Simple Cloud

I signed up for Amazon Web Services around a year ago. I remember playing around and being impressed. But I never did much more with it.

This semester I am once again teaching a Database Administration course at Christopher Newport University. One of my students shared with me that his summer job heavily utilized Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, and I decided to take another look into it. AWS enables you to easily deploy a server to support a web application, run data analysis, or even support your own multiplayer video game. And you never have to worry about backups or hardware failures! EC2 is a rich software deployment platform, however, and the array of choices when bootstrapping a new server can be overwhelming to a newcomer.

I needed a quick and dirty solution to a specific problem: I use Docker to teach my database course. It allows the students to deploy containers (virtual machines with fixed software configurations) to host their own relational database (PostgreSQL) interface software (PgAdmin). Later in the semester, they use Docker to deploy a web server hosting Jupyter to enable them to get experience with Python, Jupyter, and Spark. PySpark and The PySpark Cookbook have helped to provide me with a way to introduce the students to basic data analytics in just a few weeks.

Problem: Docker is straight-up painful to install on a student’s laptop running Windows, and it does not reflect a realistic database server at that. I decided to look into web services as a solution, and took a look at Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, and others. I was surprised to run into an ad for Vultr while searching for resources. They are not one of the big names, so I decided to check them out.

I was delighted to find out that there are $5 and $50 one-month free trials available. The basic Docker container is only $5 per month, so I can essentially try everything I want for free. The startup could not be easier, in part because you are only prompted to select your application, not trying to estimate your performance and capacity needs. There is a built-in option for starting a docker host.

Once setup is complete, I was given an IP address for my server and account details for it. It’s amazing, but that’s really all there is to it! Here is what my first login looked like:

Michaels-MacBook-Pro-3:~ michaeljohnson$ ssh root@
root@'s password: # ENTERED PASSWORD HERE
Welcome to Ubuntu 16.04.5 LTS (GNU/Linux 4.4.0-137-generic x86_64)

 * Documentation:
 * Management:
 * Support:

89 packages can be updated.
56 updates are security updates.

New release '18.04.1 LTS' available.
Run 'do-release-upgrade' to upgrade to it.

Last login: Thu Feb 14 16:45:47 2019 from
root@dockertest:~# docker version
 Version:           18.06.1-ce
 API version:       1.38
 Go version:        go1.10.3
 Git commit:        e68fc7a
 Built:             Tue Aug 21 17:24:56 2018
 OS/Arch:           linux/amd64
 Experimental:      false

  Version:          18.06.1-ce
  API version:      1.38 (minimum version 1.12)
  Go version:       go1.10.3
  Git commit:       e68fc7a
  Built:            Tue Aug 21 17:23:21 2018
  OS/Arch:          linux/amd64
  Experimental:     false

By next semester, my students will all be subscribing to a web services provider as part of their materials for the database course.

New Hosting / New WordPress

I’d like to share my #UnpopularOpinion and say that GoDaddy is an excellent hosting provider with impressive tech support. I’ve always been quick to call and ask them questions, and they always explain everything without talking down to me. They know web developers.

I recently took advantage of a sale on GoDaddy’s Deluxe Hosting and secured three years worth of hosting for as many web sites as I like. About six months after making the payment, I finally set about the task of migrating my web sites over to a new server.

My first view of the new hosting service came through the new-hosting-wizard. You’re basically forced to pick one of your domains to migrate before you can access cPanel Admin, the main gateway to hosting management on GoDaddy. In addition to the wizard and cPanel, GoDaddy supplies a minimal management panel (confusingly called cPanel) under My Account / Hosting / cPanel. The wizard does little more than redirect DNS to the new server, so I was going to need to move all of my hosting files and web server configuration over manually or using GoDaddy tools.

I’m into doing things the hard way and keeping control, so I decided to ignore all high-level tools in cPanel and move my site files over using Secure Shell. The minimal-management panel has a block dedicated to ssh, and it was here I learned that GoDaddy picked an obtuse username and default password for me to manage cPanel Admin or connect with SSH. I’ll never need the password since cPanel Admin is automatically logged in when I log into cPanel Admin has an SSH Access widget that will allow you to manage SSH keys. You can use the Import Key action from here to add an authorized key for the management account. I added the public key from my already-generated ssh profile on my Macbook Pro, and I was set with unfettered encrypted access to the server shell itself. More on this in a minute.

If you haven’t played with ssh, you really should. Yes, that’s a link to a nuclear physics experimenter’s guide to using ssh to access a particle accelerator from off site. I have… a colorful background.

In a nutshell, ssh uses something called Public Key Infrastructure to enable a two-key system where one key (a large number encoded into characters kept in file) can be used to encrypt data that the other key can decrypt. Each key can encrypt or decrypt whatever the other key can decrypt or encrypt. One key is labeled public and released while the other key is labeled private and kept secret. This gives us the ability to authenticate (use our private key to encrypt something so that the public key can be used to decrypt it) and to transfer our data in secret (use our public key to encrypt our data and only our private key and decrypt it). In practice, SSH actually uses this secret transfer to pass another temporary secret key for faster encryption.

But here is how easy it is to copy a site:

tar cvf - . | ssh 'cd public_html; tar xvf -'

This command works if you have all of your site files in your current working directory on your local machine. I keep a working copy of all of my source files local and use git to revision them. I don’t have a fancy upload tool – I just use git to tell me which files have been updated and ssh to transfer them.

I opted not to buy any email plans. My whole show runs on the cheap. You can set up a free email account through CPanel that forwards any email aimed at your domain to any account. I just forward them all to my GMail account. This tutorial saved me a lot of stress.

Finally, every web site needs to upgrade to HTTPS. Chrome and other browsers are flagging insecure sites. ZeroSSL has a very easy set of online tools to generate your certificates. The only catch is that you need to renew them manually every three months. This tutorial helped me make sense of the various key components. Once you understand which fields go where, it’s just a matter of finding the right panel and pasting in the right value. When it’s time to renew, this video shows what keys go where.

That’s all done! WordPress has been upgraded, and I’m ready for another year of (hopefully more frequently) blogging. The key takeaway here is that you can really get most things for free (email redirection, SSL) and the rest for cheap (domains about $15/year each, web hosting $60/year for unlimited sites). All this if you’re willing to do the work.