Winning in Last Place

There has been a major transition in my work over the past 3 months that is worth noting and applauding. We had some goals in place last year that I would be able to remove myself as much as possible from the day to day support tickets. For a variety of reasons that goal wasn't met by the end of 2019, but with a new year we've had a lot of developments that have moved the needle dramatically.

The first big change is Meredith Fierro taking on the role interim Customer Support Manager. Meredith has been an incredible asset to Reclaim Hosting since she began as a student intern 3 years ago. Today not only is she using her wealth of institutional knowledge of the ins and outs of the business to manage our support infrastructure, but she's also risen to the challenge of learning how to manage people, time, and projects in this role and we couldn't be happier.

The second change was bringing one of our part-timers, Gordon Hawley, on a full time customer support rep. Gordon works Afternoon-Evening 5 days a week covering one of the weekend days as well and his quick rise from part time to full is testament to just how awesome he has been on the job. The hosting industry has a lot of quirks since you're essentially dealing with computers and computers can be complex odd beasts on occasion. Gordon works so well with customers, he's patient and works through issues that come up with what on the face of it might seem like relative ease. Most important for me, he's not afraid to ask for help and so I'm seeing a growing community of sharing and learning within the team that makes me very happy.

Third would be having another UMW rockstar Chris Blankenship working under me as a Junior Linux Systems Administrator. Chris was actually promoted to this role back in September after working as a part time support rep for 3 months (are you seeing a trend here? When we see people doing good work we're quick to lock them into full time jobs so they don't leave!). Having someone work with me on the technical side of our growing infrastructure honestly always felt like a football we would kick down the field with plans to address another day, it feels surreal to be there now. Chris is super smart and a scripting wizard. He's helped script out our provisioning process for new schools to the point where we can almost setup an entire custom server environment in a matter of hours with the majority of the work happening in the background while we play pinball in the office ;). Chris has also been running point on some of the escalated issues that come up in support tickets, putting another barrier between me and support.

And as if all of this wasn't good enough, we managed to steal the talents of Katie Hartraft who is a senior at UMW and currently working at the DKC as well. She's been working part time with us covering the other half of the nights/weekend shifts and rounding out a powerhouse team of folks that get the job done on support each and every day. I've been super impressed with how quickly Katie has managed to learn and master the various tools we use like WHMCS to be responsive to tickets as they come in.

Tickets by Assignee past 30 Days

So the whole reason this post was brewing was due to me checking our stats on ticket load given I've definitely been feeling the relief and sure enough it's a milestone moment. I have never held that last place spot, pretty sure since we began the company I've almost always been at the top of this list or fairly close to it. Instead you have a support team that is striking a balance to relieve me of that burden. Not to mention just look at those first response times across all hours and days! And I can imagine the next step when Jim moves back from Italy will be reduce his involvement as well.

It feels really good to build in structure to this company. I can remember the early days of folks being super concerned that Reclaim was essentially just Jim and I and what would happen if they sign a contract and then we bail? Well not only are we still around but these days I can honestly say we have redundancy and an entire team keeping this ship running day in and day out. It's a welcome change of pace that has allowed me to more acutely focus on the arcade venture and will help Jim and I both ensure that Reclaim Hosting can sustain itself beyond some passionate founders. Here's to 2020 and beyond!

Hacking the JAMstack

Hacking the JAMstack

Do you follow the Reclaim Hosting Blog? If not, now is a great time to subscribe as the whole team has been doing intentional learning topics each month and as Jim reminds everyone, The blogosphere is hot! I caught some of this late since my life is practically consumed by the arcade these days, but I wanted to participate so I joined the most recent meeting where the group reflected on files and folder structures on a hosting server. This next month is all about WordPress and the topic is timely as ever as Lauren notes that we're thinking through things like documentation and presentation in the Domain of One's Own interfaces we provide schools.

But this post is not only about WordPress, it goes a bit deeper down a rabbit hole that I've only just this past week entered in which I'm learning more about something called the JAMstack. Now, the idea is not wholly unfamiliar to me. It's very much built on the idea of the headless CMS and Jim and I got a great introduction to that via Tom, Matt, and Jeff at VCU when they showed us how they were using a blog on RamPages to drive a public VCU site on a server they had no control over as a static site pulling content from the blog via API. Jim wrote about that at https://bavatuesdays.com/headless-at-vcus-alt-lab/. So what's JAMstack? Well the term refers not to a particular CMS headless or not, but rather the idea of running static sites where the content is pregenerated. So in other words instead of pulling content on the fly via API (which might be fast for a small site, but perhaps not so when the API gives you thousands of results with a lot of stuff you don't need), a JAMstack setup would have the entire site generated as HTML and any new publish action would trigger a rebuild of that site. The files can then be stored in a git repository and hosted via CDN for performance. No PHP, Node, Go, or any other language necessary to run the site making it screaming fast and easy as hell to host.

Going back to some of the ideas driving this, it feels to me like a long running goal since even when I was at UMW was this idea of how we could share documentation across institutions via some type of centralized repository. Could we have a Github repo with tons of DoOO documentation written in Markdown and allow folks to contribute there or fork it for their own needs but also allow folks who want to use it in WP to do so but also offer static site variants for other needs? Seems a lofty goal, but I have to believe some of this technology is staring us in the face. I mean if Hugo is good enough for D'Arcy who am I to question it?! ;) I'm also taking a deeper look at the work Alan did with CC on their certifications as I think there could be some interesting stuff there.

Back to the JAMstack because this post really is an initial brain dump of where I am and not a tutorial or fully fleshed out post at all. A couple core tools that many are using for this stuff:

It's worth noting that a static site doesn't necessarily have to give up dynamic content in this scenario. The key to pulling in dynamic content (say allowing someone to search a term on your site) is using APIs to poll that specific content and inject the results into your static site using Javascript. Another huge benefit to this is security. When the end user is only interfacing with your content via a static intermediary it makes it much harder for a potential hacker to decipher how they might get access to that content.

This is super early stages but what better use of blogging than putting it all out there as a starting point to bounce off of? I've got a lot of reading and writing to do this coming month but my goal is to have some type of use case with DoOO Documentation living in Github and being served up via a static site with authoring happening in WordPress and perhaps other places as well. Let's see how this goes!

More PHP Updates

Traditionally Reclaim Hosting (like many hosts I'm sure) has trailed a bit behind on pushing bleeding edge versions of PHP for our clients. Maybe that's a symptom of how much of the web still has a ways to go in terms of compatibility, but we want to start pushing things a bit further on our end. At the end of last year we moved the default version of PHP on our servers to 7.0 and several years ago we added the ability for users to manage the PHP version for their sites (guide at https://community.reclaimhosting.com/t/changing-your-php-version/1619) and you can even specify this on a per domain/subdomain basis.

In the next 2 weeks we will be working to ensure that all of our servers have PHP versions as high as 7.3 available for users to optionally use with their sites. If you want to run bleeding edge new, you can opt in to that.

On July 30th 2019, we will make PHP 7.2 the default version for all clients who have not selected an alternative version. In your cPanel account you will find there is an option selected by default for a domain to run the "inherit" version which is whatever the server default is, and that is what will change.

For users who expect incompatibility issues, you have the option of keeping a domain on an older version of PHP, as far back as 5.6. We have to strongly recommend that you not do this due to PHP 5.6 and PHP 7 being end of life and no longer receiving security updates. Newer versions of PHP not only have greater security, there are performance benefits with improved caching and procedural functions to be gained as well. In many cases ensuring you are running the most recent version of whatever software or content management system you use as well as plugins and themes is enough to ensure compatibility, and in fact in some cases like Grav and Moodle, newer version require PHP 7.1+ to work.

We will not be removing PHP 5.6 in the short term, but users should be aware that it is end of life and in the not too distant future will be seen as a very high security risk so there is no better time than now to ensure that your sites are compatible with newer versions of PHP.

As always we are available to answer any questions so please do submit a support ticket if you have any!

Commons in a Box comes to Reclaim Hosting

Commons in a Box comes to Reclaim Hosting

We are excited to announce that we have partnered with the Commons in a Box project to bring an automated installer to the Reclaim Hosting platform. This follows on the heals of their 1.1.0 release which introduced the concept of "packages" that allow for different community types to be automated. As part of that effort a new "OpenLab" package (used by OpenLab at City Tech) is available during install with a focus on teaching and learning.

Commons in a Box comes to Reclaim Hosting

The work to bring CBOX to Reclaim began over a year ago as part of an NEH-funded grant and we couldn't be more excited to make the software available to our community. This installer is not exclusive to our institutional clients, rather all servers will have the ability to quickly install and run Commons in a Box. That being said, we recognize that for many the potential of the software is to build a space for large communities and so we have a focused Managed Hosting option at Reclaim where we can run a dedicated server for your CBOX project including options like single sign-on.

A huge thanks to all the fine folks at the Commons in a Box project for working with us to make this happen!

Honest Pricing for All

Reclaim Hosting recently celebrated it's 5th birthday in late July, and during that 5 years we've only had to increase the cost of an account 1 time as a result of adding WHOIS protection by default to all accounts which came at a cost (which Jim wrote about here). As we've grown we've done our best to increase functionality by adding things like offsite backup servers, plugins that allowed advanced Ruby, Python, and Node.JS support, and free SSL certificates for all accounts via Let's Encrypt. All without doing what is very much the industry norm, which is to monetize all the things, luring people in with loss leaders and then hiding costs behind renewals and basic features. We have also always included a free domain registration with the purchase of a hosting plan making it dead simple and extremely inexpensive to get started with an account. For a student hosting plan this means that half of the cost of an account is subsidized by Reclaim Hosting before things like storage and server costs are even calculated. And that's something we plan to continue to do because remaining inexpensive for students and faculty is a key part of why we do what we do, and we want to build a company that can help folks get started in an honest way with clear pricing.

You were probably reading all of the above waiting for the shoe to drop that we are raising our prices. We're not. What you see at Reclaim Hosting is what you get and for now until our costs rise significantly and force our hand, we have no intention of raising the cost of our hosting plans. However one frustration we've had in the past is that despite our low costs, we are often asked if we have any discounts. Despite absorbing a lot of the cost to keep the student plan low, we do have folks mention they are in education as justification that a $30/year plan should be further discounted. Or a faculty member plans to have a group of students sign up and wants to see if they can get the price lower. I get it, I really do. But the harsh reality is that in a world where the norm is to artificially raise prices higher than they should be and then offer supposed "discounts", we are taking an alternative approach and offering honest pricing for everyone. And that means having to say no to discounts.

For years now we've tried our best to balance the rising cost of registering domains while keeping our prices low and to still occasionally throw out a discount here or there for 10% off. Early on we even allowed folks to set themselves up as "affiliates" and provide codes to others that would give both them a discount and credit back to the person who provided the code. In order to maintain a superior level of service and keep to our honest pricing model we need to deprecate these features.

So at the end of the year we will be terminating and removing any outstanding discount codes that are currently floating around (note that this does not apply to bulk purchases made by groups to waive the cost for their students). We will be closing out the affiliate program and processing any outstanding credit for users that took advantage of it. Going forward we will stick to clear and honest pricing without discounts with the hope of being able to continue providing the best deal in the industry without the upsell or hidden costs. We appreciate the support that the educational community has given us over the years and plan to continue to make our service better while keeping costs low for years to come.

App Release: Big Picture Calling Card

App Release: Big Picture Calling Card

Reclaim Hosting has long been a big fan of the work that Alan Levine is doing with SPLOTs (Smallest Possible learning...object...tools? Who knows what it actually stands for). The idea, born out of the work Alan was doing with Brian Lamb's group at TRU, was to make simple tools built on top of WordPress that solved simple problems. For users in Canada it was especially important that no logins be required. A suite of tools were developed and Alan has gone on to continue maintaining them and even developed additional ones like "Calling Card" themes for personal sites and packaging up the DS106 Assignment Bank and Daily Create into standalone packages.

As Jim wrote about earlier, we had visions of bringing Alan on in a fellowship role to work with us on developing many of these tools into standalone installers in our Reclaim Hosting environment. I'm happy to announce that the first of many goes live today, the Big Picture Calling Card.

Big Picture is a theme developed by Alan and based off of an HTML5UP theme of the same name. It's a single page landing site that works well for personal sites as well as small projects where you may want all the information on a single page. Now, installing a theme isn't necessarily hard, and Alan has done a lot of work documenting both in his Github repository as well as on his blog how to get up and running. But for users brand new to WordPress even the act of installing themes, activating plugins, and configuring settings in Customizer can be a hell of a learning curve (a great learning opportunity in my opinion, but a curve nonetheless). In the same way that creating an installer for Omeka has opened the doors for many more folks to work with that software we have seen time and again how building applications for our environment can simply the amount of onboarding necessary to build out amazing stuff.

Big Picture Calling Card is rolling out to servers over the next 24 hours for all Reclaim Hosting users and available directly in Installatron. And the great news is that this is the first of many SPLOT-based applications that we will be making available including additional calling card themes as well functional applications like the TRU Writer and TRU Collector.

Today

Today

I recently got back from a lovely weeklong vacation in Myrtle Beach where amongst all the relaxing I got nostalgic while showing some old DTLT Today videos to a friend. Right on the heels of that I read Jim's post about Reclaim's 5 year anniversary and while doing some digging in my Twitter archive (I'm no longer on Twitter but have a full archive of my stuff here) I found that Jim and I must have put out an episode the day we went public with the idea of Reclaim Hosting narrating our thoughts on the formation of it. Luckily Jim is the best kind of pack rat and had a copy since the original post I wrote had a broken embed from a media server that no longer exists at UMW and I was able to get it back online. Seriously, if you're a Reclaim fan and have some time to spare check this out:

It never ceases to amaze me when I go back to watch these videos how they become a time capsule of a particular moment. I cherish every one we did because just like blogging it helps me understand not just the relationships and the interactions I've been privileged to have in my career but also the political, commercial, and cultural changes that were influencing the work we were doing as a group. So needless to say the bug was starting to bite hard and I know better than to fight that feeling.

So yesterday after floating the idea to Jim and thinking it really could happen I rearranged some furniture in our back office and spent the evening developing an opening sequence (I'm such a god damn sucker for branding, I can't help it!). In an homage to DTLT Today we are calling it Reclaim Today and we recorded our first episode today in meta fashion talking about why we're doing this and what our goals are for the podcast.

As a geeky colophon to that I wanted to write a bit about the technical aspects of building both the opener and how we're currently managing the podcast as a distributed company with half of the team of 4 remote.

For the opener sequence like many video projects I started by checking out what was available on Videohive. I have an Adobe Suite license and I've played with After Effects with a few other projects so I find these templates a great way to get something professional up real quick. I also found a decent audio track on Audiojungle (same marketplace, part of the Envato network). So for ~$35 and a few hours time finding images and editing text I had the pieces I needed to build the video you see at the top of this post.

For the actual recording we leaned towards Google Hangouts on Air, which you can setup to livestream but also record straight to YouTube. Hangouts are awesome in that it's dead simple to act as a standalone switcher between folks, people can share their screens, and no one has to "control the feed" as it were. Hangouts suck in that sometimes you might want that control. Great example was that I had to download the YouTube video, insert our intro video and outro, and reupload as a new video because apparently you can't play videos within a Hangout. The quality also leaves a bit to be desired. So we'll see if we stay with that or move towards something like Wirecast which we used extensively at UMW for a variety of projects including DTLT Today and it was very powerful but a complex and expensive piece of software (and we talk a bit about this conundrum on the first episode).

Another nice piece of the setup I got working was that we had a mobile TV cart on one end of the room with a long HDMI cable to a standalone mac mini that was driving the hangout. The mini had a Yeti mic and Logitech HD webcam connected to it and we ran a long audio cable from the Yeti behind the couch with a splitter so Meredith and I could both hear everything without any echo. It ended up being a pretty nice solution allowing us to look right into the camera while interacting directly with the screen behind it and managing audio in a way that allowed for now echoing. I do want to start breaking out the audio in a separate recording so we're not left with the compressed stuff Hangouts gives us for the final recording (thinking about Audio Hijack Pro for that).

So anyways, we're having a blast and we've launched this thing. As the kids say these days, like and subscribe for more!

The Next App: Nextcloud

The Next App: Nextcloud

You may have noticed in my last blog post a bit of a tease in that I've become a bit more comfortable recently with building installers. Of course not every application is going to be compatible with a cPanel environment or work well in the context of automating the install, but when possible we want to continue to build out a rich and robust library of applications for our users beyond just what is offered stock by Installatron.

Our newest installer is for Nextcloud, which is an app with a pretty interesting history. Nextcloud is an open source storage program that acts very much as a replacement for Dropbox and services like it. They have applications for desktop and mobile and you can keep your files in sync. They also have a variety of applications that can be run from inside the program. It is a fork of the ownCloud software created by the original developer of ownCloud and many programmers that were working for the company in 2016. There was some disagreement in ownership and the direction of the software and so being that it was open source they decided to start anew under a new name. Installatron has offered ownCloud for awhile now stock and it is still a supported application being developed with regular updates. I can't answer for you whether ownCloud or Nextcloud is a better direction, but I can say after playing around with Nextcloud it is a really slick experience.

The Next App: Nextcloud

Look for Nextcloud to be available on all servers on Reclaim Hosting in the next 24-48 hours. If you have a burning desire for another application that is not currently available as an installer, I would love for you to post in the Feature Requests category of our community forums. I'm an active participant there and use that as a way to gauge interest for what to work on next.

RSS is Not Dead: FreshRSS in Installatron

RSS is Not Dead: FreshRSS in Installatron

It all begins with a tweet (pay not attention to the fact I'm no longer on Twitter)

NewsBlur unfortunately is indeed not compatible in a shared hosting environment, great hosted service though so check them out! However instead of just letting Mark down I wanted to at least find an alternative. I personally love TinyTinyRSS but my needs are pretty simple, I have a Google Reader skin (because nostalgia) and I can j/k my way back and forth through articles with the keyboard. But in my search for options out there I stumbled on FreshRSS and the demo looked really interesting. If nothing else it's a fresh coat of paint for a self-hosted reader. And the site proudly proclaims it's open source nature. Given it was compatible with cPanel I wanted to see if I could get an installer going for it.

RSS is Not Dead: FreshRSS in Installatron

I have to say I'm starting to get into a bit of a groove building installers. While the announcements have not been too frequent on that regard, that will be changing in a big way in the coming months as we push out potentially 7 more apps to our environment by the end of the year. Our goal is to really make Reclaim Hosting not just an environment but also a library for educational tools. 4 hours later I've got a working installer and I'm publishing it out today.

RSS is Not Dead: FreshRSS in Installatron

FreshRSS is first and foremost a free and open source RSS aggregator. In my testing it's fast, mobile responsive, and pretty easy on the eyes. You can import an OPML of all your feeds to get started on the right foot and it's even got bookmarklets to interact with. Lots of cool stuff here and if you're not already on the RSS train or you're looking for a new ride, this might be it. It was published today on all Reclaim Hosting servers and should propagate within the next 24-48 hours.

Got an app you wish we supported? The Feature Requests category of our community forums is a great place to make your voice heard! I read and respond to every one.

Catching Up With Reclaim Hosting

I have been trying to capture as much of my latest stint back at Reclaim Hosting’s HQ as possible given it was so awesome. Everything from the Reclaim Video Grand Opening and Summer Movie Nights to a special visit from Michael Branson Smith to Centipede to the day-today video store awesomeness. That said, I have written little to nothing about the Reclaim Hosting core crew, although I imagine the goodness is everywhere apparent in my previous posts. But I imagine spelling that out a bit is never a bad thing. 

I wrote less than a year ago about our intention to build capacity at Reclaim, and I think this year we have definitely done that and more. We are a tight, streamlined crew of four, and while we could probably afford to grow over the coming year, we are holding off for the time being. We are all but done with our infrastructure migration to Digital Ocean—which has taken a fair amount of energy over the last year or so—and once we are finished that will be a major undertaking behind us. More than anything, Lauren and Meredith have been crucial to our steady growth and success, and we all agree it’s time for them to take on more responsibility and grow according to our needs. We did our yearly review while I was back, and it was a very good experience. We don’t pull any punches, we try and be honest about what is and isn’t working, and I think that helps everyone know where they are at and what we need to be doing. It also helps that everyone starts from a basic level of intense badassery.

Tim and I run a pretty casual office environment overall, but there are extremely high expectations of support and responsiveness that has really set us apart, and it’s clear that everyone at Reclaim takes pride in that fact—not to mention how much the Reclaim Faithful appreciate it. That is not going away, but we did realize we might be able to organize that process a bit better, so we’ll be experimenting with that over the next few months.

Lauren has also been instrumental in thinking through how we can better attend to our Domain of One’s Own schools’ needs. She and I will be dividing up the account management and I’m really looking forward to this because I have no doubt our the schools that run their hosting infrastructure through Reclaim will be the better for it. Lauren already talked about our clean-up and streamlining of this process, and there will be much more to come.

We also had the opportunity to dream about next steps for Reclaim Hosting’s Domain of One’s Own offering. Our vision is to free up Tim as much as possible to pursue a quite compelling vision he has mapped out for what the next generation of Domain of One’s Own might look like, and given the various requests we have been getting from schools over the last year, I think he may be on to something truly groundbreaking. It’s too early to over promise, but Domains 2.0 might be a bit deal on the ed-tech internet 🙂

Also, the co-working space Reclaim Hosting works from and operates, CoWork, has been taking off as of late (another post I am piggy-backing on from Lauren). It was pretty packed during my time back, and folks are renting the various available spaces on the regular. It is rewarding to see CoWork begin to live up to its potential, and I think we may even consider overhauling the last untouched area of the space as a kind of all-purpose incubator space that might second as a TV studio for a project I have burning a hole in my cerebellum.

In short, things have been super solid at Reclaim Hosting more generally. It’s like running DTLT without all the meetings and institutional bullshit—I love it. Reclaim Hosting is now a team that I would put up against the best of ed-tech groups. We still have some growing to do, but our core is super tight, and we are #4life! I could not be happier with the chance Tim and I took on venturing out 3 years ago, and so much of that has to do with the slow, steady building of a group based the basics: above-and-beyond support of and for faculty and students who need help exploring the web.