Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Past and Future of Boardgame News

"BoardgameNews.com has been down since Nov. 30, 2010. That's a long time, Eric. What's going on with the site, and will it ever return?"

Glad you asked, faithful or occasional BGN reader. I upgraded my hosting service in mid-November 2010 due to continued slowness with the site. Surely throwing $1,000/year at the problem will solve everything, right?

Wait. Back up. Let me start earlier.

In March 2010, Cloudberry Games' Rustan HÃ¥kansson approached me about designing a new site for Boardgame News. I had recently unveiled a refreshed site that featured stark plains of white and some streamlining in the content featured, while not being appreciably different in content or more importantly the amount of backend work needed to do anything. Creating the members-only Spiel preview, for example, required me to post game announcements up to three times: once on the site proper, again in Gone Cardboard for items from North American publishers, and a third time in the preview itself, adding details for playing time and links while using HTML coding. Normal game announcements also required posts in two places: Gone Cardboard and the announcement itself. Maintaining the members only aspect of the Spiel preview required me to adjust the status of users based on whether they had paid, along with sending out reminders to them to make said payments.

I recognized that various technological doodads would allow me to automate many things, but learning these skills or paying someone else for access to their skills was out of the question. As part of the March 2010 redesign I decided to drop the premium content to remove some of the busy work involved with running the site. Instead I would employ a steady campaign of harassment and shame to encourage donations from readers. Not really the best option, but I could experiment for a year, then decide what to do.

That last thought, by the way, matches my approach to everything related to Boardgame News: experiment, then decide what to do. I never did something and thought, "There. I'll never have to touch that again." Every aspect of the site was open to change, ostenisbly for improvement but determining whether something was improved or not was often, um, determinable only after putting the change into effect.

So Rustan approached me and said, hey, the redesigned site is a nice change but how about something really new? In his mind I had switched American cheese for Swiss, and he had a suggestion for a whole new type of sandwich, so to speak. He showed me examples of what he had in mind, took a list from me of what I wanted to be able to do, then got to work. I wanted to debut the new site by July 1 to time it with the debut of the Spiel 2010 preview. Rustan was reluctant to agree to this date, but eventually he fell for my charms and said he'd do what he could.

The new site launched on July 7, after I badgered Rustan to finish a few things so the site could go live and I could stop double-posting on the existing BGN site as well as the spiffy new Drupal one. Rustan had created a modern site that allowed me to use tags in a release date field to automatically have games show up on Gone Cardboard or convention previews. Very nice! And users could create customized buy/try/look lists that would be printable down the road. Plus each user now had profile pages, and the image picker would make uploading and posting images a far easier process. So much better than the old site!

Problem was, Rustan was used to designing for companies with money, money that buys tons of server space. While everything worked beautifully in our months' long test run, once the site went live, the number of viewers and posters started bogging things down. How dare you readers spoil the usefulness of this beautiful site!

Rustan was also now busy with his (paying) job, so naturally he had to focus on his (paying) clients, but he still generously spent time paring away features to lower the amount of resources needed for the site. I also upgraded from a shared server to space in a dedicated one. Things looked good for a while, but as I added more and more titles to the system, everything slowed to a drip of data, to the point that users were better off logging out so as not to have the system cross-referencing games to their (possibly non-existent) buy/try/look lists. These lists also formed the basis for a "hot list" of games in Gone Cardboard and the Spiel preview, and this cross-referencing also slowed the site. Rustan cut this aspect of the site as well, yet the slowness continued, with the CPU available to me on the server being 90-100% filled all the time.

Finally, in mid-November 2010 I bowed to the need for paying for more resources and doubled the amount of space I had on the dedicated server. Yes! Pages started loading faster, columnists could post material more easily, the image picker didn't take a minute to open. Things looked good.

Then on Nov. 30 everything stopped. The site just flat out went nowhere. I rebooted the server, and it worked for a few minutes, then stopped again. Rebooting more did nothing. I asked my host for help, but my host – who unbeknownst to me was a do-it-yourself type of place – said this was my responsibility. I had upgraded my account, and therefore I needed to adjust the settings myself to maximize the server space I had rented. I cursed at them a fair amount, and eventually someone led me through the process. The problem remained. A rep at the host checked IP logs and discovered a few IPs hitting BGN dozens of times at once; he led me through the firewall process for blacklisting them. The problem remained. I continued to check the IP logs and blacklisted more IPs; the problem remained.

The snag turned out to be memory issues, in which the available memory would be completely used within minutes of rebooting the site – even when IPs were hitting BGN at an expected rate, even when no one was using the site. Neither Rustan nor I had made any changes to the site prior to the emergence of this problem, but here we were. So.

My host is useless, and I am equally useless, lacking the technical skills to figure out what might be the problem in the site design. Worse, I can't log in to the site due to a lack of memory (duh), so I can't attempt to change the site design to strip even more things out to at least make it possible to post something to tell people why I can't post anything. A modern dilemma to be sure. A human in prehistoric times would respond to this situation by throwing the computer against the wall. That same impulse lives in me, too.

(Rustan, by the way, is not useless. He is rather a capital fellow and has offered advice while traveling and otherwise completely consumed with his normal work. I'm grateful for the chance to have tried something different and wish I had thousands of dollars to spend on servers to keep the experiment going.)

Several BGN readers have offered technical assistance, and while I appreciate the offer, rather than continue down this path – with a website more advanced than I can manage, living the Peter Principle that I first discovered in a crummy Avalon Hill game decades earlier – I've decided to experiment with something new. (Surprise!) After all, with the time spent on various technical issues, not to mention soliciting ads, holding donation drives, handling payments, and tackling other non-writing-related tasks, I figure I'm spending half my time on things that don't involve me posting material for you to read – and since writing is what I'm actually skilled at, better that I find a solution that will allow me to focus on research and writing while someone else handles the money and worries about the technical end of things.

That solution is largely in place, and Boardgame News will return sometime in January 2011, if not sooner. More details on this solution soon.

4 comments:

  1. I passed the word along to my faithful readers (all 5 of them). :-)

    http://akapastorguy.blogspot.com/2010/12/im-huge-fan-of-boardgamenews.html

    ReplyDelete
  2. Unless you are getting ripped off, a $1000 a year should be plenty for your site. I run several websites on a VPS for about the same amount, and according to Compete.com (which I know is not very accurate), I get a lot more traffic on my site than you do.

    It doesn't just sound like a memory issue. It sounds like a memory *configuration* issue -- specifically a memory configuration issue in mySQL. I suspect you are using the default mySQL settings, which are surely too basic for your site. Simply changing them might be all you need to do.

    If you want me to try configuring your mySQL setttings more efficiently, even if it is just for the next month until the new site goes up, let me know.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I work in tech, I know some tech... but I don't want to deal with tech after I leave work! I understand and look forward to your return!

    BTW, here's a company that could solve your problem for $45 / month and also handle billing for your paid members: http://www.socialgo.com/

    I'm looking at it for something myself.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The web host I use has space for a lot cheaper:

    http://www.webhostingbuzz.com/

    ReplyDelete