Read my latest article: Ezra Zygmuntowicz -- Farewell, Friend. (posted Mon, 01 Dec 2014 17:53:00 GMT)

Ch-ch-ch-changes at Planet Argon

Posted by Wed, 12 Aug 2009 23:31:00 GMT

Now that the cat is out of the bag, I can share some recent news with you. Earlier today, we announced that Blue Box Group had acquired Rails Boxcar, our kickass deployment solution for Ruby on Rails applications.

Our team has been offering hosting services for over six years. When I made the decision to start providing Rails hosting over four years ago, it was something that I thought the community needed to validate that Ruby on Rails was a viable solution for building web applications. At the time, there was only one or two companies offering pre-configured solutions. The good ole days. :-)

Over the course of the past 4+ years, we’ve helped deploy and host well over a thousand web applications built with Ruby on Rails. Perhaps we even hosted your site at one point or another. We definitely had a lot of fun and learned a lot from our experience.

Fast-forward four years, the community now has several great solutions and options for hosting their Ruby on Rails applications. Knowing this, we began to look over the plethora of services that we offer and felt that we had been spreading ourselves too thinly. We were faced with the big question of: Should we focus our energy on trying to innovate in this competitive space or should we find a community-respected vendor to pass the torch to?

Rails Boxcar is a product that we are extremely proud of and believe the acquisition by Blue Box Group will be great for our existing customers. The acquisition is going to benefit our customers as they’ll be able to interface with a team with more resources. A team that also aims to innovate in this space and believes that Rails Boxcar will help them do that.

As a byproduct of this deal, our team has an opportunity to focus our collective energy on designing and developing web applications, which has also been a central part of what we do for as long as we’ve been in business. We plan to speed up our efforts on a handful web-based products that we’ve been internally developing and hope to release in the near future.

I had the pleasure of getting to talk thoroughly with the team at Blue Box Group and really feel like they’ll be able to focus their energy on maintaining and innovating within the Ruby on Rails hosting world.. definitely more than we could over the coming years. In the end, the acquisition is going to benefit our customers the most as they’ll be able to interface with a larger team that is innovating in this space.

If you’re interested in learning more about the acquisition, please read the press release.

From our perspective, this is a win-win-win situation for everyone involved. Expect to see some more news from us in the near future… and if you’re looking for a design and development team, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.

Switch to Passenger (mod_rails) in development on OSX in less than 7 minutes or your money back!

Posted by Wed, 11 Feb 2009 22:52:00 GMT

We recently switched our default builds of Rails Boxcar to leverage the benefits of using Passenger (mod_rails) for deployment of your Ruby on Rails applications and it’s been working out great for our customers. Several of our customers and colleagues mentioned that they also began using Passenger in development, which was intriguing.

But… Mongrel has been working great for us for the past few years. Why switch?

It’s true, I’ve been happily using mongrel since it came out as a replacement to webrick back in early 2006, which makes it about 28 in dog years.

Nigel and I
Nigel and I.. 2 1/2 years ago back when Mongrel was just a puppy

But… over the next few weeks, I’m going to evaluate Passenger in my development workflow. There’s no better way to try something then to jump head first. So… here goes.

locke
this guy was a passenger…and I recently started to watch the show

Our team will be evaluating Passenger in our development work flow with a forthcoming blog post but if you want to get your feet wet right away, here are some instructions for setting up Passenger on OSX with PrefPane, which were inspired by Manfred’s posts.

Installing Passenger via RubyGems

To install Passenger on your OSX machine, just run the following with root credentials.

sudo gem install passenger

This will install the passenger gem on your machine. Now we need to go ahead and run a script that is provided with this gem (also with root credentials).

sudo passenger-install-apache2-module

You’ll want to follow the instructions that appear. When you see something similar to the following output from the command, you’ll want to copy/paste that into an apache configuration file. I just created a file at /etc/apache2/other/passenger.conf.

Edit this file with your editor of choice

mate /etc/apache2/other/passenger.conf

Mine looks like:


  #/etc/apache2/other/passenger.conf

  # Passenger modules and configuration
  LoadModule passenger_module /opt/local/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6/ext/apache2/mod_passenger.so
  PassengerRoot /opt/local/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/passenger-2.0.6
  PassengerRuby /opt/local/bin/ruby

  # Set the default environment to development
  RailsEnv development

  # Which directory do you want Apache to be able to look into for projects?
  <Directory "/Users/robbyrussell/Projects/development">
      Order allow,deny
      Allow from all
  </Directory>

Once you finish running through sudo passenger-install-apache2-module, you’ll need to restart Apache on your workstation. This can be done by simply turning off/on Web Sharing in your Sharing Preference Pane.

Sharing

Alright, we got through the hard part. Now, in order for you to begin using Passenger, we need to setup Apache to point to your individual Ruby on Rails application(s). You can hack on Apache configuration files more, but there is an easier way thanks to the Passenger Preference Pane.

This will manage your VHost files for you!

Setting up Preference Pane

If you followed my post on installing Ruby on Rails via MacPorts, you’re going to need to install Ruby Cocoa, which can be done with the following. If you’re using the Ruby provided from Apple, you can skip this step.

sudo port install rb-cocoa

Once that is done, go ahead and move on and download Passenger Preference Pane. Once downloaded, you can install the preference pane, by double-clicking on the following file.

PassengerPane-1.2

The next part is really simple as well. Just begin to add your various Ruby on Rails projects into the Preference Pane… and when you’re done, you should be able to run your applications over port 80 without any problems.

As you can see, I’ve already setup a handful of projects and we don’t have to start/stop mongrels for each one or worry about port numbers when running multiple projects. (time savings!)

Passenger

Voila. Simple enough. You might need to stop/start Apache, couldn’t remember if I needed to or not.

For each host that you add into this panel, it’ll automatically be added so that you can immediately browse to http://yourhost.local and it should just work. :-)

Things to still figure out…

Debugging. If you’re used to doing --debugger, it appears that you can do something similar with the socket-debugger plugin. Not tried it myself, but worth looking into.

Browser testing via VMWare/Parallels/VirtualBox. Does anybody have any tips on how to best appraoch this? Our designers are curious…

As I mentioned, this is day one of trying it out and managed to motivate our entire design and development team to try it with me so that we can all learn about issues together and find solutions quicker. If you’ve been using this approach for a while, I’d be interested in hearing your story and if there are any issues that we should be aware of.

Rolling out new updates for Rails Boxcar

Posted by Thu, 29 Jan 2009 05:30:00 GMT

Alex, Director of Deployment Services, has been hard at work helping us get our new suite of hosting plans out for Rails Boxcar, a deployment environment that we’ve designed to help you get your Ruby on Rails applications running as painless and quickly as possible. With this new announcement, we’ve rebuilt the Boxcar image based on the feedback of our existing customers.

Additionally, we’ve been looking over some of early results from the Ruby on Rails Hosting in 2009 Survey that we’ve been running the past few weeks, which has further boosted our confidence that we’re on the right track with this big change.

What are some of the changes?

This means that with a Rails Boxcar, you can now get a pre-configured deployment environment using some of the most efficient platforms for hosting your Ruby on Rails applications. (REE has shown to increase performance by 33% in some cases)

We’re really excited about this new setup and would like to invite you all to check out our new plans and send us any questions that you might have.

RailsBoxcar.com 2.0

Posted by Thu, 18 Dec 2008 05:55:00 GMT

In case you missed the tweet from Alex ...

Twitterrific

Our team just designed, developed, and deployed a new site for, Boxcar, our streamlined deployment environment for Ruby on Rails applications.

Boxcar

Feel free to take a tour to learn more about our product plans, which currently start as low as $59/month.

If you have a project that you’ll be launching in the coming months, get in touch with us. :-)

Launching Ruby on Rails projects, a checklist

Posted by Mon, 15 Dec 2008 01:28:00 GMT

Since publishing this article, I have given a talk on this topic at Rails Underground 2009. I invite you to checkout the slides.

As mentioned in a recent post, I’m hoping to share some lessons that were learned throughout the process of launching a client project. Over the past few years, we’ve been part of several dozen client projects and the big launch date is always an anxiety-filled, yet exciting point for the client and our team. I wanted to provide a quick list of a few the things that our team considers vital before launching that next big project. While most of these things might seem obvious, it’s still good to cover the basics and I hope a few people find it helpful.

Hosting

Our company has been offering Ruby on Rails hosting for nearly four years and a few years longer with the PHP5 and PostgreSQL world. Given that, we’ve seen customers come to us at the last minute before they launch and wanting to get things setup and deployed right away. Quite often, this is their first experience deploying a Ruby on Rails application and there has historically been a semi-steep learning curve to do this. It’s really encouraged that you get this stuff figured out ahead of time. If you’re lucky, some hosting companies might offer cheaper plans so that you can begin to get things setup a few months or ahead of time and upgrade your plan prior to the big launch. This is how our Rails Boxcar hosting plans work.

We’ve seen a lot of customers avoid engaging with a hosting company more than a week or two before their launch because they want to reduce their monthly expenses, but the reality is that if you end up saving yourself a few hours of work by not scrambling at the last minute to get things setup, the hosting costs will pay for themselves. Several of our customers have learned this the hard way and as a result, this has resulted in extra stress that might have been avoidable if things had been ready earlier on.

The basic process that our team is to get a real deployment environment setup as early in the design and development process as possible. Often times, this will be 4-6 months before launch on larger projects. In our process, we aim to have a staging environment that mirrors our production environment. We tend to use a Boxcar Lite plan for our own client projects and get the deployment process working and automated. When it’s time to launch, we can easily upgrade the Boxcars with more resources to one or more Plus plans.

If you’re in the market for a hosting company, do keep us in mind, but if we can offer any advice, be sure to find out how you can scale upwards to meet your initial 3-6 month growth targets. Don’t worry about planning too far ahead in the future, until you see how traffic picks up and how the application and databases perform, you’ll be spending a lot of time guessing without data. If you’re new to this and aren’t sure, I’d encourage you to speak with a Ruby on Rails deployment specialist.

A few things to consider here:

  • Get your Capistrano or Vlad deployment tasks setup early. Make sure everything works and set it up to work with multiple deployment environments. (staging, production, etc.)
  • Use the HTTP Basic Authentication, which is available in Ruby on Rails to keep peeping toms (competitors, search crawlers, spammers, etc.. ) out of your project while you’re deploying to your staging environment. We tend to give out a .htaccess user/pass with this method to the stakeholders so they can access the site whenver they need to.
    • Rails documentation on HTTP Basic Authentication: view docs
    • Watch a Railscast for using HTTP Basic Authentication: watch screencast
  • Get your automated tasks (cron jobs) setup way before launch. Verify that things are working here at the right times
    • Extra-credit: Check server time settings to make sure you’re not running big tasks at time periods when heavy traffic is expected
  • Make sure your hosting provider has monitoring setup. It’s good to gauge uptime % from launch
    • Extra-credit: Setup your own monitoring with Pingdom or similar service to make sure you know when things are down. (You can audit your hosting provider this way!)

There are a handful of really great hosting companies out there for Ruby on Rails. Be sure to do your homework early! This isn’t something you want to do at the last minute.

Reminder: Keep your project releasable at all times.

Search Engines and Analytics

Before the big launch, be sure that you have outlined a consistent pattern for managing the HTML page titles on each page. Getting targeted traffic to your new web application is (usually) vital. Our team has adopted a basic pattern that we use throughout the application. This way we don’t have to go through at the last minute and figure out where titles are and/or aren’t being set.

In a previous post, I shared a basic plugin that our team uses on projects to manage page titles on a view-by-view basis.

Additionally, be sure to take advantage of using descriptive permalink URLs.

Another tip is to setup your application with analytics (google analytics is free!) If there is one thing that I wish we had setup from day one on every project in the past, was a set of conversion goals. So, be sure to get into your analytics account and prepare your application so that you can track these goals from the moment your application is launched. Collecting as much data about your visitor’s usage habits is going to help you in the coming weeks and months as you tune things based off of feedback and this data. Also, after you begin to introduce changes, you can analyze these metrics to verify that you’re improving things and not the opposite.

So, be sure that you are doing the following:

  • Have implemented descriptive page titles and urls
  • Are ready to track your site visitor’s usage habits from the starting gate
    • Conversion goals for obvious things like: sign-ups/registrations, viewing your product tour, contact requests, etc.

When Things Go Wrong / Tracking Exceptions

What happens when things go wrong? We’ve been amazed by how many projects we’ve seen have been in production for months/years and lacking something that seemed so obvious. Exception notifications! All too often, we’ve seen teams totally unaware that things were failing for their customers and not being reported to anybody. The easiest way to track exceptions in the past was to use the exception_notification plugin that the Rails team manages. You can have this plugin send your development team emails with a backtrace and all the goodies that’d normally show up in a 500 error. At a minimum, you should be using something like this.

  • Tip: Make sure your hosting environment can send out emails! (otherwise, you’ll never know about these problems…eek!)

However, in the last year, the Rails community has seen two options, Exceptional and Hoptoad introduced for managing exceptions. Our team has only used Exceptional so far, because our good friends at Contrast invited us to be early beta-testers for their new service. We love the Exceptional’s integration with Lighthouse, which is the bug/issue tracking application that we’re currently using. With Exceptional, our team is able to search through and track exceptions in our application and have a good meter on the overall health of our application. This solution works so much than the email-based approach because we can track which exceptions have been opened and sent to Lighthouse and if they’ve been closed by someone already.

I’ve heard great things about Hoptoad as well, but have yet to test it out. Would be interested to read a comparison between the two and am curious if there are other services for this currently.

Non-default 404 and 500 pages

Honestly, this is one of those things that we tend to forget about until the last minute. When you’re launching a new project, you’re bound to have a bug and/or a few broken links not accounted for. What you want to avoid is having your customers end up on an unhelpful page that looks like this:

The page you were looking for doesn't exist (404)

It doesn’t take too long to put something together that is a bit more helpful for your visitors.

AlphaClone — Page not found

So, do yourself a favor and add a ticket for your designers to design a custom 404 and 500 pages to replace the defaults that are provided by Ruby on Rails in public/.

Hold your client’s hands

If you’re working with startups, do remember that this is quite possibly their first launch. It’s important to remember that they’re going to be going through their own spectrum of feelings and it’s our job to help get them through the process with an eased mind. Show them that you have things covered, that things are ready to go, alert them when things pop up… in a nutshell. Keep them informed about the challenges and do what you can help to manage their stress. If they’ve just contracted you for an extended period of time to help get their big idea designed and developed, remember that this launch is just the beginning of the race for them. They have a big journey ahead of them and you just helped them get their new car engine built. Make sure they know that things are likely to breakdown along the way, need to be refueled (refactor! refactor!), and need service repairs. The worst thing you can do is set the expectation that nothing will go wrong once their application is released into the wild. They need to budget for this early on so that they can pace themselves after launch. (this is a big topic definitely worth of it’s own post)

Just remember that this should be a big celebration for your team and client. Remember to celebrate! (and then follow it with a retrospective)

In Conclusion

As mentioned, these are just a handful of things that we have learned to avoid overlooking (through trial and error). I’m hoping to share more thoughts on launching in the near future and would love to hear from all of you on things that you’ve come across. What works? What doesn’t work?

What is on your checklist for launching successful projects?

Related Articles

Expanding Rails Boxcar packages

Posted by Mon, 04 Aug 2008 14:30:00 GMT

If you’re in the market for a new hosting provider for your Ruby on Rails application, you might take a look at the new options for Rails Boxcar. We recently expanded our service offerings into three pricing tiers as well as custom packages for those who need a bit more.

A few things that we’ve recently added support for:

  • Provide us your SSH key during sign up!
    • Allows us to keep your server even more secure by avoiding sending passwords over the net
    • Other fun features related to this coming soon
  • Auto-configured Nginx w/Mongrel cluster
  • Phusion Passenger (mod_rails) support! (for those with mixed-environments)
  • Continued development of Boxcar Conductor)
  • ...more in the works!

The best part is that we can get you up and running with a new Boxcar now for as low as $59/month USD.

For more information, visit: http://railsboxcar.com

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact us.

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