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In the first week of August, we met for the latest installment of our company retreat named “freistil Days”. As a remote team, we come together every 5 months in order to strengthen our relationships and to do things we can’t do otherwise. On each retreat, we learn something that helps us improve the next one. In this post, I’ll explain what we learned this time.

Schedule

The question of how long our retreat should be and how the schedule should look like is now pretty much settled. A whole week from Monday to Sunday has proven long enough to get a good bit of work done and short enough to limit the impact of our absence on the business and our families. We’ve arranged the schedule in a symmetrical way:

  • Monday and Sunday are designated travel days.
  • Midway through, Thursday is a good opportunity to do sight seeing so we get out and about a bit.
  • This leaves two pairs of work days where we focus on projects.

The impressive control centre at the Miniaturen Wunderland, the largest model railway in the world.

Just like the previous times, we had prepared a schedule for these work days with time slots for project work, daily business, eating breaks and spare time. It hadn’t occurred to us until this time how hugely different this was from our normal year-round modus operandi. As a remote team, we trust that everyone knows their objectives and goals, and will work towards them. We don’t dictate when or how this work is to be done, though. This freedom creates a space for everyone to find their individual approach to working effectively. Halfway through these freistil Days, the Emperor’s Clothes question was finally spoken: “Why is our company retreat, of all things, the complete opposite?” We weren’t able to find a valid reason, so we decided to ditch the time slots, allowing everyone to decide individually when they’d work on freistilbox Solo, on support tickets or on other urgent business and when they’d rather lie down and read. From there, things got a lot more relaxed and (as expected) we still got a lot of work done.

Taking a break from work in the middle also does for a nice change. This time, we visited Hamburg’s Speicherstadt with the “Miniaturen Wunderland”, the world’s largest model railway. The amount of effort that went into building hundreds of square meters of model landscapes is amazing. And the control centre (see photo) was quite impressive, too. (Hey, we’re IT geeks.)

Projects

In advance of a retreat, we identify two or three projects on which we’d like to focus while we’re sitting around the same table. This time, we’ve decided to work on one customer-facing and one internal project.

Markus and Philipp getting things done

The launch of our entry-level hosting plan freistilbox Solo has been delayed for months because we decided to base it on a new IT architecture that will also help us improve our existing enterprise hosting platform at a later time. freistil Days gave us the opportunity to focus on getting the new architecture further ahead and while it’s not finished, we’re much closer to a usable product now.

Behind the scenes we had noticed that our development workflows needed improvement. Now that there’s a whole team working on automating our IT infrastructure, the usual issues around collaboration, testing and releasing changes made us rethink how we do “infrastructure as code”. On a lovely Wednesday, walking along the green riverbanks of the Alster, we came up with a simple Continuous Deployment process that will give us everything we need with much less manual effort than before.

Freedom creates a space

Group dynamics

Spending a whole week together as a group certainly is a big difference to our normal team experience. All the unavoidable social interaction tends to draw a lot of energy, especially for introverts (which all of us seem to be to different extents). After a few days, our lunch conversations became less engaging and silent pauses got longer. Towards the end of the week, we all felt a bit exhausted.

So it was a good decision to get rid of the rigid schedule because this will allow us in the future to take time off the group whenever we like, whenever we feel it’s necessary.

On the plus side, we got a better understanding for each other and more clarity about our strengths and weaknesses.

Conclusion

Third time’s the charm! Our freistil Days in Hamburg advanced us as a team and as a company. We deepened our relationships and made progress on our products and internal processes. And most importantly, we had a lot of fun!

If you’d like to see for yourself what freistil Days (and the rest of the freistil year) are like, get in touch!

21 Aug 2015

Sometimes you need to jump back in your git history to an old state. Most of the times you already published your commits to other remotes so a git reset --hard $OLD_COMMIT is not a solution.

This is where git revert comes in handy.

If you want to jump back to a specific commit id 48b616601cab02df84297dcf7246d17072ac32fb all you have to do is

git revert -n 48b61660..HEAD

Now check everything and create a new commit that reverts everything from the old state to the current.

muhh

13 Jul 2015

When our monitoring alerts us of a server because of a full root file system, determining the cause is a bit harder than with other file systems because many directories under / are actually mount points of separate file systems.

There is an easy way to isolate the root file system content, though: mounting it a second time elsewhere.

A normal mount will fail:

mount: /dev/mapper/vg0-root already mounted or /mnt busy
mount: according to mtab, /dev/mapper/vg0-root is mounted on /

But a bind mount does the trick:

$ mount --bind / /mnt
$ du -sh /mnt/*

geewiz

12 Jul 2015

As Palasthotel CEO Benjamin Birkenhake announced on their company blog, the web agency based in Bielefeld and Berlin recently finished the relaunch of the German Rolling Stone Magazine.

Rolling Stone Magazine on freistilbox

The result of their work is, and I’m really not exaggerating, awesome. Not only did Palasthotel give the website a fresh design, they also did great development work behind the scenes:

  • 130.000 articles needed to be migrated from Escenic to WordPress. Inspired by Drupal’s “Migrate” module, Palasthotel developed a WordPress migration framework which they’re going to make Open Source.
  • The site uses 79 plugins, 69 of which were developed in-house.
  • Homepage and landing pages were built with PalastHotel’s plugin Grid.
  • Not only is the website responsive but it also uses “responsive images” technology that loads images only on demand and in the right resolution.
  • For maximum search speed, Palasthotel developed their own interface plugin for Apache Solr (soon to be published, too).
  • In order to simplify collaboration between three editorial teams, Palasthotel built a solution for sharing image galleries between separate WordPress setups.
  • The site uses 8 custom post types for artists, concerts, festivals etc. For connecting these post types, Palasthotel developed a “Post Relationships” plugin (which they’re going to publish as well).
  • Their new “Postqueue” plugin allows creating hand-picked content lists, just like the “Nodequeue” module in Drupal.
  • And as if this list wasn’t impressive enough already, Palasthotel built and integrated Octavius into the site, their own real-time click tracking service.

Shortly after the relaunch, Ben teamed up with our Chief Uptime Officer Markus for a session at WordCamp Cologne where they presented how our teams cooperate to run High Load Websites reliably, with the Rolling Stone Magazine being only one example.

Congratulations to our friends at Palasthotel for a job well done!

26 Jun 2015

In Drupal 7, database logging via the “dblog” module is enabled by default. On high-traffic websites, this can become a problem. When Drupal generates lots of log entries, they can cause significant write load on the database and fill it up quickly. We’ve seen many database backups take longer than an hour because the “watchdog” table was multiple Gigabytes big, and more than one website database bog down under log write load.

The best solution is of course to to fix all PHP notices and warnings to reduce logging overhead. But you’ll still want to have a way of preserving important events in order to analyse them if the need arises. With the “syslog” module, there’s a better alternative to “dblog” and we’ve recently added syslog support to freistilbox. All log entries will simply be written to a log file in your website’s “logs” directory.

If you use our pre-built configuration snippets (and you should), all you need to do is to enable the “syslog” module. Our configuration snippet already comes with all the right module settings. And don’t forget to disable the “dblog” module!

23 Jun 2015

A few days ago, a new SSL vulnerability called “Logjam” was published. The attack exploits weak “Diffie-Hellman” (DH) parameters in incorrectly configured SSL/TLS servers.

We decrypt incoming SSL traffic right on our Edge Routers in order to enable content caching for both plain-text and encrypted web requests. Since we follow best practices, we don’t use any of the vulnerable cryptography. No changes in our Edge Routers were necessary to mitigate LogJam.

In order to deliver the best SSL processing performance possible, our Edge Routers prefer key exchanges based on “Elliptic Curve” cryptography, thus avoiding problems with DH altogether.

We are proud that the SSL configuration of our Edge Routers is rated “A+” by SSL Labs, and happy to give you peace of mind about the security of your website traffic.

28 May 2015

Bring together Drupal developers, themers, end users and those interested in learning more about Drupal — that’s the mission of the Drupal Open Days, the biggest DrupalCamp in Ireland. It’s happening again, and we’d like you to be there, too!

On May 22 and 23, we’ll have two days of talks, sessions and collaborative discussions about Drupal. Like last year, the main event will be at the Guinness Enterprise Centre and we’ve reserved space at nearby pubs to continue our conversations in the evenings after the sessions.

The Open Days team is doing amazing work behind the scenes preparing everything. Please help us spread the word so that lots of people interested in Drupal will make this event a great success!

We’ve gathered a bunch of brilliant speakers, first of all Emma Jane Westby with “Managing Projects the Drupal Way”. Peter Sherrard, FAI Communications Director, and Daniel Walsh will present “The Football Association of Ireland’s Drupal & UEFA API Experience”. It’ll be two days packed with information about how to use Drupal successfully!

As a company based in Ireland and, more importantly, a part of the Irish Drupal community, freistil IT is happy to support Drupal Open Days as a Gold Sponsor. I’ll be around on both days (and nights), so don’t hesitate to chat me up if you’re interested in having your Drupal website(s) run by experts.

It’s important that we demonstrate that Drupal has critical mass in Ireland. So again, please tell your friends, colleagues and customers to join you at Drupal Open Days.

Sign up now and be a part of the greatest Drupal meetup in Ireland!

06 May 2015

Our current hosting product freistilbox is highly scalable, and compared to other enterprise hosting platforms, its pricing is unrivaled. But more often than not, customers tell us that not everyone actually needs a full Drupal or WordPress cluster which can scale to hundreds of websites. That’s why, after five years, we decided to launch freistilbox Solo, our new plan for web developers who need powerful managed hosting for a single website.

Today, we’re going to tell you the details of what we’re up to.

Developer experience

freistilbox Solo is designed from the ground up to support and enhance the workflow of Drupal and WordPress shops.

Development speed is one of the most important aspects in web projects, so it’s vital that your hosting platform offers an efficient way to deploy changes. That’s why freistilbox Solo will use the same instant deployment approach as its bigger sibling: the moment you push a change to your Git repository, it’ll be published on freistilbox Solo.

In order to support the usual development phases of development, staging and production, each freistilbox Solo account comes with three separate website instances. You can base all three on the same Git repository because our deployment process will automatically enable the correct configuration for each staging environment.

Alternatively, you can assign a specific branch of your application repository to each instance. For example, you could simultaneously work on and deploy from a “development”, “testing” and “production” (aka “master”) branch.

Visitor experience

All your website visitors, human beings and search engines alike, put a high value on performance. Being able to generate and deliver content quickly has a direct impact on both your sales and search engine rankings.

We will offer freistilbox Solo in three tiers that differ in capacity:

  • freistilbox Solo S with 8 Processing Units and 10 GB of storage space,
  • freistilbox Solo M with 12 Processing Units and 20 GB, and
  • freistilbox Solo L with 16 Processing Units and 40 GB.

In case you’re not familiar with the term “Processing Units”, that is our metric for how many concurrent Drupal or WordPress requests freistilbox can handle, so another fitting term would be “application workers”.

In freistilbox Solo, we use the same technology that serves our current freistilbox customers, only on less complex IT infrastructure. This includes a high-performance LAMP stack plus

  • Memcache for maximum application performance,
  • Varnish for delivering static content at 300 requests per second,
  • an SSL terminator that enables caching of encrypted web sessions, and
  • Apache Solr for high-speed content search.

As with freistilbox Enterprise, all these system components are optimised for running Drupal and WordPress. And since they connect without any network latency, freistilbox Solo will deliver your website content with amazing speed.

Service experience

While freistilbox Solo does not require the same infrastructure complexity as freistilbox Enterprise does, there is still a lot to do in order to let our customers work efficiently and sleep peacefully. freistilbox Solo is fully managed and our operations team will take care of all the work required to run your websites at full performance. For example, we’ll make sure that the hosting software is updated regularly, that your data is backed up and that performance bottlenecks get eliminated. If there’s some new technology that can benefit our customers significantly, we’ll try and integrate it into our hosting platform. And if (well, rather “when”…) something breaks, our ops team will get on it immediately, day or night.

We are convinced that web projects are the most successful when developers and operations folks work towards the same goal. That’s why freistilbox Solo customers will enjoy the same competent technical support as our freistilbox Enterprise customers. We won’t leave you alone when you need help running your website.

Countdown!

We’re a bit behind schedule but the launch of freistilbox Solo is getting nearer and we’re already very excited! Soon, we’ll reveal the pricing and the exact date when we’re going to make freistilbox Solo available.

We hope to see your website fly freistilbox Solo soon!

04 May 2015

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