Archives For software

For someone who’s primarily a developer/support person, I spend a lot of time setting up and configuring – or fixing – servers. I guess this came from an eagerness to learn and I got tarred with the “Linux/Server” Guy brushes at some point!

My interest in Operations has had an uptick again recently, so I’ve been doing a bit of reading of late. This morning, while waiting on news about some work-related activities I’ve come across a couple of interesting articles:

My First 5 Minutes On A Server; Or, Essential Security for Linux Servers by Brian Kennedy is a fantastic little quick-start for securing a Linux server. It’s not everything you need to do, but as noted in the article, it sets the foundations for a secure server which is easy to keep secure. Do these steps first, then go about securing any additional services you need to run.

One thing I’ve been wondering about, is setting up my own email system, rather than run on Google Apps. As convenient as the Google platform is, I do sometimes think I’m trusting them with a bit too much of my information. Recent revelations about the NSA/GCHQ, PRISM, and whatever-comes-next, from Edward Snowden haven’t done much to allay those worries.

But Google Apps is convenient. It wraps my mail, calander, contacts, and many other things into a nice package that is available everywhere and syncs across platform, with Push notifications, search, and other modern conveniences… but never the less, I’ve been thinking about how I could move away from the “Do-No-Evil” Empire, which is why Drew Crawford’s excellent, in-depth article “NSA-proof your e-mail in 2 hours” was a great find. I might spin up an instance on my dormant Joyent account and give it a try on one of my spare domains, so I can evaluate the process and benefits before deciding on moving my primary mail domain.

Other topics which have crossed my path this weekend are system configuration, maintenance, and automation using tools such as Chef and Puppet. The idea of taking a known-good environment and replicating it with just a few commands is definitely appealing – particularly when it comes to tasks such as setting up development/test environments! I haven’t gone too far into these topics yet, but I’m hoping to find the time in the next few weeks to go through some of the articles I’ve found.

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That cool little “Coder for Raspberry Pi” project from Google which I linked to earlier doesn’t just run on Raspberry Pi. You can run it on any old Linux PC (Mac works too, but the instructions are slightly different).

I set it up in less than 2 minutes using these commands (note that I’m running Debian Sid):

    sudo useradd -M pi
    sudo apt-get install redis-server
    cd ~/projects
    git clone https://github.com/googlecreativelab/coder.git
    cd coder/coder-base
    npm install
    npm start

Node.js is also a requirement, so if you don’t have that, you’ll need to install that at step 2 as well.

Once everything is up and running, point your browser at https://localhost:8081/. You’ll need to specify a password the first time you run Coder, after which you’ll be able to try the environment out. It’s pretty neat, and the sample clone of Asteroids is quite addictive!

Skills are much like muscles: if you don’t use them for a while they start to atrophy. They say you never forget how to ride a bike, but there are many skills where you will forget things if you don’t do them frequently. The collection of skills needed to be a developer are no exception to the rule.

I’m somewhat speaking from experience here; my current role and workload has removed me from day-to-day development work for about a full year now. I still need to dive in to the code base every day to research issues or change requests, but actually writing something is quite rare these days. I’m aware of the skills problem, and I’ll describe below how I’m trying to address it, but never the less I’ve been self-concious enough about it I’ve recently found myself resisting taking on development tasks. I know it’ll take me a lot longer to get up to speed and complete as one of the developers who’re working on the application every day, and the time-scales involved are usually very tight. It’s a vicious circle: I’m rusty because I’m not doing development, but I’m avoiding development because I’ve been away from it for too long. In the corporate world it’s very easy to get rail-roaded into a niche – and incredibly hard to get out of it.

Time away for a developer is exacerbated by the speed in which technology and techniques moves forward in our industry. What was cutting edge a year-ago is old-hat today, and may even be something you’re encouraged not to do any more. If you haven’t been practising and keeping up developments then you may not be aware and get yourself into all sorts of bother.

So what can you do?

Read. Lots.

Subscribe to a load of developer sites and blogs in Feedly, for one source, but a more convenient way I’ve found to stay on top of things is using Flipboard:

  • Follow other developers on Twitter (actually, you don’t have to, but it’s nice to), and create/add them to a list, such as “Developers & News“.
  • Within Flipboard, add your Twitter account if you haven’t already.
  • Still within Flipboard, go to your Twitter stream. Tap your name at the top and select “Your Lists.”
  • Open the relevant list, then tap the subscribe button.

Your list will be added to your Flipboard sources and you’ll have an always-up-to-date magazine of what’s happening. The reason I suggest Flipboard is that it grabs the link in a tweet, pulls in the article, and will try to reformat it into something you can easily flip through. It makes reading on a tablet so much more enjoyable. Some of the links you get will not be relevant, but a large amount of it will be gold. I try to set aside 30 minutes a day to go through at least the headlines. If work is exceptionally busy I’ll aim for twice a week. Saving to a “Read it Later” service like Pocket is useful for storing the most interesting articles.

What about books? Yes, by all means, read plenty of technical books. They’re usually in far more depth than even the best online article. With tablets, eReaders, and eBooks, the days of thick tomes taking up lots of space are behind us, and no longer a major concern (at least for me). There is however, one major issue with books – they take a long time to write, and are often out of date quickly. The technology might have moved on by the time the book is published. Schemes such as the Pragmatic Programmer’s “Beta Book” scheme help a lot here – releasing unfinished versions of the book quickly and often, to iron out problems before publishing. Of course, you also need to be aware of the topic to be able to pick out a book about it!

Be Curious. Experiment.

Reading all the material in the world will not help you anywhere near as much as actually doing something. The absolute best thing you could do would be to develop side projects in your spare time. Admittedly, if you’re busy, time can be at a premium! Probably a good 99% of side projects I start lie unfinished or abandoned, simply for lack of time. So instead, I perform small experiments.

Curious about something? Do something small to see how it works, or “what happens if…”. Personal, recent, examples would be:

  • Looking into static site generators, and as a result, learning about Jekyll, Github pages for hosting… and as a result of trying out Jekyll templates I brushed up on Responsive Web Design, looked into Zepto, and fell in love with Less.
  • Trying out automating development workflows – installed Node.js (which then allowed me to run this), setup some basic Grunt.js tasks, Imagemagick batch processing, and some more Less.
  • Running Linux as my primary OS, and no Windows partition to fall back on – so in at the deep-end if something goes wrong… but it’s helped me brush up on my MySQL and Apache admin skills again, as well as generally working with the command-line again. The other week I fixed someone’s VPS for them via SSH  - something I would have struggled to do only a few weeks ago. In case you’re interested: the disk was filling up due to an out of control virtual host error log, which I had to first diagnose, and then reconfigure logrotate to keep the site in check.

An earlier example, from before I was entirely away from development: I wanted to see what was different in CodeIgniter 2, so I made a very small app. My curiosity then extended into “how does Heroku work?” – so I deployed to Heroku. I couldn’t pay for a database I knew how to work with, so I tried out a little bit of MongoDB. Then it was the Graph API from Facebook… so again, I extended the application, this time with the Facebook SDK.

Little experiments can lead to a lot of learning. I would never claim to be an expert in any of the technologies I mention, but neither am I ignorant.

Shaking it Out

I’d still need a major project to focus on and really shake off the “ring rust,” to get back up to full development potential, but I’m pretty confident it wouldn’t take as long as if I hadn’t been working on the trying to keep my skills as fresh as I can.

How to Work Remotely as a Software Developer

Open the Current Folder as a Project in Sublime Text 2

Skitch for Windows

* By “The Right Way”, I mean following the guidance and practices at the PHP: the Right Way website. I make no claims this is the “best” way :-)

Works n my machine badgeMac OS X is a pretty good web developer OS. It comes as standard with PHP, Ruby and Apache all out of the box, and the underlying UNIX system makes it easy to add in other languages and components to suit your needs. On top of that, some of my favourite development tools are on the Mac, so unless I’m writing .NET code, nearly all my development is on an (ageing) Mac Mini.

Now, while all that stuff comes as standard on OS X, lately it seems Apple has made it harder to get to. The versions shipped with OS X also tend to be a little behind the latest releases. As a result, most Devs I know use something like MAMP to make the server-side of their environment as easy as running an app. Personally, while I think MAMP works, and is a good time-saver (and I’ve been using it for the last year or so), but I like to get into the nitty-gritty of the system and get things running “native”. So last night I fired up the terminal and got PHP set up on my Mac with the latest version, and following the Right Way Guidelines. As a result I have PHP 5.4, Composer, the PHP Coding Standards Fixer, and MySQL all setup quite slickly (i.e. to my preferences).

The whole process was pretty easy, but does involve the command line. If this makes you uncomfortable, then it might be best to skip the rest of this post.

This all worked on my Mac, but I make no guarantees about it working on yours, and I’m not responsible if you break something.

If you find any glaring problems with this guide then leave a comment/get in touch, and I’ll make any required edits.

Step 1: Setup Your PATH

Edit the hidden .bash_profile file in your home directory. If you use Sublime Text 2 you can use the following command:

    subl ~/.bash_profile

TextMate has a similar mate command, or you can use vi(m)/nano/emacs/whatever.

It’s possible you already have a line defining your PATH variable. It’ll look something like export PATH=<something>. I’ve found it most useful to change the PATH so /usr/local/bin is at the start, making sure anything you install there is used over the system defaults in /bin. Add this as a line below your existing PATH definition (or just add it in, if you don’t have an existing line):

    export PATH=/usr/local/bin:${PATH}

Step 2: Install Brew

Strictly speaking, Brew (aka Homebrew) isn’t required, but I used it to install MySQL later, and it does make it stupid easy to install stuff into OS X. I think you should install it. The best instructions are found on the Homebrew home page, so go have a read there. There are a few pre-requisites, but nothing too difficult.

Step 3: Install PHP-OSX

Now we’re beginning to get somewhere! PHP-OSX is the latest versions of PHP compiled for OSX by Liip. Installation is a real doddle, from the command line:

    curl -s http://php-osx.liip.ch/install.sh | bash -s 5.4

Follow the prompts given, including entering your password. After a few moments everything will have installed. For convenience I created a symbolic link to the newly installed PHP binary in /usr/local/bin:

    ln -s /usr/local/php5/bin/php /usr/local/bin/php

Step 4: Install Composer

Now we have PHP installed, it’s time to look at the nice-to-haves, like a good package/dependency manager. Composer is relatively new on the block, and allows others to download your code and automatically grab any dependencies by running a simple command.

You can install Composer in your project, or you can install it globally. I prefer globally. As with PHP, installation is simple, from the command line:

curl -s http://getcomposer.org/composer.phar -o /usr/local/bin/composer
chmod +x /usr/local/bin/composer

Step 5: Install PHP Coding Standards Fixer

Another nice-to-have, this little tool will try to find and fix parts of your code where it does not conform to one of the PHP Coding Style Guides. Installation is almost identical to Composer:

curl http://cs.sensiolabs.org/get/php-cs-fixer.phar -o /usr/local/bin/php-cs-fixer
chmod +x /usr/local/bin/php-cs-fixer

Step 6: Install MySQL

If you installed Brew in step 2, then you’re good to go with this little command:

    brew install mysql

It’ll take a few minutes, but you shouldn’t need to intervene at all. Once done you will need to run two more command to setup the MySQL tables:

    unset TMPDIR
    mysql_install_db --verbose --user=`whoami` --basedir="$(brew --prefix mysql)" --datadir=/usr/local/var/mysql --tmpdir=/tmp

If you didn’t install Brew, then you will need to install MySQL through some other means, such as packages on the MySQL website. I can’t help you with that, I’m afraid.

For managing MySQL, I use the excellent Sequel Pro, which is a successor to the venerable CocoaSQL.

As a next step you should look into changing the root password of your MySQL setup. This is a local dev environment, and likely only used locally by yourself, but it’s the proper thing to do.

Bonus Step 7: A Script for Launching MySQL and the PHP Dev Server

To make things a one command startup I wrote myself a little bash script. Now, I am under no illusions this is improvable; it’s my very first bash script (ever), so probably not the “right” way to do this. It’s in a public repo, as well as the public Gist below, so if you want to improve it, feel free! Anyway, it’s functional for now and will start the PHP development server on the port you specify, and set to the (optional) directory, otherwise it will use your current working directory.

To install, run these commands:

    curl https://raw.github.com/chrismcabz/phpsrv/master/phpsrv.sh -o /usr/local/bin/phpsrv
    chmod +x /usr/local/bin/phpsrv

Usage is straightforward:

    phpsrv 8000 #start on http://localhost:8000 in the current dir
    phpsrv 8000 ~/projects/mysite/ #start on http://localhost:8000 in ~/projects/mysite/

Errata

  • Pear doesn’t seem to work, which is slightly annoying, but (to me) no real biggie. I didn’t test this with the built-in version of PHP, so I don’t know whether it worked beforehand. I’ll post an update once I figure it out.
  • I’d like to make bash script smart enough to stop MySQL when the PHP web server stops, but my early attempts haven’t managed to get this working (most likely due to the Ctrl-C used to stop the web server also stopping the script).
  • Throughout this process we’re running scripts directly from the web. This is pretty risky behaviour, especially with unknown/untrusted sources. You should always take a look at the raw script before running it, so you don’t get hit by something malicious.

How to Prepare for Google’s Acquisition of Sparrow

On Coda 2 and Diet Coda – JeffCroft.com

Coda 2 Coming May 24th