Why use a PPTP VPN

People all over the world are being blocked from access to information and services outside of their country. For example, wordpress.com is blocked in China which is preventing free access to information. Some banking services, music and TV shows are blocked outside of the US. One of the ways to overcome these blocks is by using PPTP-VPN such as the Super VPN Service.

VPN network

When using a good PPTP-VPN service your data should be encrypted, it should allow you to bypass ISP firewalls and logs and hide your IP address. The VPN connection is good not only to protect your anonymity but also may help you connect via VOIP where it is blocked to use services such as Skype.

Image by Digital Inspiration

My office Temperature (°C)

CloudBerry Online Backup

It took me a while but following my review of the S3 Explorer I finally got to check out the CloudBerry Online Backup software by CloudBerry Labs. As already mentioned in the past, I use the Handy Backupsoftware to backup my local files to a portable hard drive. For a long time a wanted to add another layer of backup for my most important files using Amazon S3. There are a few tools that offer this service but almost none of them give you access to the stored data with other tools. It means that you can only access your backup storage using their own client. The one tool that allows you to access the data with any client you like is CloudBerry Online Backup. You pay a one time fee of 30$ for the software and then you use your own S3 account paying for the storage space and traffic directly to Amazon.

This backup tool has the regular features of selecting source directories and target location but it does have a few advanced features:

  • you can upload files larger than 5GB
  • failed uploads may be resumed
  • your data may be encrypted
  • there is support for file versioning
  • you may specify file filters for backups
  • you may skip hidden or system files
  • you may compress files
  • there is support for RRS
  • local deleted files may be kept for a defined period on the backup
  • online access to the files
  • differential backup

If you use the ‘Advance Mode‘ you will enjoy the full range of features but the file structure of the backup set will not resemble the local copy. I’m a simple guy and prefer the ‘Simple Mode‘ so the backup set, on the S3 bucket, looks exactly like the local structure and I can access it with any tool I want (like S3 Fox).

All and all the tool works great and very simple to install and use. It is intuitive. On my wish list I would include only a few additions:

  • A tool to compare the local copy with the backup set like the one in S3 Explorer.
  • A tool to estimate backup costs (already planned).
  • Backup option to Google storage (still in invite stage).

To help people get started with the Amazon services, Amazon just announceda free usage tier for new users which includes 5GB of S3 storage space for one year – great deal and a great opportunity to get started with backups to the cloud.

A note for WordPress database backup plugin

If you are running WordPress and using the WordPress Database Backup plugin you should read this post.

WP-DB-Backup allows you easily to backup your core WordPress database tables. You may also backup other tables in the same database. By default, the plugin backs up the core tables from a predefined list hard coded in the plugin file. Other tables may be added to the list manually.

WordPress Database Backup plugin's options

The plugin’s last version, 2.2.2, came out just after WordPress version 2.7. However, in WordPress version 2.9 a new commentmeta core table was added. This new table is not in the plugin’s list of tables so, by default, it is not being backed up and a manual selection is needed.

If you are using this plugin make sure you select the commentmeta table or you might face a problem when in need for a backup restore.

S3 Explorer review

I have been using Amazon web services for some time now. I have started with Amazon Simple Storage (S3) for off-loading WPMU theme files and later on started using it for daily backup of all my web sites and blogs. The backup is actually a small script that zips all my files and send them to Amazon S3 storage using the great Amazon S3 PHP class by Donovan Schonknecht. More recently I have tested Amazon Relational Database Service and managed to install WordPress and WordPress MU on it.

A problem I have encountered from day one when using Amazon S3 was the lack of a simple way to manage files and directories (called buckets on S3). To the rescue came S3Fox Organizer which is “A Front-end tool for Amazon S3 with a nifty GUI Interface” built as a FireFox Addon. S3Fox is really great. It allows you to do all your basic tasks on S3: upload, download, sync, create buckets, manage permissions, create time limited URLs and all for free! However, if you are a heavy user and need some more advanced features, sooner or later you will start looking for a different solution.

While searching for new options I found S3 Explorer by CloudBerry Lab which is a Windows desktop client for Amazon S3. The S3 Explorer Freeware version offers a large set of nice options such as:

  • copy and move objects in your account (no S3 fees in the same zone)

copy and move objects in your account

  • copy objects between your S3 accounts (no S3 fees within the same zone)
  • generate web URLs using CNAME records (i.e. pictures.mydomain.com)

generate web URLs using CNAME records

  • generate web URLs that expires in a specific time
  • sync folders between different locations (local machine and S3)

sync folders between different locations

  • setting for Cloudfront Streaming so you can stream your media directly from S3
  • master password for the software
  • control of permissions inheritance

  • create and manage policies

 

Additional features in the pro version:

  • versioning (Amazon just announced that versioning is supported in all zones)

versioning

  • ftp support (needs direct transfers from ftp to S3)
  • schedule updating the ACLs
  • compress files before upload (GZIP) to reduce storage and transfer expenses.
  • encrypt files before upload
  • overcome S3’s 5GB file size limit by splitting large files (‘chunking’).

compress, encrypt and split large files

With a rich set of features the overall experience of S3 Explorer is very good. I would be happy to see just a few things:

  • portable version
  • resume failed uploads (not supported by Amazon S3)
  • copy files directly from ftp to S3 (not using the  local computer).
  • while the pricing of the pro version is reasonable I would prefer a different licensing scheme. The registration fee of 39.99$ is for one installation with one year of support. A better scheme would be a longer term for free updates and the option to install the program on at least two machines (desktop and laptop)

Another interesting program from CloudBerry lab that I want to test is CloudBerry Online Backup to Amazon S3. For a long time I have been using Handy Backup but it lacks backups to the cloud. Stay tuned.

WordPress on Amazon RDS

Every WordPress blog must have a database to store all its data (posts, comments, settings and so on). WordPress uses the MySQL database. Usually the database is stored locally ob the web server of the blog. In some cases one would want to have the database installed elsewhere for many reasons (loads, capacity, backups). This is where Amazon RDS kicks in.

What is Amazon RDS?

Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) is a web service that makes it easy to set up, operate, and scale a relational database in the cloud. That means that you can have your MySQL database operate on Amazon’s cloud computers located all over the world. Just like they say:

Amazon RDS gives you access to the full capabilities of a familiar MySQL database. This means the code, applications, and tools you already use today with your existing MySQL databases work seamlessly with Amazon RDS. Amazon RDS automatically patches the database software and backs up your database, storing the backups for a user-defined retention period. You also benefit from the flexibility of being able to scale the compute resources or storage capacity associated with your relational database instance via a single API call.

According to Amazon there is no need to make any changes to your application in order to use Amazon RDS. Well, at least for WordPress and WordPress-MU they are right.

A standard WordPress installation, using Amazon RDS, is located at WordPressRDS.com and a WordPress-MU (the kind of WordPress that wordpress.com uses) is located at mu.WordPressRDS.com. I will keep this installation alive for a few days and then take it down since the use of Amazon RDS is not free.

If you would like to help me finance this demo please consider a donation via PayPal.

Amazon RDS is charged by the hour + storage + I/O requests and in and out data transfer (see full pricing). The smallest database instance you can get is with 1.7GB RAM with the cost of 0.11$ per hour. If you run a full month it sums up to about 82$/month. The next level is a huge jump to a large instance of 7.5GB RAM with the cost of 0.44$ per hour (~330$/month). However, for those who are seeking a multi-db solution for WordPress MU may consider testing two or three small instances.

So lets get started!

The first thing you will have to do is setup an Amazon RDS instance. If you don’t have an account with Amazon you should creat an AWS account. Once you have an account you may signup for Amazon RDS.

To set up the RDS instance read some of the resources available. If you use WordPress you probably would start with the PHP sample code. I may give specific code samples at a later time but you will have to use the following APIs (in this order):

  1. CreateDBSecurityGroup – setup a database security group.
  2. AuthorizeDBSecurityGroupIngress – authorize access from your servers IP for the above group.
  3. CreateDBInstance – set up the instance and first database (including root user, password and database name).

If all goes well you may check the instance using the DescribeDBInstances API call and look for the ‘Status‘ field making sure it is in ‘Available‘ state. In the results of this call you will also see the unique host name of the database. Amazon calls it ‘endpoint address‘. If you got it your are done!

Now setup WordPress (or WordPress Mu)

The final step is to run a regular setup of WordPress (or WordPress MU). You are probably familiar with the setup screen (click on the image to enlarge):

wp-rds-install-3

See the ‘DataBase Host‘ field? That is where the ‘endpoint address‘ goes. I guess this is one of those other 1% cases. Now just continue the installation as usual.

A WordPress MU installation is just the same:

wpmu-rds-install-1

I have installed WordPress and WordPress-MU on Amazon RDS at WordPressRDS.com. Check it out and please consider a donation via PayPal to keep these installation running.

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Gravatar enabled badges for WordCamp Israel 2008

For WordCamp SF 2008, Andy Peatling introduced Gravatar enabled name badges. He also released most of the source code he used to produce them – thanks Andy :)

On November 16th I will be attending WordCamp Israel 2008in Tel-Aviv. For the event, Sharon Gefen and I have prepared the graphics and script that will produce nice little blackdark blue Gravatar enabled name badges. The main problem was, big surprise, the use of Hebrew fonts with the fpdf library. After some time playing around with it I have managed to produce the following sample:

elad-badge-wcil2008

I hope Andy can find a place to use the Hebrew name badge I have prepared for him with the WordCamp Israel 2008 template:

andy-badge-wcil2008

If the budget will allow us, we will print these name badges for everybody at the camp. In the meanwhile please make sure that you register or update your Gravatar.

WordCamp Israel 2008 – registration open

WordCamp Israel 2008 is set for November 16th in Tel-Aviv. Just a day after we opened the registration we have about 130 submissions on our attendees list but we are aiming for a crowd of about 400!

wordcamp-israel-2007-logo.png

Beside the WordPress usual issues, this year, we are devoting part of the camp to social involvement stuff like non-profit organizations – this should be interesting.

Please help spread the word.