Archive for the ‘Backend’ Category

File Under: Backend

FTP for Beginners

It was in the dark ages of the Reagan era when I logged my first encounter with the File Transfer Protocol. I was involved in some nefarious video game-trading ring of the innocently naive variety, and a friend of mine had that hot new copy of Vladivostok Putting Challenge that I wanted oh so badly. The only problem was that he lived all the way on the other side of Orange County. Being too young to drive, neither of us had access to a car, and snail mail was just too darned slow. I wanted to lay down sloping fifteen-footers and rub it in the face of the Reds today, not in a week. “No problem,” my friend assured me. “Just log in to my server and grab it with FTP.”

“FTP? What is that?” I asked. My friend let out an Oscar-worthy sigh and gave me the quick run down of the Internet protocol that would forever transform my life.

Last I heard, my friend is collecting Galaxie 500s in Michigan, so calling him up with your FTP questions isn’t really an option anymore. Lucky for you, I’m here to give you a holier-than-thou sigh of my own and send you down the dharma path. For those of you who are entirely new to this whole game, we’ll start with a basic primer on the most comely of acronyms.

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File Under: Backend, UI/UX

Site Optimization Tutorial – Lesson 1

A picture’s worth a thousand words. An old saying, but true enough on the web where you can transfer chapters of text in the time it takes to download just one big image. Ever notice how pictures are always the last thing to show up when you’re surfing? That’s because the biggest hunk of download time comes from the image files.

Over the next four days, we’ll be looking at all the different ways to get pages down to their leanest and meanest. Today we start with the most egregious and most obvious culprit: images.

By the way, a lot has changed since the first edition of this tutorial – there’s more to optimizing image performance today than just knowing your GIFs from your JPEGs. (Though we’ll review that, since this may be your first time around.) There are now other file formats (like PNG) worth considering, and improved weighted-optimization techniques to throw into the mix.

And, hey, quite a bit hasn’t changed. For one, web users haven’t gotten any more patient. It doesn’t matter how ice-cool your images may look – if they can’t be downloaded quickly over a 56K modem, very few people without broadband will stick around to see them.

Fortunately, there’s still a host of tricks and optimizations that web designers can implement to speed image downloads. Let’s start with the easiest thing in the world.

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File Under: Backend

Gather Users Data From Server Logs

Hey, you! What are you doing? Where are you going? More importantly, what are you clicking on?

If only it were that easy. But no, most users like to travel the web incognito. They come to your site, poke around a few files, download a PDF or two, and then — poof — disappear, leaving nothing but questions in their wake:Where did they come from? Which browsers are they using? Are they experiencing any errors?

The most thorough method of tracking users is by planting cookies, which some folks consider rude or invasive, and, oh yeah, you need to know how to program them. Not to worry — there is an option that requires very little technical know-how, comes at no (or nominal) cost, and may already be a part of your site’s backend. I’m talking about logs!

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File Under: Backend, Web Services

Google Launches a Public DNS Service

If you’ve ever looked at a common web technology, protocol, service or piece of internet infrastructure and wondered aloud if Google was working on its own better, faster version of it, rest assured that the answer is almost always, “yes.”

The company announced Thursday that it is launching a public domain name system (DNS) service. On the Google Public DNS project’s website, Google tells us why DNS matters to everyone:

The DNS protocol is an important part of the web’s infrastructure, serving as the internet’s phone book: every time you visit a website, your computer performs a DNS lookup. Complex pages often require multiple DNS lookups before they start loading, so your computer may be performing hundreds of lookups a day.

The company’s plan, in its words, is to make those lookups happen faster, more securely and without redirects.

To start using Google Public DNS, set your network controls for the heart of Google’s servers, which live at the very cool IP addresses 8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4.

There are also full configuration instructions for changing your “web switchboard operator” on the Google Public DNS docs page.

If you set it up, let us know how it performs for you.

Google will always swear it isn’t up to no good, but some feel this launch is clearly a move to collect as much user data as possible to use for ads, better traffic routing and, of course, improving search.

One thing to note: in the project FAQ, Google says it does not plan to release Google Public DNS as an open source project, and as of now, it is an experimental service with no software license agreement that is only designed to be implemented within Google.

Of course, the web already has a free, fast DNS service you can use in tandem with or as a replacement for your ISP’s DNS service. It’s called OpenDNS, and it offers more control over your experience than Google does.

As expected, the founder of OpenDNS is not taking Thursday’s news lying down.

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File Under: Backend, Web Services

New Google Tools Help Speed Up Your Website

Good web developers know that even the most beautifully designed page is worthless if it takes too long to load.

To help you optimize your pages, Google has announced a new Labs feature in Google Webmaster Tools designed to track page load speed. The new Site Performance tool is one part tracking and stats tool, and one part Firefox add-on.

The tracking and stats can be accessed through the Labs menu in Google Webmaster Tools. To get the live profiling add-on, you’ll need to be using Firefox and have the Firebug add-on installed. Yes, like Yahoo’s YSlow add-on, Google’s Page Speed add-on injects some extra profiling tools into the Firebug panel.

These days, nearly everyone has a blog or a website they maintain. Popular publishing systems like WordPress, Movable Type and Blogger do a decent job of keeping your sites slim, but once you load up a complicated theme and add a few widgets, your page load times can start to take a substantial hit. Google’s new set of tools, along with similar tools like Yahoo’s YSlow, are powerful and full-featured, making them a must for large-scale site developers. But they are also easy to install and simple enough to use that even bloggers and small site builders should gain plenty of insight from the data they provide.

To get the new tools, install the Firebug add-on and head to the Site Performance section of Google Webmaster Tools. At the bottom of the page you’ll see a button to install the new Firefox plugin. Once installed, head to your site, click the Firebug icon and look for two new tabs: Page Speed and Page Speed Activity.

Click on Page Speed and run the tool and you’ll get a list of potential speed killers. For example are you using image compression? How about minifying JavaScript and CSS? The handy part is that Page Speed offers links to minified and compressed version of your files.

So what does Google’s new tool offer that YSlow doesn’t? Well, there is definitely some overlap, but Page Speed has quite a few more details that make it worth having. For instance the CSS profiling looks at the complexity of your selectors — shorter, more specific CSS rules mean the browser has less to evaluate, hence faster parsing. Google’s Page Speed tools parse your CSS and suggest optimizations.

Even some of the tools that duplicate those of YSlow are a bit nicer than what YSlow offers. For example the list of links to external images and files is much easier to see at glance in Google’s interface and the links to detailed explanations are a nice touch.

We did notice an odd conflict between YSlow and Google’s new tools. In our tests, YSlow didn’t report any cookies coming from the domain serving images, but Google Page Speed did. Which one is right? Frankly we’re not sure, our cookie logs don’t show anything for the image domain, but that doesn’t mean cookies weren’t sent.

Despite a couple of quirks Google’s new Page Speed tools for Firebug are a worth addition to your web profiling toolset. There’s definitely some overlap with YSlow, but enough extra features to make it worth having both on hand when you’re testing websites.

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