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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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Reclaiming WordPress Multisite

Lauren Brumfield already announced that we’re officially rolling out WordPress Multisite (WPMS) hosting at Reclaim. What’s more, she created an online calculator that provides transparent pricing going forward, which is a big part of why we’re finally announcing something we have done for years. While we’ve been pretty laser-focused on shared hosting and Domain of One’s Own for the last four years, we’ve still picked up more than a few WPMS instances. In fact, we jumped in at the deep-end of the pool when we started hosting the colossus that is VCU’s Rampages. As a result Tim was able to really fine-tune high demand WPMS environments like Rampages, and we’re in a situation where we can comfortably manage just about anything out there in higher ed.

It’s fun for me because I cut my teeth on WordPress Multiuser (even before it was multisite), and when Tim came onboard at UMW the first thing we asked him was how he felt about managing UMW Blogs. The rest is Reclaim history, he proved an insanely quick study and went from UMW Blogs to Hippie Hosting to Domain of One’s Own to Reclaim Hosting in two short years. That’s a resume!

back to the future, we really weren’t comfortable with announcing WPMS at Reclaim too early because we were experimenting with different setups across various data centers like AWS, Linode, and Digital Ocean, so things were always custom based on several factors which meant the pricing varied. But when Digital Ocean recently announced their new plans and pricing model, we were sure we had a solid setup through Digital Ocean that would allow us to stabilize our WPMS offerings as well as making them extremely competitive when it comes to pricing.

Before we could announce anything we had to reach out to all existing customers we and let them know of the new setup, for many of them this meant a significant savings. Once took care of that, we figured it was high time to officially announce that we are in the WPMS hosting business. So if you have a WPMS site you want to offload to external hosting, let’s talk. Pricing is simple: server, backups, and software licensing (Bitninja, cPanel, etc) at cost, whereas our monthly maintenance and management fees starts at $250 per month. This model finally allows us to decouple server and software costs from management demands, and establishes a baseline for what our time is worth to ensure you get the service we’re known for. It also makes clear that what you pay us for is not the hardware or software, but the peace of mind that tried and true experts are on the job. I mean let’s be honest here, this isn’t some hack outfit working from a ramshackle UMW office in duPont Hall trying to duct tape together some kind of chitty-chitty-bang-bang syndication solution, we’re professionals—and for that you must pay!

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Hosting VCU’s Ram Pages

Reclaim Hosting has been hosting VCU’s Ram Pages as of the beginning of the Spring semester. It reinforces for me there is nothing Tim Owens can’t do, another yet another example of the powerful ripple effects of #ds106 on edtech. We’ve been loath to proclaim victory too soon given what a beast Ram Pages is. And I thought we had a blogging revolution at UMW! In two short years Ram Pages has been home to over 16,000 blogs for 15,500 users. That’s nothing short of mind boggling. Tom Woodward—in his quiet, self-defacing way—has built and managed a blog empire at VCU’s ALT Lab, and over the last 6-8 months Tim and I have been trying to figure out how the hell we would migrate it cleanly given it can grow at intervals of 1000 users any given week.

Hosting VCU’s Ram Pages

We (royal for Tim) moved it over Christmas vacation on to a beefy Linode instance running Ubuntu, Varnish, and Nginx after sharding the database to 256. Yesterday we finally got the second backup solution working, which in addition to nightly snapshots we now have file-level, off-site backups through R1Soft Licenses (more on that in another post). This may be one of the largest, most active academic blogging systems in higher ed, and it is a real source of pride that we’re hosting it. And I saying this knowing full-well it is a total jinx [crosses fingers]….it’s been rock solid so far. Don’t ever question the power of Reclaiming!

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Reclaim Hosting

It’s been an exciting past few days as Jim and I launched Reclaim Hosting and began building out the system to support the signups. We sat down today to talk about a bit more about it, including some of the software we’re using, as well as talking more about the idea of Distributed EdTech (#dedtech) and the ability for a community to pool their resources around complex topics and systems like this. It’s also been a blast to just get in front of the camera, fire up the livestream, and start doing DTLT Today again. I think it’s going to be one of many avenues we use going forward not only to narrate our process on the work we’re doing, but also to server as a way to provide professional development for this pilot in the next 6 months.
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An Update on Reclaiming Efforts

An Update on Reclaiming Efforts

A few weeks ago when Google announced the discontinuation of Google Reader effective July 1st what began as a moderate approach to reclaiming things here and there that were important to me was sent into a tailspin. Maybe that seems dramatic but the Reader shutdown really hits home to me possibly because it's one of the first services to shut its doors on me that I personally used every single day, often several times a day. It's hard to trust a company after something like that and more importantly it raised larger issues about what the RSS landscape looked like before a heavy like Google came in and wiped out the competition only to bow out now. I had briefly flirted with the idea of getting off Google servers but now it was personal. So here's what I've done in the meantime:

Fever

Their have been tons of blog posts detailing all the various Google Reader alternatives out there. Most of them feel like switching from one proprietary web platform to another. The idea of hosting my own solution appealed to me and paying a nominal fee to a developer I've admired and respected for years was the icing on the cake. I've been using Fever since the day the shutdown was announced and it's been absolutely great. I save items I enjoy which feed into a widget at the bottom of this blog. If there's one thing I wish it had that would be a "mark as unread" feature since I used that previously to keep posts available to me. I've been trying to retrain myself to "save" items I want to come back to which works ok but not as well. I will say I'm a bit hesitant to how well Fever will be supported given Shaun's blog post about the current state of it but regardless it's working well now and since it's hosted in my space I can use it without worry of a company attempting to monetize or close its doors on me. ### Mail

Gmail was always expected to be one of the hardest ones for me to give up. I'm not sure why that is, I'm certainly not a power user of many of its features and most of time I'm checking my mail through a client with its own featureset anyway. I connected Apple Mail to Gmail over IMAP to download all of my email and then setup a mailbox on my hosting server, connected that to Apple Mail, and dragged it all into an Archive folder there. I setup a forward on Gmail to my new address, changed the contact for as many of the services I could think of (that's an ongoing thing), and never looked back. I have to say this was one of those switches that I expected to be worse than it really was. I'm rarely using the web client but when I need to Roundcube on Hippie Hosting is pretty nice (and there's a whole host of plugins for it I haven't even explored much yet). The hardest part is getting people to know the new address but with all email from the Gmail address coming to me and my replies coming from the new address I'm hopeful over time that will self-correct (I thought about setting an auto-reply letting the user know of the change but figured that could cause real problems with mailing lists so I didn't do it). ### Google Docs

Switching away from Google Docs has been a lot harder. Getting an archive of everything I had was pretty easy thanks to Google Takeout so I grabbed everything and dropped it into an archive folder in my ownCloud folder. But the fact remains there are no good web alternatives to Google Docs. There are plenty of repositories but not many collaborative editing suites and none as robust. I've played with a hosted install of etherpad-lite which works ok but it's not great and the server demands make it a non-starter for most people that don't have their own dedicated box. For now I'll have to keep my account active but with a focus on doing more with local documents rather than making GDocs the default environment for all of my document editing which was previously starting to become the case. ### Google Groups

I subscribe to just a small handful of Google Groups which are basically listservs with a forum-style frontend. Sadly there does not appear to be a way to subscribe and interact with a group without a Google account. A few searches appeared to show some promise but the information is outdated and none of the things I tried work anymore. I get the digest emails to my new email address since Gmail forwards over but I can't respond via email and if I want to interact with the thread I have to log in with my Google account. Ugh. So yeah, a few wins, a few losses. Overall I can honestly say this hasn't been as painful as I would have expected. Especially for something as big as email which I use so regularly. I think we often get caught up in the fear of the unknown and we let it paralyze us from exploring these alternatives. Google is our comfortable Lord and ruler. It's been refreshing to notice I'm no longer signed into a Google account all the time and my life is no worse for it (and in many ways better). Photo Credit: Alan Levine