A Finland Swede in Bavaria

Saturday, 19 March 2011

My personal web presence: Migrating to Google Sites, from blogs and emacs

This is a personal account of my effort to clean up my web presence. My web pages of personal and semi-professional nature needed weeding, and I ended up moving from sporadically maintained multi-lingual blogs and manually edited HTML pages to a set of Google Sites. Generations of cruft are being superseded by a solution based on a weighted balance of contemporary ease of use, versatility and my limited available time.

Before joining MySQL AB in 2001, I had lived through a set of personal web pages that I had set up with PHP. My mental mode was one of combining some fun PHP coding, a bit of editing of pics, and manual uploading of HTML files with scp with emacs editing on the server, that I hosted at my then-employer Polycon Ab. Once at MySQL, I continued in the same mode, but from 2005 onwards started blogging on blogs.mysql.com/kaj. With increased travel, I started an experiment of multi-lingual blogging in 2008, with blogs in over a dozen languages. I hosted them at blogs.arno.fi in a Wordpress installation on my own server, rented from the Swedish ISP Bahnhof.se. With the advent of Google Sites, I started to understand that most of what I'm doing can be accomplished in the cloud, at near-zero hosting cost, with better functionality and no technical maintenance from my part. The last part was most important. Installing, maintaining and playing with a LAMP environment may be fun, but I gave it a fairly low priority amongst my personal pastimes, as I'd rather concentrate on sports, photography and reading instead. The final straw was my server being hacked a month ago, used for sending out mails of dubious nature. I don't need that, nor do I need the quarterly payments for owning a web server I hardly use.

Time to think about what I really need. Or, given that a personal web presence isn't amongst the basic human needs, time to think about what I would like to accomplish.

The purpose of my personal web presence is to support other interests in life: to share ideas on my favourite topics, and to be social with my fellow human beings. This translates into a number of requirements, none of which are absolute, and all of which have to be weighed against the cost in time and money spent. I list time before money, as a web presence can be an endless time sink, and as the cloud gives ever better possibilities of accomplishing things without cost.

Let me start with the key resources in the state they were before the clean-up:

  1. arno.fi: A domain I had acquired in November 2005 from the Finnish governmental web authority Ficora.fi, who decides on and grants .fi domains. I had thereby obtained both the email address firstname@lastname.country and the web address http://firstname.lastname.country, in addition to the same vanity URL:s and addresses for the handful of family members and relatives who share my last name. The cost is 12 € a year.

  2. A dedicated server and DNS at Bahnhof.se: The place I was hosting arno.fi. I payed over 1000 € a year, and had to install and maintain the LAMP stack myself, in return for the freedom to affect any detail in the configuration. A complication was that the Bahnhof.se account was also the place for entering all DNS entries and CNAME records. From Ficora, I had only bought the domain, but Ficora has no DNS servers; instead, Ficora requires me to point to two DNS servers that in turn point to where arno.fi is hosted. By contrast, a company like GoDaddy would sell not just domains but also do the DNS hosting.

  3. kaj.arno.fi: a web page edited with emacs on my own server in Bahnhof.se. The index.html had various gadgets pasted in, pointing to Blogger (Google aggregation of the blogs hosted on my self-configured blogs.arno.fi), Flickr, Facebook and Delicious. Of these, the Delicious web pointers were in active use, for my most frequent links to Lufthansa, Deutsche Bahn, buses in Finland, the weather, and my favourite news sources. In the transition phase, this page is at kaj2.arno.fi.

  4. kajarno.com: A domain I had acquired in 2009, in order to at some point be able to more clearly differentiate between web presence in different languages. I thought kajarno.com could be the "international", English site.

  5. kajarno.de: A domain I had acquired in 2009 on similar grounds as kajarno.com, this time for the German site.

  6. Google Mail: Personal mail hosted on Google.

Desired improvements:

  1. Application Cloud benefits: No need for maintaining my own software. No need to kill -HUP my Apache server, to protect myself against hackers, to upgrade MySQL or Wordpress. Go hosted.

  2. Professional design: Better look-and-feel, modern gadgets, easy analytics. Use the secondary benefits of the application cloud, as an enabler of more modern technology than what I had installed.

  3. Separation into three sites: kaj.arno.fi for Swedish, kajarno.de for German, and kajarno.com for English (potentially with subsites in other languages). Part of the general cleanup.

Desired status quo:

  1. any_name@arno.fi: Possibility to easily forward emails like I have done for ages using /etc/aliases -- not only "kaj" but a number of other aliases go to my Google account. And "alexander" goes to my son's Google account, etc.

  2. Redirect 301: Possibility to easily redirect short URLs like I have done for ages using .htaccess -- for instance, "Redirect 301 /fff2010 http://picasaweb.google.com/kaj.arno.fi/FuruvikFashionFestival2010#slideshow/" used to make http://kaj.arno.fi/fff2010 point to a URL on Picasa with a name too long to remember.

  3. blogs.arno.fi/blogname: Possibility to retain the existing blog URLs, such as blogs.arno.fi/isit (for English), blogs.arno.fi/fib (for Swedish), blogs.arno.fi/efib (for German) and so on.

In principle, these goals were clear to me two years ago. Yet, I hadn't progressed for all those months. Why? Let me return to the point in time, roughly two years ago, when I defined the "desired improvements" and the "desired status quo" (not in writing like now, but )

The key was Google Sites and Google Apps. An email outage had forced me to try Google Mail, with which I was happy. As part of a series of articles (in Swedish) about Social Media, I studied Google Sites. I was impressed. For the first time, the dead easy, free solution seemed to be good enough. For years, the "easy" web solutions had been severely crippled, having a condescending attitude to usability, i.e. giving hardly any degrees of freedom. But with  Google Sites, I could influence the layout, the URLS, and the navigation reasonably well, and I found I could create and edit "static" web pages faster than writing blog entries. Wow! Time to move to the Application Cloud.

Then came the obstacles. Google Sites had limitations of the very same nature as earlier "dead easy, near free" solutions.

  1. Redirection. The most irritating of those turned out to be the missing "Redirect 301" feature. How can something so easy and so functional be missing? I looked through help pages and I asked around amongst friends and colleagues. Others had similar issues, and there were "answers", but they were special cases, such as redirecting an entire domain. The best thing I've stumbled upon is a "Redirect Gadget" for Google Sites, which amounted to creating a new web page, and installing and configuring a Gadget on it, for each entry in a .htaccess file. This is the opposite of usability, and a waste of time for replacing the near-hundred lines in various .htaccess files I had.

  2. Blog URLs. Blogger and other blog hosting sites kindly allow me to use my own domain, but no subdirectories. I can do "isit.arno.fi" but not "blogs.arno.fi/isit". And that changes the URLs to all existing blog entries, which means that all external pointers to them will die. If at least I could redirect them!

  3. Email forwarding. I hadn't ever hosted my emails on arno.fi, just forwarded them with /etc/aliases. I didn't find any equivalent solution for Google Sites or even Google Apps. I ended up asking a friend for favours; he still manages his own server and added a postfix entry to his email configuration, and ssh access for me to edit the postfix equivalent of /etc/aliases. I would happily pay decent money for this type of email forwarding from a bulk commercial entity, though.

  4. DNS. Remember that I got DNS as part of my expensive Bahnhof contract for a dedicated server, which I want to get rid of. With the arno.fi domain costing nearly nothing, and Google Sites being completely free, retaining the Banhnhof contract merely for the name server pointers seemed pointless. So who is specialised in DNS hosting? Googling revealed "DynDNS", which after an agonising web experience turned out to have unacceptable constraints both in its free version and in its cheap version. Further Googling finally lead me to http://freedns.afraid.org/, which so far has worked just fine and, yes, is free. It's been reliable and it has easy editing of all the necessary CNAME, A, MX etc. records that one needs for setting up Google Sites.

But now, I've taken nearly all my intended steps into the Application Cloud:

  1. kaj.arno.fi is on Google Sites. And it has been "cleaned" of contents which is not in Swedish.

  2. kajarno.com and kajarno.de are on Google Sites. Yet, so far, it has only embryonic content.

  3. Emails to @arno.fi are independent of the Bahnhof.se server. They are forwarded through the Postfix mail transfer agent on the server of a friend of mine.

  4. DNS to @arno.fi is independent of the Bahnhof.se server. I use freedns.afraid.org.

What still remains before I can scrap my dedicated server is not much:

  1. Backing up the remaining few files from my dedicated server, downloading files such as old apache logs.

  2. Moving blogs.arno.fi/isit, blogs.arno.fi/fib and blogs.arno.fi/efib to new blog sites; probably Blogger hosted sites mapped to isit.kajarno.com, fib.arno.fi and efib.kajarno.de

  3. Moving the contents from other blogs.arno.fi blogs to static pages on kajarno.com

  4. Entering the key Delicious links from kaj2.arno.fi to the new kaj.arno.fi

None of the above is fun or creative. It's mostly boring. At least, it should be a little bit less frustrating than moving DNSes from Bahnhof.se to FreeDNS.afraid.org (which involved long moments of figuring out whether I was making mistakes or merely waiting for chicken-and-egg type changes to propagate through the internet).

Let me end by a few thank you notes, to people and web resources who have inspired and helped me in this quest towards the cloud, with everything from general encouragement to specific knowledge on Google, MTAs, DNSes, blogs, Ficora etc.: Thank you Siegfried Hirsch, Giuseppe Maxia, Jonas Sundin, Daniel Bartholomew, Michael "Monty" Widenius, and Vesa Linja-aho, plus of course FreeDNS.afraid.org and Google Sites.