I should make it clear from the outset, this post isn’t going to be solving anything. I’ve spent about 3 days working on stuff and this is just bugging me.
Let’s go back to around this time last year. A couple of friends and I were working on how to get some money back from a facebook page one of them had setup a few years prior. I had been working with him on it since a few weeks after he set it up, and we’d pushed around ideas to sell some merchandise alongside it a few times, but never really got anywhere.
He had made a rash decision one night to use an ‘online website creation’ provider to get a site online. From the start I hated it. Not the idea, I think it was about time to get our own site running, but he spent a few weeks tweaking about 8 pages to look really good, using their WYSIWYG editor. Then wanted me to change a few things in code that wasn’t right. It was an absolute nightmare! I can’t remember the name of the site but I think it had a W E X somewhere in the title.
It was a paid “solution”, and I think cost about £40 per month by the time he’d added a mailing list option to capture email addresses (not actually handle any emails) and a few other bits.
Coming from more of an IT position, my main concern was around load/spikes being handled. There was very little information about how well they could handle this (and I think we found the reason why). We finally put this live posting the link to about 40k followers.
Watching the nice google analytics (that I had to add to each page, because they didn’t have a drop in the tracking code option), within seconds we hit around 150 hits per second. This continued for a few hours, but 2 problems became apparent:
- The site was struggling, and we would probably have been hitting a higher number. We were getting positive feedback and people understood it was busy, but I still wasn’t happy we’re paying for them to handle this and it’s just not.
- And this really hits onto point 1. He’d setup a site that was pretty static! There was nothing to get people coming back for more. Yes there was a news page that we could update, but other than the mailing list form there was nothing interactive. (So hitting point 1, static content should really have been able to be handled 100x better).
Anyway we took that for what it was, a basic site with a bit of info and something to get us started.
We already had a ‘Shop coming soon’ page, so the next thing we were trying to figure out was what are we going to sell and how?
Initially we thought t-shirts, and started looking at some of the ways we could do this. 2 main providers seemed to jump out zazzle and cottonpress (I think, it was a while ago). While both had some good offerings, neither really grabbed us. I can’t remember which, but one of them deleted an image we uploaded for copyright (it was our logo, and we had it plastered everywhere and the account was signed up with a domain name using the same logo), but they wanted us to fill in and snailmail/fax some copyright forms and reupload the logo. Considering we were only seeing what we could do at the time, we decided to drop them as an option. If we have to jump through these hoops with everything we do, we’ll spend more time filling in their paperwork than anything else.
Time went on, visits to the site died down (did I mention lack of content/interactivity), and we still hadn’t sorted out products, a store, a business.
We continued with the facebook page and still poked around ideas on how to get a site/shop running. I spent a good few weeks working with oscommerce (I’d previously used it a little for another project idea, but it never went live) and finally had something to show, a semi working shop front (it had no products).
We discussed that neither of us really had a clue about setting up a proper business. I’m all IT and have no interest in writing business plans or doing business meetings (I should mention that a previous role I was an IT Manager and regularly had to be part of “grown up” meetings, I’m a Tech, I hate people, I hate meetings, give me something broken – I’ll fix it, give me a problem – I’ll work out a solution. But in NO WAY do I want to be taking part in any more business meetings).
A few months later I was helping him move. Another friend of his was also helping. I’d met him once before but didn’t get chatting then. He mentioned he was in his last year of university and was studying business and finance! Just how he hadn’t thought of this before I dont know, but instantly we knew he was coming on board 🙂
We spent about 3 hours in McDonalds discussing what we had, what we’d like to do, and just how crap we’ve been so far. Within this conversation we said about selling t-shirts/mugs/bags etc. Just like a genii out of a lamp our 3rd comes out with ‘oh my almost father in-law does printing stuff, I know he does mugs. Shall I speak to him?’ Just like a match made in heaven, we suddenly had our missing piece! someone who should have more of an idea on the business side (or at least know someone to ask) and connections to a printers for the kind of stuff we want to sell. You just couldn’t make it up, he’d known this guy for a few years and never thought to asking him about business stuff.
Things started moving forward, slowly at first but at least they were moving. We met up with “almost” father in-law and went through some designs and processes. We setup a business. I continued work on the shop website and we took down the other that was costing too much and not really doing anything.
In around October time we were set. Nothing spectacular, about 9 mugs and a few t-shirts. The mugs would be the easiest, we just send the order to “almost” and he takes care of printing, packaging and sending. The t-shirts would be a little different as we’d have to get a template made for them, and couldn’t afford the cost until we had some orders in.
We launched, I had tried to over-spec the server(s) but in itself this was tricky. There were no real stats on how well oscommerce could perform on certain hardware. And scalable VPS’s such as DigitalOcean’s current system just didn’t exist. Scaling would mean taking a new 30 day server and moving everything over to it. Certainly not a 5 min job, and definitely not something to start an hour after we’ve launched. We’ll just have to bite the bullet and see.
My memory of launch night is fuzzy to say the least. I think I’d been working 36-48 hours trying to finish stuff off. I had a big list of checks and can’t remember doing half of them.
Our page audience had grown to about 70k, so I was very nervous. We launched the shop and watched. ping, email – it’s an order, ping, another, ping another. It was working. I have to say the server(s) held up pretty well. It wasn’t without problems, we did start seeing the site timing out on new connections for about 10 mins. but a swift kick of apache sorted that and it didn’t cause a problem again.
Finally we were running. The feedback again was good. We had a bunch of concerns like
- Will the system work
- Will the servers(s) hold up
- What happens if it goes mental and we sell a thousand mugs
- Can we really do this
I think all in all it went well. We could have done better, but it also could have been a lot worse. We ran with oscommerce for a few months. Shortly after launching the shop I had a discussion on just how were we going to get facebook and the shop incorporated? There was no obvious answer, then we hit a problem. Once of the posts to facebook got reported (it’s a humorous page, and we only every post stuff sent in to us), this showed us just how much we’re reliant on facebook. Suddenly we’re all logged out and the poster was blocked for 24 hours. Luckily facebook pretty much left the page alone (just delete the one post), so we played on it that one of our admins was in the dog house for an earlier post. But it still didn’t take long to realise if facebook wanted they can delete the page at a whim and we’ve suddenly lost all our content and fans!
This just didn’t sit right with me, and I started looking at how the hell to get a backup of OUR page and content. There was nothing. So I started looking at how can we do things differently, enter WORDPRESS.
I’d seen this name floating about for the last few months, but never really saw the point in using it. I dont blog, we dont blog, so what’s the point? (I’m still not entirely sure I understand the point) but it’s close to one of the best things I’ve spent weeks fiddling with.
I’d installed wordpress on our VPS for me to have a look around, it still wasn’t a site that we could really use, but as a CMS maybe I can find a way to connect to facebook and backup our stuff. There must be people who do this right? WRONG. There’s loads of plugins for wordpress & facebook, but I’ve only ever found 1 that takes your page and puts it as posts. To make matters worse, it’s flakey as f**k hadn’t been worked on in god knows how long, and of the very few comments in the code their in Chinese.
Now I would never describe myself as a coder. I’ve used Delphi and VB for writing some functional programs in the past, and had to program a few in VB.net when I was IT Manager (the old problem/solution thing), I could also write some ASP and PHP, really most of my stuff was drag and drop boxes and program them up for stuff. I did quite a bit of databases stuff within them, but that was it. There was absolutely no such thing as using classes (I think even think they existed). But as part of my job I had a dev team who did develop in PHP and VB.net, and they were always amazed when trying to tell me how something couldn’t work, that I could not only follow along but tell them why they were wrong and on several occasions when something broke could actually read their code and work out (normally the simple thing) a temporary fix.
And so it begins I now have no dev team, a bunch of php code and classes that really didn’t make much sense to me. Bit by bit I managed to work out what each bit was doing, then moved on to changing it so that it would run for us. I know it will seem like simple stuff (especially looking back), but things like:
- Changing a hard coded loop to only pull 10 facebook posts, to take a limit from a setup interface where you can specify how many to pull.
- Adding in Date ranges to pull from and to.
- Improving the cron job, so it look from the time of the lastest post it was + 1 second.
- Downloading any attached image and saving it to the server (huge accomplishment).
- Changing the posts content that gets published and updating links back to the post it just posted.
There’s load of stuff I’ve had to do to this plugin to get it working, let alone better and working for us. Eventually I’d finished (your never really finished, I have a list of new changes to get to sometime). After running it on a fresh wordpress install, we suddenly have a complete backup of our facebook page, around 9k posts and images, all sat in wordpress. and what’s more automatically grabbing new stuff 🙂
I showed off my new achievement, personally I dont think it was appreciated just how much time and effort I had put into this. but it went down really well. We now had a blog! we now had a blog alongside our store and it was really starting to come together.
Over the next few weeks I kept working on improving the blog while managing the shop. Then suddenly a new disaster, our server had for some reason gone offline. Trying to connect via the backup terminal access just gave me a blank screen, something was wrong and I couldn’t get access to see what. To make matters worse, our provider had very nicely decided to cut back on it’s 24/7 support, and now only operated 8-8. At around midnight, it’s not exactly what you want to be finding out that the support has changed and no-one bothered to tell you. The ONLY thing I could do was email them, and hope someone picked it up soon. They didn’t! I spent a good few hours trying everything I could think of to get hold of someone or find a way to the console, but nothing. This had the effect of making me sleep through my alarm at 8am, but I woke at 9am and called them. After a few choice words, I was assured the tech team would look at it right away. I was so tired I fell back to sleep and woke again about mid day. The first thing I did was open our site, or I should say attempted to! it was still down!! Another call, more choice words, and me advising them I’m not going anywhere and if they cut me off I’ll just keep calling until I can speak to a “Tech”, then explaining the problem and what I had tried to tier 1 monkey, quickly got me escalated. I couldn’t stop laughing when I finally did get to tier 2, their tier 1 had placed me on hold to get someone then come back to me and said ‘I need you to take this call, this bloke knows what the f**k he’s on about, I’d put him to tier 3 but I can’t direct transfer’ to which I replied ‘Yes and I know how to work a phone system, Line 1 is the customer, you should be on Line 2 for that conversation’ 🙂 I have to be honest just that mistake made my day. Tier 1, 2 and the manager that called me back an hour later were mortified, but as I explained to him I’ve been a senior tech on phone support, I’ve been an IT manager, I’m guessing I hit a newish person and scared the crap out of them. I only care in getting this back online. To be fair to Tier 2, I was connected to the console while he was apologising. (This part really could have had it’s own post).
Anyway getting over that failure I started looking for another VPS provider, I had no problem with their VPS and generally it was a very stable system, but 8-8 support with no out of hours we’re really f**ked option, forced my hand. It had gone down very badly with the others that this had costs us money and there was no way I could argue it as I agreed the situation was crap.
I found another provider and started moving stuff, but it just wasn’t right. It was actually a previous colleagues company, but something just wasn’t right. So I kept looking. Then I found Digital Ocean, initially I started using them to test some wordpress plugins, but I loved that I could very quickly bring up new servers in a matter of minutes. This surely has to be better than waiting hours. And it was. Testing was going well, so I started moving everything over. Everything just worked, and where I had to contact their support for a few little things (1 account related can’t remember the others), I had a reply very quickly sometimes within minutes other times within 30 mins. I couldn’t fault their support and I wasn’t bounced around, they knew exactly what I needed and sorted it.
So here we have a medium spec’d Digital Ocean server, running our WordPress and OsCommerce solutions and handling both pretty well.
But being one to never settle, I kept tweaking stuff and looking at out options. I setup another server (droplet) for testing, another wordpress install later and I’m going through trying out the ecommerce plugins. I was blown away with WooCommerce! yes OsCommerce worked for us. and yes I had put in quite a bit of time customising it and getting it to work with our processes. but the whole feel of the interface was crap. Woocommerce was like a breathe of fresh air. It had a bunch of functionality, there’s loads more plugins, it’s far easier to customise, it works from the wordpress themes, and fits right in with our blog and doesn’t look disjointed.
I proposed we move over to this and it went down well. Well enough infact the the others wanted to get more involved, we spent weeks working on changes to the theme (that’d we’d paid about $50 for), I moved the shop over and made it live without telling our facebook audience. We started getting some sales via Woocommerce, and it was obvious that this just integrated well.
We were going to have a relaunch to show off the new blog and store, I think I managed to p*ss the others off, when WordPress brought in a new standard theme that worked even better with Woocommerce and I changed to it to show them. It was obvious that it did and we should stick with it, but it also meant the last few weeks of customising was wiped out (and they still bring up the time I wiped out a few weeks work when I changed the theme).
I would never say wordpress/woocommerce is perfect, I’ve found many issues along the way and had to find work arounds for a lot of stuff. I still dont truly feel like I know what I’m doing and there’s no way that we use wordpress to it’s full potential. Currently we have the blog and shop running, we have somewhere in the region of 10k posts and around 15k sales. We still don’t publish to the blog independent of facebook/twitter but it’s on the roadmap.
One thing that has caught us out a few times is DigitalOcean scaling. Because we very often have little traffic, I always keep the servers scaled down with the intention of boosting them up before we push anything new. On at least 2 occasions, we’ve forgotten this and overloaded our site.
I’ve also gone through a few different configurations just trying to find the best solution.
1st We had 1 server, that was mid range and just worked, but I knew this alone wouldn’t handle the traffic.
2nd I brought up 2 web servers and a database server. This wasn’t an ideal setup, loadbalancing was at DNS level, syncing was done via cron jobs, and the whole thing held together via a VPN to keep database connections secure. This had a bunch of problems.
Next I moved back to a single web server but kept a separate database. This was better, and around the time DigitalOcean allowed you to scale up easier (but not down you still had to wipe out the server to do so).
Because having a single web server just wasn’t enough, I went back to 2, but added in the new(ish) cloudflare CDN in front of the servers. This really helped (though I’m still not convinced really does CDN for us)
As part of the above, I tried incorporating GlusterFS (absolute disaster). From every web search I did GlusterFS looks to be THE solution. In practice for us it took a website responding (with some heavy graphics) in 3 seconds longest avg 2secs, to 30sec longest 18secs avg. I know everyone rave’s on about how great it is and how if it’s slow it’s something you’ve done. I dont believe this for a second. I’ve spent days at a time trying to make it better, but the simple truth is if the files are pulled locally I get the 2/3secs above. When using a Gluster mount point to the files (which are still actually local, Gluster on both web servers, mounted back to themselves), I get the 18-30secs. Both web servers have a private lan connection to use gluster in the same Digital Ocean Location and NO amount of tweaking or testing seems to every really improve this. It was only made worse during testing when I took down one of the servers, so that the other could only use itself to serve the files and this managed to take out the mountpoint until I restart, and still it served up the pages slowly. I thought the whole point in using Gluster (at least for me) was HA, no single point of failure. Having both servers offline if one goes down does not seem very HA to me.
The ONE thing I really want Digital Ocean to sort out is their private lan. In order to solve the issue of anyone else on the private lan being able to see my traffic between servers I’ve had to use VPN’s between them. This adds complications to the entire setup, and a private lan per account would be very welcomed.
The setup I’m currently in the middle of deploying is:
b) 2xNginx loadbalance proxies (also serve up maintence pages if they can’t connect back.
c) 2xNginx Backend servers
d) 2xMySql+Redis Servers
e) 2xNFS Servers
I’m happy with the load balancers, though I would love for DigitalOcean to offer a proper loadbalancing solution.
The MySQL servers took some config to get replication working properly while also using SSL for the connection to each other and from the backend web servers.
I still haven’t managed to configure MySQL to be HA from the web servers, so at the moment this would be a manual switch. I’ve found HyperDB for wordpress, while should resolve this, but since I had to slightly change the wordpress config to do SSL for MySQL, HyperDB doesn’t seem to be able to use SSL so I need to work out how to do this. I find this really weird as once of the suggestions is to have your database remote, I really would have thought being remote (especially if using something like Amazon for the database) would mean you’d want to use SSL to keep your database traffic secure. It seems strange that this isn’t a fundamental option in HyperDB (unless I’m just not seeing it).
And the last part NFS Servers, I still need to find out how to keep these in sync (without using Gluster), I’ve previously used Syncthing to keep servers in sync, it works but is pretty much held together with tape (my configuration of it not the actual program). Once I have the NFS sync’d I also need to find a way for the web servers to use both HA.
I do feel like this configuration is the closest to the best I can achieve on a budget. Once I have the MySQL and NFS stuff worked out, I will then be able to scale any server without completely taking the site offline. Which will really help in being able to deal with spikes. It is not much easier to scale with Digital Ocean, but I’d still really want to know doing so or taking a server out for maintenance is fine because everything will just keep running.
If you’ve got this far, I really thank you for reading. I hope the next couple of posts will be my solutions to the MySQL SSL and NFS problems. It’s not 2:41am and I think I’ve been writing this for about 2 hours, so I’m going to sleep 🙂 leave a comment if you got this far, include the words ‘sleep deprived’ so I dont think it’s spam.