Webpage Exile

About one month ago, I received an unwelcome notification from Cornell’s CS department that they intended to close my account and delete the associated data. This was something I had expected for some time: I had defended and graduated a year and a half prior, and I didn’t expect the department to host my account indefinitely. I’m surprised they kept on as long as they did. However, it did present a practical problem, as Cornell still hosted my personal webpage. A personal webpage is de rigueur for computer science graduate students, both current and former. It’s a bit weird if someone doesn’t have one. Further, I do publish some software dating from my student days which some people actually use, so a stable website is desirable. Unfortunately the notification came at an astonishingly bad time, as my child had been born three hours prior to the notification (!?), so my schedule was not exactly clear. Nonetheless, I felt obligated to move the site.

Making a new website was something I should have done earlier. I had procrastinated partly because of the effort and cost, but actually more because of I could not choose a hosting company. They are a vast legion of largely indistinguishable anonymous entities. The number of services with their slight variations in their services is bewildering, and there are so many suspicious looking review sites to the point where objective information is hard to call out, and nearly everyone has something bad to say about everyone. How could one tell the good hosters from the bad? Making an informed choice seemed impossible to the point where I did not want to decide at all.

My needs are few and my traffic quite light, but I did have some criteria: I wanted databases, Python, Ruby, Ruby on Rails, PHP, and a hoster that did not offer “unlimited” plans. (Seriously, who’s kidding whom with that “unlimited” nonsense?) In the end, I went with a host a friend and colleague of mine used for his own site and recommended as reliable.

Hence, tfinley.net. Owing to the aforementioned birth of my child, my ambitions were limited: it’s basically my Cornell site with the verbs attached to my graduate student career put in the past tense, and the URLs updated. Of course, between the parade of feedings and diaper changes, even these modest changes took me a couple days to finalize.

Subdomain on Localhost

When developing the site, I found it helpful to host a site on my local web server, to make writing and debugging my site more efficient. However, I could not work in the root directory of localhost, as I was already using this to host some resources for my home LAN. I initially worked in a subdirectory, but this becomes really irritating as absolute paths do not work. An <a href="/page.php"> would mean entirely separate things locally and on the actual website.

My solution was to add a subdomain to localhost. The address http://localhost would point to my existing web server, but I added a subdomain to localhost so that http://tfinleynet.localhost pointed to the directory where I was developing the website. This allowed absolute paths to work properly. The requisite steps are not difficult, but they are sufficiently non-obvious to the point where others may benefit from my research. The steps are for a Mac OS X machine.

  1. Add a line resembling the following to /etc/hosts, of course replacing foo with your desired subdomain: foo.localhost
  2. In /private/etc/apache2/httpd.conf, uncomment (remove the preceding # from) the line:
    Include /private/etc/apache2/extra/httpd-vhosts.conf
  3. Edit the file /private/etc/apache2/extra/httpd-vhosts.conf whose inclusion you just uncommented, so that the uncommented lines read as follows, again with foo replaced with your desired subdomain, and the DocumentRoot set to the desired directory.
    NameVirtualHost *:80
    <VirtualHost *:80>
       DocumentRoot "/Library/WebServer/Documents"
       ServerName localhost
    <VirtualHost *:80>
        DocumentRoot "/path/to/local/development/directory"
        ServerName foo.localhost
        ErrorLog "/private/var/log/apache2/foo-error_log"
        CustomLog "/private/var/log/apache2/foo-access_log" com$
  4. Restart Apache, most easily accomplished by unchecking and checking “web sharing” in the Sharing pane of system preferences.
  5. Point your browser to http://foo.localhost, and observe the mighty workings.

Favicons and Robots

Technically, favicon.ico and robots.txt are optional for a website. However, a few days with an error log containing a megabyte or so of lines upon lines of File does not exist: /foo/bar/biz/httpdocs/favicon.ico and the like are strong motivators to create them, optional or not. I am on a shared server so I cannot reconfigure the website to just return 404 errors for these files, so I just bit the bullet and created them.

The favicon made me nervous. Sure, I was creating it just to get my error log to shut up, but any visitor would assume I did so because I thought what I had done was better than nothing. It’s not like I’m an artist that can create something beautiful in a sparse 256 pixels, nor yet a corporation or university with some universally recognizable brand or logo. Nonetheless, I think I acquitted myself adequately: I fired up the GIMP, put a gradient in a circle, some alpha-heavy black in an ellipse under that, and my initials in white. Boom. Instant favicon.

For robots, I’m not too picky, so I allow everything with the following robots.txt file.

User-agent: *
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