I have a deep dark confession to make. While working as an instructional technology specialist I’ve been moonlighting as an alter ego. At first I thought it would be a fling, a one time experiment. But the more I put this new hat on, the darker down the rabbit hole I went. Even now I question who I truly am. You see, in these past 9 months I have been slowly becoming something so mythical I didn’t dare speak of it until now. But I can’t hide from the truth. I’m becoming a server admin.
God that feels good to get off my chest. I’m not a good one mind you, pretty average in fact. But damn do I now have a lot of respect for the profession. As I get ready for the Spring semester I wanted to start really documenting the bits and pieces pulled together that have formed the Domain of One’s Own project. What we do at DTLT is no trade secret kept in the dark by patents and magic. The projects we work on and the things we build are things we believe in not just for UMW, but for higher education as a whole. So please copy us. Take this blog post and the several I will be writing over the next few days, print them out, and go have a conversation with the decision-makers at your school about how you can make this happen. Because I absolutely believe it’s worth it.
Almost a year ago I wrote this post talking about the foundation of building the Domain of One’s Own from my point of view. The inspiration was a server commune that I helped start with a lot of help from a bunch of hippies. At the time we were all paying hosting companies upwards of $120-$240/year for hosting and we wondered how we could accomplish sharing a single account and hosting all our domains without giving up the freedom to tinker in the control panel or locking out any individual person. What I learned was that MediaTemple offered a virtual private server account that included a piece of software called Plesk. Plesk could be configured to give each user on the system their own independent control panel with access to their own domains, subdomains, databases. It even had an automated application installer.
Recognizing that a virtual private server space could offer something like this was a lightbulb going off for me and the rest of us at DTLT because we started to realize there was no reason we couldn’t do this for students. The idea of giving every student their own web host suddenly seemed completely possible and we drew together a plan that our CIO backed and funded to run a pilot for one year. After just 6 months of the successful pilot we had so much success and buy-in from the administration that we’ve gotten fully funded to roll the project out to all freshman next year. Our dream to give students these spaces to own their actions online and build out their own part of the web is becoming a reality.
I plan to talk more about the software including Plesk in a later post, but I wanted to begin by talking about hosting. Being familiar with MediaTemple from my use of them with Hippie Hosting I asked them to submit a bid for the project and I was pleased to see them win it. They’re not the cheapest host but the support has been good for a pilot of this size. For the pilot we’ve been using their Dedicated Virtual Server (dv) plan with 200GB of hard drive space, 4GB of memory, and 3TB of bandwidth. We allocated 250mb of space per user and 10GB of bandwidth. In hindsight I could be even more generous because there is a long tail of unused resources for the majority of users. The average site gets very little traffic (although Alan Levine blogged about the first major traffic hit we got here). As I mentioned before what really appealed to me about using MediaTemple as a host was that they offered the Plesk software as a part of their service.
There was one aspect of the project that MediaTemple was not suited for. Due to the way we had to bundle the project for purchasing the same company that handled our hosting also had to handle domain registrations for the 400 pilot users. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue since MediaTemple offers domain registrations at $12/year for a variety of top-level domains. But what we found was that their system was very inflexible for allowing the students to select and register the domain themselves. MediaTemple billed us and then converted the amount for the domains to a service credit to bill against (good so far). But the only way you can register a new service (including domains) with a service credit is by support ticket. This meant for the 235 domains we registered last fall I had to enter every single one in by hand into bulk service tickets for MediaTemple to register. I also had to change the nameservers for every domain after MediaTemple registered them. Not an ideal situation and definitely not sustainable in the long run.
What we want to do (and what you should want to do if you’re thinking of implementing a project like this) is work with a company like eNom that allows you to be your own domain reseller. Essentially you hand them a pot of money and when a user registers a domain in your system they fund it from your balance, apply the standard nameservers that you setup yourself previously, and the whole thing is automated. eNom has a robust API to tap into and in fact Plesk will register domains and add them into the hosting ecosystem using that API with very little legwork on your part. I’ll also be talking more in a future post about how this domain registration automation works.
So in terms of hosting we had the option of using our own hardware (a server in the IT department running a local copy of the Plesk software), a virtual private server with a specific set of specifications, or a dedicated virtual private server with dedicated resources (both virtual and dedicated private servers are “cloud-based” services). Since we didn’t need a ton of resources and this was just a pilot the virtual private server option made sense. We may decide in future iterations of the Domain of One’s Own to bring it inhouse with our own harder to keep up with the growing need for space and resources. But companies like Rackspace have also made virtual and dedicated servers that scale with demand an option and the use of real-time storage that grows as you need it with something like Amazon S3 provide a lot of options here. We went with MediaTemple for the simplicity during the pilot but will likely be exploring some of these options moving forward for a more stable production server with room for growth whether that be cloud-based or housed on campus.