Tech stuff for non-technical people

This is not a deeply technical post. Even less technical than my other ones. I write this inspired by a conversation on Twitter where I got asked about a few fairly advanced pieces of technical software by a clever but not-that-deeply technical person. It turned out he needed access to a website to do his human messaging thing and what he was given was some technical mumbo jumbo about git and gerrit. Questions arose. Of course. I tried to answer some of the questions on Twitter but the 140 char limit was only one of the impediments I faced in trying to provide good advice. So, I’m writing this so I can link to it in the future if I need to answer similar questions.

I myself am an ageing programmer, so I know a bunch of stuff. Some that is true, some that was true and some that ought to be true. I am trying to not lie but there may be inaccuracies because I am lazy and because reality changes while blog posts remain the same because, again – lazy.

What is Git?

Short answer: A distributed version control system.

Longer answer: When you write code you fairly quickly get fed up with keeping track of files with code in them. The whole cool_code.latest24.txt naming scheme to keep old stuff around while you make changes quickly goes out the window and you realise there should be a better way. There is. Using a version control system, another piece of software keeps track of all the changes you have made to the bunch of files that make up your website/app/program/set of programs, and let you compare versions, find the change that introduced a nasty bug et c. With Git you have all that information inside your local computer and can work very quickly and if you need to store your work somewhere else like on a server or just with a friend that has a copy of the same bunch of files (repository), only the changes you have made get sent across to that remote repository.

There are competing systems to git that do almost the same thing (mercurial is also distributed) and then a bunch of systems that instead are centralised and only let you see one version at the time, and all the comparison/search/etc stuff happen across the network. Subversion (SVN) or CVS are common ones. You also have TFS, Perforce and a few others.

What is a build server?

Short answer: a piece of software that watches over a repository and tries to build the source code and run automated tests when source code is modified.

Longer answer:

The most popular way for a developer to dismiss a user looking for help is to say “That works on my machine”. Legitimately, it is not always evident that you have forgotten to add a code file to your version control system. This causes problems for other people trying to use your changes as the software is incomplete and probably not working as a result of the missing files. Having an automated way of checking that the repository is always in a state where you can get the latest version of the code in development, build it and expect it to work is very helpful. It may seem obvious to you, but it was not a given until fairly recently. Any decent group of developers will make sure that the build server at least has a way of deploying the product, but ideally deployment should happen automatically. This does require that the developers are diligent with their automatic tests and that the deployment automation is well designed so that rare problems can be quickly rolled back.

What is Gerrit?

Short answer: I’ll let Wikipedia answer this one as I have managed to avoid using it myself despite a few close calls. It seems to be a code review and issue tracking tool that can be used to manage and approve changes to software and integrate with the build server.

Long answer:

Before accepting changes to source code, maintainers of large systems will look at submitted changes first and see if it is correct and in keeping with the programming style that the rest of the system uses. Despite code being written “for the computer”, maybe the most important aspect of source code quality and style is that other contributors understand the code and can find their way. To keep track of feature suggestions, bug reports and the submitted bits of code that pertain to them, software systems exist that can help out here too.

I don’t know, but I would think I could get most of that functionality with a paid GitHub subscription. Yes, gerrit is free, but unless you are technical and want to pet a server you will have to hire somebody to set up and maintain the (virtual) machine where your are running gerrit.

Where do I put my website?

Short answer: I don’t know, the possibilities are endless today. Don’t pay a lot of money.

Longer answer: Amazon decided, a long time ago, to sell a lot of books. They figured that their IT infrastructure had to be easy to extend as they were counting on having to buy a ton of servers every month so their IT stuff had to just work and automatically just use the new computers without a bunch of installing, configuration and the like. They also didn’t like it that the most heavy duty servers cost an arm and a leg, and wanted to combine a stack of cheaper computers and pool those resources to get the same horsepower at a lower cost. They built a bunch of very clever programs that provided a way to create virtual servers on demand that in actual fact were running on these cheap “commodity hardware” machines and they created a way to buy disk space as if it was electricity, you paid per stored megabyte rather than having to buy and entire hard drive et c. This turned out to be very popular and they started selling their surplus capacity to end users, and all of a sudden you could rent computing capacity rather than making huge capital investments up front. The cloud era was here.

Sadly, there was a bunch of companies out there that already owned a bunch of servers, the big iron expensive ones even, and sold that computing capacity to end users, your neighbourhood ISP, Internet Service Provider, or Web Hotel.

Predictably, the ISPs aren’t doing too well. They niche themselves in providing “control panels” that make server administration slightly less complicated, but the actual web hosting aspect is near free with cloud providers, so for almost all your website needs, look no further than Amazon or Microsoft Azure, to name just two. Many of these providers can hook into your source control system and request a fresh copy of your website as soon as your build server says the tests have run and everything is OK. Kids today take that stuff for granted, but I still think it’s magical.

Don’t forget this important caveat: Your friendly neighbourhood ISP may occasionally answer the phone. If you want to talk to a human, that is a lot easier than to try and get a MS or Amazon person on the phone that can actually help you.

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