Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Build a Toy First

So far in my career I've only developed web applications for internal use -- intranet sites and the like. Recently I gave myself the challenge to create a simple public web app over the course of the weekend. Writing the code took only the weekend, but getting the deployment configuration right, and optimizing to withstand just the small trickle of traffic I was seeing took two more weeks.

I thought I knew Rails and Apache and MySQL and other technologies inside and out, but once I had to really cope with real-world obstacles I was knocked on my ass. My original configuration was not fast enough, and I had to implement caching to make things more responsive. I set up a number of monitoring systems to automatically restart my dispatchers if something went wrong. I found an awesome SSH client for my Treo which I had to use when my server started acting up and I was away from my home computer.

I also learned that the Internet is international -- I unconsciously assumed that most of my users would be based in the United States, but that's exactly wrong. I've got users from Växjö to Santiago de Compostela.

The site itself isn't much to look at -- I'm no graphic designer -- but it represents a major lesson for me in how to deploy a public-facing site. I'm greatly influenced by it while pursuing my other projects -- for instance, I now bake caching considerations directly into my code. I am not relying on flash[:notice] to pass messages back to the user. I'm either creating separate notification pages that can be cached, or I'm using Ajax to just update small parts of the page with status messages.

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