Ecology) and long-time Davidson Domains champion and historian Anelise Shrout (focusing on nineteenth-century American History and Digital Humanities) will be joining the program’s faculty.

To support this new program, they’re looking for a unique approach to infrastructure. They want to provide everything from publishing software like WordPress to integrated development environments (IDE) like Amazon’s Cloud9 or Eclipse CHE—with various options and offerings in-between. While a LAMP environment can take care of publishing apps like WordPress, Omeka, Scalar, etc. web-based programming environments open up a whole new world, as do applications like Etherpad, Gitlab, Rocket.chat, etc. So, this is where working with Cloudron to integrate their supported applications through our current Domain of One’s Own setup would be awesome. It will require thinking through managing user permissions, but enabling container-based apps would significantly augment our current hosting options.

During this discussion Carrie Diaz Eaton shared the work she has been part of with QUBES: “a community of math and biology educators who share resources and methods for preparing students to tackle real, complex, biological problems.” QUBES is built on top of a project that came out of Purdue University called HUBzero, a service which provides focused community sites, course spaces, open educational resource sharing, and access to applications used heavily in the sciences, such as R, Latex, Jupyter Notebooks, etc. That last bit blew me away, HUBzero effectively allows faculty to setup a course space and provide their students access to open source tools for various kinds of scientific data analysis with software like R-Studio, NetLogo, Mesquite, etc.

While Carrie was talking I was reminded how firmly Reclaim Hosting is planted in the Digital Humanities community—which has been very awesome to us. But seeing QUBES and how many focused tools exist for the sciences that I have no clue about was a wake up call. The world seemed big again.. What’s more, realizing instances like QUBES run on top of HUBZero re-focused the discussion to disciplinary communities sharing resources for teaching and learning (the tools being one part of that equation) which pointed to a more vertically integrated stack for courses. HUBzero is effectively providing a very targeted LMS for particular courses that expose their students to a range of tools in order to do the work. HUBzero sets up the server environments and does all the integrations—and from what I can tell this is possible based on a foundation model that looks for other schools to join and help support the initiative. I’m not sure they also offer one-off hosting for such communities,  but that is something I’ll try and follow-up on.

In fact, there is most definitely a bunch I’m missing and/or misunderstanding about all of this, but after hearing Matt explain what they are looking for as part of their DCS program and seeing the work Carrie has already been apart of it struck me that these virtual, cloud-based hosted environments for web-based programming, data analysis, and publishing are already happening (Reclaim is just one of them), the question that interests me is which of them will be able to make the process of integrating these environments for a campus clean, easy, and elegant. It will be interesting to watch (and hopefully participate in) the shaping of this next generation of online hosted learning environments. And from what I have seen there will be no one ring to rule them all, but thoughtful integrations to make them seamlessly work together.

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Talking Cloudron at #OER18

Tim and Jim talking CloudRon

Image credit: Lauren Brumfield

I was part of two sessions at OER18 a couple of weeks ago. Lauren Brumfield already blogged and shared the slides of the session she authored on Digital Literacy. I say authored rather than presented because, unfortunately, she fell ill on day 2, and Tim, Meredith, and myself had to step in and deliver the talk. It went off seamlessly because Lauren had already written us into the plot, but the design and execution was all Lauren’s doing—we were just errand boys and girls sent by a grocery clerk to collect a bill ?

Digital Literacy: Reclaiming Your Space

Meredith also presented, and I will post about that separately, but it’s worth taking a moment to comment on the importance of having everyone at Reclaim Hosting getting comfortable with proposing and presenting their ideas at conferences. I know it was huge for me when I was encouraged to present as soon as I started working at UMW. I was pushed to work with the rest of DTLT to hone how we told our story, and that resulted in so much goodness over the years. It’s important to provide a space for exploration and narration as part of life at Reclaim, and OER18 provided an intimate, welcome environment for us to do just that—even beyond Reclaim Video ?

So, having some time to present with Tim about the possible future of Reclaim Hosting in beyond the LAMP environment was a lot of fun. We focused on our explorations of CloudRon, which was timely, given we have a couple of schools particularly interested in exploring a container-driven environment like this for their respective programs.

What is CloudRon? It’s an open source environment for running containerized applications, making it simple to run apps in Node.js, Ruby, etc. which do not run cleanly in a LAMP environment. Below are the slides from our 15 minute lightening presentation, not necessarily all that informative given they are screenshots, but basically comparing cPanel to the CloudRon experience—although to be clear it is not necessarily one or the other.

We discussed how folks have pared down cPanel to just WordPress to make things easier, as well as how software like CloudLinux for cPanel has made it possible to install Ruby apps like Jekyl or Node.js apps like Ghost, but the process is not easy. From there we looked at how dead-simple Cloudron has made it not only to install applications, but map DNS, and even copy and share applications templates. It’s an increasingly compelling space for us to be exploring, and we are fortunate enough to have a couple of partners interested, so I imagine you’ll be hearing much more on this front from Reclaim in the coming months.

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A Personal Private CRM

A Personal Private CRM

Last month I forgot to call my dad on his birthday. It's certainly not the first time I have forgotten something important. I'm not wired in the necessary way to piece together all the important bits of information that would make me "thoughtful". Maybe that's a red herring and I'm just not a thoughtful person, but I'd like to think that's not the case and life just gets in the way like I'm sure many reading this can sympathize.

Today I came across a really interesting application called Monica and while I'm certainly reticent throw software at all my problems, I can't deny the possibility that having a smartphone or email or even shudder Facebook has helped me stay in touch with people. Monica bills itself as a "Personal Relationship Manager" and if you're familiar with the CRM acronym (Customer Relationship Manager) in the context of running a business, you can start to see where this could be useful. In Monica, you can add family, friends, and others you meet in your walks in life along with any information you have on them. Monica will remind you when birthdays are coming up or other important events. If you saved gift ideas for them it would have those. You can see relationship connections to know who is married to whom. If you were really masochistic you could log all your interactions with all of these people there (spoiler alert: I won't be doing anything quite that crazy).

Best of all Monica is open source so I was able to install it on my own domain and start playing with it. All the data is private to me and not shared with any other social media platforms. Like any relationship manager, you likely get out of it what you put in so I will have to regularly add information to find real use there. But even if it's nothing more than birthdays that could be useful to someone like me. I hope to see more integrations to take advantages of the platforms like Facebook that already have a lot of information to avoid all the tedious data entry and perhaps better notification options beyond getting emails. But the core idea that I have space on my domain where I can keep track of the relationships in my life is interesting to me and gets at the heart of what I think it means to have a domain of your own. It's not all WordPress blogs out there.

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OER 18: Reclaim Video & Cloudron

Now that I’m on the tail end of this trip, I feel like I can finally wrap my head around the last 10 days and gather my thoughts for a blog post. Last week, the Reclaim team met in Bristol for the OER 18 Conference. The entire experience was definitely a mix of ups and downs, but that’s not a result of OER’s doing; I got sick and had to back out of the second day of the conference & my presentation slot. (Ugh, talk about timing.) It was a huge bummer to prepare so hard for something to then not have a chance to share it, but I’m incredibly grateful to be apart of such a solid team that was able to step in for me. Apparently, they rocked the house!

It was always my intention to share the presentation slides & summarize the talk in a post after the fact for reference, so I’ll definitely be doing that as my small way to make up for missing the real deal. But first, I wanted to share other photos and thoughts from the first day of the conference because it was incredible! After running the Domains 17 conference last year, I have a much deeper level of respect for the folks that run these events year after year, especially when they’re done so thoughtfully and seamlessly.

Day One

^On our way out the door for the first day of #OER18!

Firstly, the venue for the OER event was absolutely wonderful. The conference took place on the second floor of a theater that sat right on the water. There was a cafe, plenty of space to catch up with friendly faces, and talks were given in traditional auditorium-like spaces.

Reclaim Video also made a grand entrance by introducing the promo video for domains, new website, and hosting a VHS table situated in one of the main conference galleries. Reclaim Video even convinced Reclaim Hosting to change their look as well. :)

^This artwork created by Bryan Mathers has been a long time coming– it was created back when we were envisioning how Reclaim Video would mesh with Reclaim Hosting. I’ve written a post sharing these details here.

Later that day, Jim and Tim gave a 15-min lightning talk on Cloudron.io which was super awesome to hear. The point of the presentation was to give a (brief) overview of the ‘app store’-like hosting environment, how we’re considering Cloudron’s potential as a part of Reclaim’s future, and whether or not audience members might be interested in something like this. Though the talk was short, being able to gauge the audience’s reaction was incredibly rewarding.

It’s safe to say that the Reclaim Team left all the more motivated to continue thinking through how Cloudron might be integrated with or (dare I say it) replace cPanel one day. Tim has already begun to build out the beginnings of a Cloudron interface/DoOO alternative, but I’ll save that for another post. ;)

I also felt particularly attached to the keynote at the end of day one given by Dr. Momodou Sallah, a Reader in Globalisation and Global Youth Work at the Social Work, Youth and Community Division, De Montfort University, UK. I was drawn to the work he’s done for and with Global Hands, a Social Enterprise/Charity operating in The Gambia.

I was heavily involved in outreach/charity work throughout my high school & college years, so his talk really pulled at my heartstrings. I also thought it was an incredibly refreshing take on the Openness theme in an OER conference setting. For me, Dr. Sallah’s talk was an important reminder that learning in the open extends way beyond the traditional 4-walled, classroom setting. There’s always more we can be and should be doing to bring underprivileged areas of the world up to speed with not only the latest technologies of learning but the basic necessities of human life.

After his talk, we all made our way outside to end Day One with a beautiful boat tour around the venue:

Super thankful to have been apart of this conference, if only for a day. And a special thanks to Maren Deepwell, Martin Hawksey, and the rest of the OER team for pulling off an incredible event & helping us bring our Reclaim Video dreams to life.

Stay tuned for an overview of the Workshop presentation summary post!

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Digital Ocean’s One-Click Apps vs. Cloudron

Digital Ocean has been en fuego as of late. They announced a whole bunch of new droplet plans, and the price-point for all of them has gone down. This is very good news for Reclaim Hosting because it gives us some breathing room with our infrastructure costs allowing us to continue to keep costs low.  We have been slowly moving most of our infrastructure from Linode and ReliableSite to Digital Ocean, and we could not be happier. They are constantly improving their offerings, and being in a virtual environment where we can increase storage or scale CPU instantaneously makes our life (and our clients’) a lot easier.
One-click Apps at Digital Ocean

One-click Apps at Digital Ocean

In addition to new plans and pricing, I noticed they were featuring one-click apps as well (though not sure how new this is), and I took a peak to see what they offered. It was interesting to see that some of the application they featured, namely Discourse (the forum software) and Ghost (the blogging app), were apps Reclaim was offering beyond our shared hosting cPanel-based LAMP stack. Given we’ve been exploring a one-click option with Cloudron (I recently blogged about setting up Ghost using Cloudron) I wanted to compare Digital Ocean’s idea of one-click to Cloudron’s. Long story short, there is no comparison. Here is Digital Ocean’s command line interface for setting up Ghost:

Command line interface during Ghost setup on Digital Ocean’s one-click apps

Here is Cloudron’s:

One-click install of Ghost on Cloudron

Digital Ocean is amazing at what they do, but their idea of one-click installs still assumes a sysadmin level of knowledge, which, to be fair, make sense given they are a service designed for sysadmins. When I tried the Ghost app it was, indeed, installed on a droplet in seconds, but the actual configuration to setup required full-blown tutorial for command line editing the setup. In addition to the domain pointing, this was setting up SSL and Nginx, granted that simply meant typing “yes” or “no” and clicking enter, but even when you did the setup was not guaranteed. After following the tutorial to the letter I still got the Nginx 502 bad gateway error, which means I was stuck.

Ghost 502 Bad Gateway Nginx Error

I could have tried to troubleshoot the 502 error, but at this point it was just a test and from my experience it was far from one-click.

Discourse example

I then tried the Discourse, and this was definitely easier than Ghost. It still required a tutorial, but that was primarily focused on setting up an SMTP account through Mailgun so the application could send email. After that, the setup was simple, but again the one-click setup process on Digital Ocean assumes an understanding of API-driven transactional email services like Mailgun or Sparkpost. Cloudron does not have a Discourse installer, so no real comparison there, but if it could manage the SMTP email setup in the background, I imagine it would be just as simple as their Ghost installer. I’m glad I explored Digital Ocean’s one-click application offerings because it confirms for me the potential power of tools like Cloudron that truly make it simple to install applications. Our community by and large will not be folks with sysadmin level knowledge, so integrating a solution that is truly one-click, avoiding DNS and command line editing,  would be essential.
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Look a(nother) Ghost

Since May of 2014 I have been playing on and off with the blogging platform Ghost. It has been an on again off again affair, and I have never left WordPress for it, but rather use it as a test bed for exploring how Reclaim might host applications outside the LAMP stack—an ongoing theme for us over the last 3 or 4 years. So, I have been marking my progress with running Ghost both here on the bava as well as on my Ghost blog. I talked about the idea of this as the Next Generation Sandbox, experimented with getting Ghost running on AWS using Bitnami, feeble terminal work, setting up key pairs in AWS, moving to Reclaim’s container-based setup for a kind of multi-site Ghost, setting up mail for Ghost, and most recently using Cloudron to setup Ghost.

Seven posts over three years about (and on) Ghost is not that much in the end (running out of punny titles), but reading over them whiling writing this I realized there’s a lot of learning wrapped up in trying to figure out AWS, Bitnami images, command line, Docker containers, and Cloudron. All stuff I have been trying to focus on more an more, so this side site in many ways lives up to its subtitle: “Letters from the Cloud.” And I came back to it recently because while I blogged about setting up Ghost through Cloudron back in September, my Ghost instance on Reclaim had been terminated when we decided to no longer offer it through Reclaim Hosting. Given my Ghost blogging had been dormant for a while, I totally forgot I was hosting it through Reclaim and it vanished. Luckily I blogged everything on Ghost through the bava, so nothing was lost, and I had backups of all images, etc. So, I used the occasion of things finally slowing down at Reclaim Hosting and my being under the weather to finally get BavaGhost back online, and now it is!

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And you get a server, and you get a server, and you….

I have been remiss in responding to Keegan’s post in early August exploring the idea of “A Server of One’s Own,” but I have not forgotten it. In fact, what he outlines in that post is something that dogs me regularly. Namely, how can we provide more options for folks when it comes to hosting a more diverse array of applications beyond what Domain of One’s Own currently provides.

Let me explain. As it stands right now, Domain of One’s Own has definitive technical limitations given it is built around a LAMP server environment. What does that mean? Well, it means beyond HTML, you are pretty much limited to PHP, Python, and Perl scripting languages. Also, it only supports the Apache web server software and MySQL (or MariaDB) databases. In other words, it is a specific server environment (a.k.a stack) that only supports specific applications. But given the wild success of PHP apps over the last 15 years, in particular WordPress, for most of us web plebeians that has been enough.

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