The ISP Hosting blues

Initial work on the sign-on is done. It’s a shame Namesco don’t support the SSL virtualhost in the same way that Simply did. I really must finish the sign-on code and make it use session keys instead. Maybe some sort of javascript hashing thing client-side simple for obfuscation would help. Hmm.

I can safely say that after a good few years running a (admittedly el-cheapo basic) webserver at a remote ISP is a pain in the proverbials. I’m really looking forward to setting up John’s parish server & services on his DSL connection.

So my ISP renewal is up soon. I’m sure I’m paying too much but it’s *so* painful switching services over – finding out what’s supported and what isn’t; finding out that all your CGIs have to be renamed .cgi and can live anywhere, or vice-versa – named anything but all live in cgi-bin (well, that’s the way I do it).

Anyway… This will be the first entry in my hastily lashed-up weblog system. At least it only depends on my code plus XML::RSS. Goodness knows (well ok I should really look into it) what movabletype depends on.

Generating PDFs from .docs, .ppts and friends

So a few weeks ago I set up a system to fix a standing problem I’ve had for a looong time. We have an internal web-based repository for tracking versions of documentation. It takes any sorts of files but the majority of them seem to end up as .docs and .ppts.

That’s fine for the minority of our users on Windows but by far and away most are on UNIX – primarily Linux & Tru64 – and they can’t do much with those formats. Ok, so some of them have OpenOffice installed but for those who do it’s still a pretty bulky application to startup to view these things quickly.

The answer it seemed was to convert them on-the-fly or on-update to a format which is more easily viewed. PDF seemed the obvious choice, but how to generate? Initially we had a copy of Acrobat Distiller running on a Windows PC watching a shared folder on a network drive but that really isn’t the right solution. The wvPS suite was also considered but at the time the webservers were running on Alpha/Tru64 and the suite didn’t compile up easily.

Last week one of the queries I had reminded me that I still didn’t have a solution to this problem. Googling around a bit I found this thread which describes a macro to perform the right sort of thing. Combining this with the openoffice commandline options -invisible -headless -nologo you’d think this would work without also requiring X. Unfortunately openoffice still wants a display – presumably to access fonts, but I’m not sure.

Enter Xvfb, the X virtual framebuffer. This is a virtual X display which effectively runs headless. You can screengrab from it using the xwud tool (another part of the Xfree86 distribution). Running Xvfb on a given display and telling openoffice to open on that display means the whole system can run headlessly and is scriptable at last. The machines running the webservers are significantly more beefy than those on people’s desks so things don't appear to be too slow to kick off.

Another useful thing to do is to duplicate the OpenOffice macro to support other file-types and selecting the right macro via a command-line switch based on the extension of the file to convert. It seems we have a workable solution and relatively flexible one at that. Conversion quality is generally pretty good too. Here’s looking forward to OOo version 2!

… of course the only thing is that now the web systems are linux-based wvPS will work properly. Doh. The consolation is that we can do PPTs, RTFs and of course the native StarOffice and OpenOffice formats and other weird and wonderful things.

VoIP at Home

Some time ago I bought myself a Netgear TA612V broadband VoIP adaptor. I’d been looking around at Sipura , Broadvoice , Vonage and the like and quite liked the idea of the TA612V. It provides two separate analogue phone lines out, ethernet in from the DSL or cable router and ethernet out with QoS traffic-shaping to give the audio lines precendence. It even came with 555 Minutes of calls from Sipgate (a German company).

If you make less than around £10 calls per month (above which I think Vonage would be cheaper) then the initial layout (around £60 from ) for the netgear adaptor probably pays itself back under a year. All UK calls via sipgate are around 1.9p per minute at time of writing.

So I signed up for a free sipgate number. I went for 0845 as it’s Lo-Call rate in the UK – that’s to say I make the same savings as with calling out with any other sipgate number, but it also works out cheaper for people to call in. Sipgate’s tech support are pretty prompt and helpful though as with so many support services, don’t necessarily answer the questions they’re actually asked.

Anyway, one thing I didn’t like so much was that the TA612V turned out to be tied to the sipgate service – I was really hoping for a terminal adaptor + router with QoS which was configurable by hand. Netgear’s support also seems minimal and I’ve also developed the impression that only ten of these units have been sold. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a BIOS flash which allows the SIP configuration by hand.

What with VoIP being flavour of the year I’d expected a little more hype from Netgear about their neat little adaptor. I guess they’re keeping quiet to see if it’s all as big a deal as the pundits are making out. Asterisk certainly continues to make a stir.

One other point to note is that my TA612V sits behind my DSL+NAT+Wireless router. Unfortunately my entire home network *apart* from the VoIP adaptor is wireless and that renders the QoS on the VoIP adaptor utterly useless. I guess I’ll need to invest in one of those fancy MIMO access points or something and disable the 802.11G-network on my primary. Maybe when Alex moves back up to Leeds he’ll give me back my old Netgear FM114P wireless + firewall.