Friday, September 29, 2006

The Catch with GoDaddy Dedicated Hosting

I'm not known to get easily frustrated or publicly rant about something, but here goes. The public web site and soapbox.net IM service for Coversant is hosted with GoDaddy using their dedicated server plans. This makes things real easy for us. We don't have to manage hardware somewhere in a colo. We get an ftp site for backups. And most of all we get the convenience and control of a dedicated system. It's also very reasonably priced. Ah, but there's always a catch.

Some time near the end of last month our daily and hourly SQL Server backups went on a rampage. The hourly transaction log backup we have scheduled was stuck in a loop so it never reset itself. We were uploading the entire transaction log for the month every hour. The end result was a constant stream of uploading to our FTP backup site, which is hosted by GoDaddy as well. Oh, I should mention the FTP backup is a service we pay for monthly in addition to any dedicated server plan. Here comes the fun part. The bandwidth used to connect to our FTP backup site is charged at the normal rate as if you were serving up web pages to customers. If you go over your monthly allotment you get charged the burst bandwidth rate of $1.99/1000MB. Last month we went over 661 times, or roughly 661GB. You can do the multiplication there. I should mention a nice customer support rep discounted it 50% for us. I'd really hate to have his job. . .

While this isn't that much money in the scheme of things, it is really freaking annoying. It would have been nice to get a phone call letting us know the first time we went over, not when we got our monthly statement. And why do we have to pay for bandwidth to a service we pay for that's hosted by our hosting provider and is very likely even located in the same data center. Aaargh!

So, in conclusion, we're researching what needs to be done to move to a local colo or perhaps another, slightly more expensive but not so unreasonable, dedicated hosting provider. Oh, we're still sorting out what caused the SQL backup issue.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Gentoo Linux MAC Based Host Name

We use Gentoo for all our Linux development (yeah, we do Linux -- coming very very soon). In fact we are currently putting together a test lab with quite a few computers using Gentoo, Mono, and our own StressBot software to drive client load to our server.

The lab currently consists of 25 computers, pointed at whatever server hardware/software configuration we happen to be testing. I'll post some pictures some day, I promise. As any IT guy will tell you, managing 25 computers isn't trivial. You have to make sure images stay in sync with the correct software builds, monitor that everything is working, etc. In a test lab this isn't so horrible, since our hardware is identical and we just use Ghost software and push out new images. However, this does bring up some interesting issues, the main one being the hostname. On Windows there are more issues, but we won't get into that.

On your network the hostname uniquely identifies your system. If you're pushing out images, this gets a little hairy. Most organizations use some sort of boot script that contacts a central repository to take care of this. We didn't need that much control for our lab. Instead, we decided just to base the hostname on the MAC address of the primary NIC, a very simple and guaranteed unique mechanism. Since we're using Gentoo we have the /etc/conf.d/hostname file that is used at boot time to set the hostname. Here's what we used to set the hostname to contain the MAC address:

lab0002A51B9F16 tmp # cat /etc/conf.d/hostname
# /etc/conf.d/hostname
# Set to lab+MAC (without ":"). IE: lab0002A51B9F16
HOSTNAME=lab`ifconfig eth0 |awk '/HWaddr/ {print $5}'|sed 's/://g'`

I'm sure there are more effecient commands that could be used here (I'm no scripting geek), but this works. :) I spent a couple hours hunting for something like this and couldn't find it, so I hope it's of use to someone.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

SoapBox Platform Possibilities

Our customers do some very interesting things with our platform, including:
  • RPC – The asynchronous nature of XMPP along with its addressing and our platform make it ideal for application to application messaging. One of our customers wrote a .NET Remoting transport on SoapBox, and many use it for other custom RPC needs (some are below).
  • Network gaming infrastructure – sending game data, hosting chat rooms, private chat during games, etc
  • In class test taking – Tests are distribute to Tablet PC’s when students log in and results are tallied.
  • Geographical Chat – Whiteboarding combined with maps and group conferencing.
  • Financial Market Data – Real time data from the market flows into applications used by traders.
  • Social Networking – Consumer social networking site using our platform for chat, content, and advertising delivery to the desktop.
  • Emergency Alerting – “The nuclear power plant is melting down. Evacuate!”
  • Remote Surveillance Control – Watch your surveillance cameras at home in any web browser and control them.
  • Automated Manufacturing Alerting – “Line 5 is clogged. Attention required!”.
  • Plain ole’ chat built into an existing application – Give users access to the people they need in the application they are familiar with.
  • Build System Alerts – Our build system sends us messages as our daily builds runs, letting us know the status.
  • Web Based Live Support – Communicate with customers live, through a web site.
  • Voice and Chat on Ruggedized Handhelds - Push to talk through a contact list with presence, send messages, pictures, or go into walkie talkie mode.
  • And the list goes on…

Some have been in the news, some are still in "stealth mode", but unfortunately I can't mention any names of companies. We will have some case studies coming out for a few of them.

Some of these applications are built on our 2005 platform, but many are built on our upcoming 2007 release. We've been working hard with our partners to make sure this upcoming release is something special. Here's a little overview of the new SoapBox platform.

SoapBox Framework (now SoapBox Studio)

The SoapBox Framework was our first product offering. We built and productized a framework knowing we’d want to build a server and an advanced communicator client. It started out as one framework, and has grown into quite a bit more. With the 2007 product release we will be distributing our frameworks in one package called the SoapBox Studio. They are all based on the same code base, which allows us to quickly add features to our entire product line. These frameworks include:

  • Desktop Edition – Build desktop and web applications in .Net for Windows, Linux, and Solaris.
  • Mobile Edition – Build mobile applications that run on PocketPC, Smart Phone, Windows Mobile, or Windows CE operating systems.
  • Web Service Edition – This is my favorite. J A standard SOAP web service, built using our Desktop Edition on the back end, that allows you to integrate with any language that supports web services. This includes Java, ColdFusion, Flash, C++, Perl, Php, and more (basically every language out there).
  • Server Administration Edition – All of the features that are available in our Management Console are available to you through public API’s. You can quickly perform tasks such as adding users, managing contact lists, and retrieving message archives.
  • Server Edition –This allows you to build plug-ins to the SoapBox Server to manage users from your own custom user store, create custom components to service client requests, filter messages, do custom logging, and manipulate the way the server works in general.

SoapBox Server

The SoapBox Server is our flagship XMPP server product. It is based on our Desktop Edition Framework with additional layers to do everything a server needs to do. You can easily customize the Server to meet your specific needs through the SoapBox Framework Server and Administration SDK’s.

SoapBox Communicator

The SoapBox Communicator is our client software built on our SoapBox Framework Desktop Edition (as well as another layer that we will be productizing soon) and serves as an example of how to best utilize the framework for client side development.

Other Key Platform Features

  • Open, well normalized database – We use a strict Enterprise nTier model in the SoapBox Server. Our database is well normalized with stored procedures for all interactions. This makes it extremely easy to integrate users, contact lists, message archiving, and presence with any environment that can read or write to a database.
  • Shared code base - Whether you’re writing an application for a Smartphone, or a server plug-in to handle workflow in a CRM application, your code interacting with SoapBox will look strikingly similar. This better utilizes your developer resources by focusing them on their business problem, not re-learning another API.
  • Unprecedented vertical scalability - SoapBox Server will fully utilize any hardware you can throw at it.

We have been hard at work creating the best documentation and samples out there for any XMPP platform. Here are a couple of (draft) samples.

If you would like advanced access to the SoapBox 2007 Platform, shoot us an email over at support@coversant.net and we'll get you on the beta list.

Friday, September 1, 2006

Cross Platform Deployment Project Bootstrapper

I think we are one of a very small set of companies out there building consumer grade, shrink wrapped products on .NET. Why? Well, I'm not sure. It might have to do with Microsoft's positioning on the matter. All their documentation talks about enterprise deployments. It could also have to do with the runtime size. Some people think 50MB download for prerequisites is too much. In general, though, .NET, and Visual Studio 2005 especially, provide all kinds of great tools for building shrink-wrapped products. One of these is the Deployment Project.

To create a working Deployment Project you simply set a few properties and point it at your main executable project. Whether it is a Windows Service, Winforms, or Web Project, you will get an installer that will run for most people. By default in Visual Studio 2005 the Deployment Project generates a bootstrapper Setup.exe. This will download and install MDAC 2.8 and the .NET 2.0 redistributable, if necessary. However, there is one caveat. It only works on x86 based operating systems! I have to admit, this caught me off guard. I expected to check a couple boxes in the UI and have everything just work on every platform where .NET would run. Unfortunately this is not the case.

Luckily, the bootstrapper is very customizable. Using a simple MSBuild task and some XML files you can dynamically build bootstrappers for any MSI or executable file. So, I put together some bootstrapper packages for .NET 2.0 on x86, x64, and IA64 platforms, MDAC on x86, Windows Installer 3.1 on x86, and SQL Express 1.0 SP1 on any platform. The result: I can click a few check boxes in a deployment project and not have to worry about changing my bootstrapper packages for each platform.

Here is the bootstrapper set: CrossPlatformBootstrappers.zip

The key to these bootstrappers working on all platforms is they do not fail if the platform doesn't match. They simply move on to the next bootstrapper. So you can choose all of our .NET 2.0 boostrappers in your Deployment Project, change the target platform of the deployment, and not have to remember to change your bootstrappers.

In addition to the .NET 2.0 bootstrappers I also created a SQL Express 1.0 SP1 bootstrapper using SQLEXPR.exe, which will run on all platforms. However, instead of doing a default install of SQL Express, it installs a specific instance name. For us, this instance is SOAPBOX. You'll want to modify the bootstrapper package.xml and product.xml files to suit your needs for your SQL instance name (or just use the default). If the instance already exists on the computer, it won't be installed again.

Earlier I mentioned MSBuild. A major key to creating shrink-wrapped products is being able to get builds out quickly and accurately. We use MSBuild for this. We have tons of custom tasks, but one of the MSBuild tasks that ships with the framework is called GenerateBootstrapper. With this task you can point MSBuild at your Bootstrapper directory (the contents of the zip file), an msi, and a list of bootstrappers, and it will create a bootstrapper exe for you.

Deployment Projects and I have a love/hate relationship. There are many things about them I don't like, but the bootstrapper piece is wonderful! So, in the upcoming 2007 builds of SoapBox products, expect to see a seamless installation including download on demand for all the prerequisites your system will need, on any platform.

About the Author

Wow, you made it to the bottom! That means we're destined to be life long friends. Follow Me on Twitter.

I am an entrepreneur and hacker. I'm a Cofounder at RealCrowd. Most recently I was CTO at Hive7, a social gaming startup that sold to Playdom and then Disney. These are my stories.

You can find far too much information about me on linkedin: http://linkedin.com/in/jdconley. No, I'm not interested in an amazing Paradox DBA role in the Antarctic with an excellent culture!