Multi-Discipline The Problems and Solutions of a Generalist Maker

The Making of Multi-Discipline

Despite having worked on and around the web since 2006, it's been a while since I've had my own personal space which I controlled soup to nuts.

Twitter has satisfied most of my practical publishing needs (low friction, low maintenance, publicly accessible, able to be individually hyperlinked), but the notion that I don't "own" my tweets is aggravating to my future-proofing sensibilities.

While I do have systems in place to capture, for example, my tweets (first via an iPhone app called Momento; more recently by running a custom install of Brett Terpstra's Slogger to add my tweets to a personal Day One journal), it's not the same as having posts under my complete control.

The Problem

The fate of my posts to Twitter, Tumblr, or any other advertising-supported "post here and we'll probably keep your stuff around for a few years" platform is, ultimately, out of my hands. But I would like most (if not all) of my day-to-day public writing to have the best possible chance of being around for my kids to discover when they're older.

The Solution

I'm building out my own little corner of the web where I control the presentation, availability, and ultimate fate of my content, and which I can expand to include more forms of media (long-form posts, image galleries, video, audio, etc.) as I find uses for them.

The Tools

The Process

Tinkering With Jekyll Locally

Since I had never before used Jekyll, I limited myself to installing and running it locally on my development machine (a.k.a. "dev machine", a.k.a. "laptop") for a few days. This gave me an opportunity to tinker with it (tweak a template, find the limits/hackability of the posting system, determine what else I could build into this) without investing a bunch of time spinning up a VPS. Jekyll, I soon learned, could even be deployed to GitHub Pages with a few setup conformities, so that became my plan.

After tinkering with Jekyll, it was clear that while this was a solid piece of software out of the box, the real value it offered was its customizability and extensibility (given familiarity with Ruby and Liquid). I work with Ruby professionally, so that was a good fit; and despite this being my first experiment with Liquid, it's a sufficiently intuitive and documented system that I picked it up quickly.

The Jekyll features I wanted to build, though, required that I change my deployment plan from GitHub Pages (which offers a free and quick way to run a stock Jekyll site) to deploying via Git to my own VPS.

Setting Up My VPS

Configuring the DigitalOcean Droplet (their term for a VPS "unit") was straightforward; DigitalOcean's own system had me up and running with a virtual Linux (Ubuntu) "box" in no time, and I had the necessary user accounts, SSH Keys, etc. set up shortly thereafter (aided by DigitalOcean's excellent documentation & tutorials).

Context: Part of setting up this droplet involved directing web traffic from my domain name, multi-discipline.com, to my droplet's IP address. In addition to being necessary for general web traffic, having that DNS A Record in place allowed me to use that hostname for other services (ssh, git remote, etc.) and have a single point of update should I move the site to a different server.

Next up, I installed Ruby and Jekyll on the VPS, installed Git (git-core, in my case), and created the Git repository at which I'd be receiving my entire, un-compiled Jekyll site (pushed via Git from the repository on my laptop, where I'm building the site and writing posts).

Context: Jekyll is a static site generator, meaning that the "work" of building each and every page in the site (setting the permalink address of each page; including header, footer and other page layout partials; replacing variables with the appropriate text, etc.) is done once whenever I push a change to the Git repository, instead of every time someone on the web requests a page.

The driving force of all that server-side processing is a Git post-receive hook on the site's repository (a.k.a. "repo") on my VPS. You can think of this as a shell script which fires when Git receives a change to that repo. In basic terms (neglecting a few technical steps), that script:

  1. Tells Jekyll to turn my site's un-compiled content files, layout partials, and assets into a functioning and inter-linked set of web pages (in other words, makes the disparate parts into a proper web site).
  2. Clones the generated /site folder to a particular directory on the VPS (where, in a future step, we'll tell the web server to look for the page files as they're requested).

Setting Up nginx As My Web Server

While I've done some basic system administration work in the past, I've never actually installed and configured my own web server (nginx, in this case) on a clean system.

nginx does the work of listening for requests which come in, and serving the appropriate files from my VPS back to the web browser which requested them.

As such, I needed to let nginx know:

  • The port on which it should be listening for web requests (standard is 80)
  • The IP address from which it is serving (the IP address of my DigitalOcean Droplet)
  • Which site(s) I'm serving, and which host name(s) I'm using for them (multi-discipline.com www.multi-discipline.com)
  • Where (on the VPS) it should look for each site's "root" directory (eg. /var/www)
  • Which file to use as the site's (or any subdirectory's) index (typically index.html)
  • Which pages to use for given errors (eg. 404 /404.html)

I also needed to be sure the site configuration I did in /sites-available/multi-discipline.com was again expressed in that site's file in the /sites-enabled directory. Since my setup is pretty straightforward (i.e. any site I have "available" should also be "enabled"), I symlinked the site file in /sites-available with its counterpart in /sites-enabled, meaning any future change to one of those files is carried through to the other.

Temporary Hangups

At this point, I ran into some system-permissions-related problems.

Firstoff, I'd forgotten to make the post-receive hook file executable (i.e. "able to be run"), so nothing was happening when my Git repository detected changes. I fixed this with a chmod.

Secondly, the post-receive hook script couldn't write in the destination folder (or, rather, a script run by my user account couldn't, but needed to, since the git remote named droplet set up on my laptop to push code to the VPS did so using my VPS user account's SSH Key), so I made my user account a member of the user group which has control over /var/www and its contents. In my case (and, I believe, by default), this group was www-data.

Context: For security and peace-of-mind reasons, I set up a user account on my VPS which I would use for day-to-day system administration, but which was not the system's default root account, since root is basically god as far as the system is concerned, and can do many harmful things if accidentally or maliciously misused.

The Outcome

The first time I successfully ran git push droplet master on my development machine and found the properly compiled site being served at http://multi-discipline.com, I threw my arms up in victory. Success!

From this point on, I have the ability (if not the time) to post lengthy screeds at will and trust they’ll be around until the day I no longer want them to be (or until my DigitalOcean payment method fails — whichever comes first).