This is the story of how I graduated from being a do-it-all website designer, to becoming a professional webmaster, and it starts with “AMP.” Every webmaster is familiar with the “AMP stack” — the potent combination of Apache, MySQL, and PHP software* that turns any computer into a “web server” capable of hosting websites. Apache receives requests for web pages, the PHP preprocessor retrieves and formats information from a MySQL database, and this collection of text, media files, and chunks of data are assembled into a web page layout and sent off to the requesting web browsers all over the world. In 2004, the AMP stack was in use by about 75% of all web servers worldwide.
These software packages, installed on a Linux computer (the “LAMP stack“) or on a Macintosh computer (the “MAMP stack“) let anyone host their own website, or provide a “hosting service” for lots of websites. The AMP stack is what I employed to build a website design and hosting business starting in the mid-1990s, as the World Wide Web was just getting underway.
From Graphic Design to Cartooning
My career began in graphic design in the early 1980s. I’d been working to produce product packaging, posters, album covers, catalogs, and lots of advertising and marketing materials — all printed on paper and delivered via global postal and shipping services. It was an age when information traveled on paper. It’s easy to forget that in the 1980s, a “global internet” of networked computers for disseminating information was still a nascent idea… the realm of visionary futurists, well-funded corporations, and top secret military skunkworks projects. For the vast majority of people around the world, information was delivered on paper. (Think phonebooks, newspapers, magazines, catalogs, and direct mail advertising.)
By the mid 1980s, computers were being used more and more for print design, spurred on by the “desktop publishing revolution” led by the Apple laser printer and Macintosh personal computer, running early page layout programs like Quark Express and Adobe PageMaker, and emerging “image processing” programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator.
While employed as a print graphic designer, I was also — on the side — pursuing an interest in cartooning, and making some money with my side gig as a freelance magazine cartoonist. My main goal in this arena was to get a regular weekly cartoon feature on America Online (aka “AOL”), the up-and-coming graphical commercial online service. Along with just a few other big competitors, AOL was an early precursor to the World Wide Web. I attained my goal in 1989, and my cartoon feature, “Modern Wonder,” was among the first “online cartoons” to be featured on America Online.
Soon after, AOL also hired me to perform the voodoo black magic of the time — “graphic file conversion,” converting digitized cartoons from one file format to another in order to be able to present them on AOL’s proprietary network. And also within a few months I was invited to be the “online host” for an AOL special interest discussion forum on the topic of amateur and professional cartooning. It sounds preposterous now, but back in the early 1990s AOL charged it’s customers by the minute for the time they spent online, and the discussion forums were AOL’s biggest money maker. For the next several years I did this freelance work for AOL, evenings and weekends, all while working at a full-time day job.
Becoming a Webmaster
Then, of course, you know what comes next. Around 1994 or 1995, we begin hearing of this thing called the “global internet,” and a graphical magazine-like presentation medium called the “World Wide Web.” Anyone with a modem and a “web browser” installed on their computer could visit “sites” on every imaginable topic… without the meter running. All you needed was a monthly “Internet Service Provider” subscription, which cost way less than America Online. The writing was on the wall: The proprietary online services were going the way of the dinosaur. A new era in digital communication was coming.
I could not resist the siren song of this new global communications network, and in 1995 I quit my full-time job in Seattle and plunged full steam ahead into building my first website — the “Internet Cartoons Forum” — where I could present my own cartooning in an online magazine format, along with a handful of features from other cartoonists, some cartoon-related news and how-tos. An annual paid subscription service was my business model. A lot of the info on my new website was free, but paid membership offered a weekly email linking to all the new content. Best of all, the site included a database component for hosting my own discussion forum. This ability to host nearly-live conversations was a big community-builder, and the Internet Cartoons Forum was quite the cool thing for a few years.
Right from the start, I had no idea how to do any of this. I was a far way from becoming a professional webmaster. So I bought a book that told me how to get started. The “Macintosh Web Server Construction Kit for Macintosh” provided all the instruction I needed to get a new website up and running. Not yet on the “AMP stack” exactly, but it had all the parts — web server software, database software, and some programming software to do the database query/retrieval and data formatting.
As it turned out, my business plan, like many other crazy startups of the time, was not a huge financial success. It seems nobody actually wanted to pay for content, and the most profitable “free” websites became advertiser-supported. I abandoned my beloved Internet Cartoons Forum after only three years. By then I had learned a valuable skill — how to design and build websites! And this is how I became a webmaster. It would be many years before I would confidently call myself a professional webmaster, but this was really where it started.
I pivoted, and my new business — Oakley Studio, LLC — offered website design and construction, website hosting, and domain name email service. My first clients were a few other cartoonists and artists. From there I began focusing on developing sites for small startup businesses of various kinds, and for brick and mortar stores that could see the need for an online presence. By word of mouth, my business attracted other clients — a summer tourist town that needed a website, a cabinet builder, a realtor, a high-end furniture designer, local churches, a multi-county government clean water agency, a greenhouse business, and a seed company, among others. Website design and hosting was a business I stumbled into almost by accident but it is how I have earned a modest living for over two decades.
The Hosting Business
Amazingly, I managed my own server hardware for years from my home-based business, over a high-speed internet connection. By using Apple Macintosh computers for my web servers, I was able to rely on Apple to manage my “AMP stack.”
At it’s core, the Mac operating system is a variant of Unix, one of the most widely-used operating systems in computing. Apple’s periodic software updates provided all the most recent versions of Apache, MySQL, and PHP, so I did not need to install and configure these software packages myself. And I loved the beautifully designed graphical user interface the Macintosh operating system provided for managing my web servers. Though I knew my way around on the command line, I rarely needed to dive into the Terminal to accomplish things on these servers. That suited me just fine.
Eventually in 2007 the hosting business outgrew my basement server room, and I moved the servers to a co-location facility — a big “data farm” where my servers resided in a cabinet along with hundreds of other servers in cabinets in a big air conditioned and humidity controlled secure facility, with generator backup, redundant connections to the internet, and huge bandwidth. I managed the servers remotely, logging into them from my home office. And when the servers needed maintenance, I would talk it through with the techs on site and they did the hands-on work.
Building with WordPress
The year 2007 was also when I began using WordPress as the starting point for building new websites. By then custom website design had become an expensive propostion, as the industry matured. Larger businesses with deep pockets were pushing up the prices.
With WordPress, I was able to offer an affordable starting point for the home-based and small business clients I most wanted to serve. Though I did not realize it a the time, adopting WordPress also meant I was going to be doing less design, and less programming, because those tasks were actually extensions of WordPress, in the form of Themes and Plugins.
While I enjoyed the technical aspects of managing domains, websites, email, and web servers, I was never thrilled with having to manage my own web and email server hardware. With the co-location service, I owned that hardware. The computers, backup drives, replacement drives, and memory modules were an expensive fixed asset. And because they were off-site I used hired help when maintenance was required. I really wanted to get out of the hardware business. And in 2015 I began to envision a path to accomplishing that, using servers “in the cloud.”
Building a New Hosting “Stack”
It started, simply enough, with using Amazon Web Services for cloud storage of server backup files, shortly after I began co-location hosting. I used a program running on my Macintosh web servers to automatically store a nightly backup and upload it to the “S3” buckets data storage service on Amazon’s servers. Some months later, I began using Amazon’s “Route 53” domain name service (DNS), after the small-time DNS hosting service I had been using came under a prolonged denial-of-service attack and never recovered. I found both the S3 and Route 53 services to be very reliable, which caused me to begin exploring Amazon’s other “web services.” A programmer friend of mine introduced me to Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) servers in early 2016, and that’s when I started up my first “virtual server” on Amazon’s cloud hosting service.
Amazon Web Services is the “A” in my new professional webmaster “SAM stack.”
Magaging Servers In the Cloud
In 2016, I took all the managed client websites I was hosting on Macintosh web servers, and moved them to “virtual servers” on the Amazon cloud infrastructure.
“Cloud hosting” meant I no longer owned any server hardware. Instead, I began leasing compute time on “virtual servers,” using the same infrastructure that Amazon had built for their huge online stores. Having built this very reliable, very flexible server architecture for their own global ecommerce empire, they turned around and began offering it as a service to other businesses. Businesses like mine. Amazon Web Services designed their “Elastic Cloud Compute” (EC2) service to provide general purpose computing that businesses can use to host all kinds of applications that require an internet connection, as well as for website hosting businesses like Oakley Studio.
The big upside was just that I no longer had to manage any actual server hardware — that was now Amazon’s job. But another huge plus was how I could spin up additional servers as often as I needed. I could configure CPU, memory, storage, all on-the-fly. For an old-school hardware guy like me, this was amazing! Futuristic even! I was now utilizing a very advanced hosting system that entailed almost no downtime for my clients.
The downside was these virtual servers were running the Linux operating system, with no familiar Mac-like graphical user interface. It was all command-line, and it was on me to manage the AMP stack on my new web servers. Or was it? What if I could hire professional server management to keep my servers updated and secure? That’s essentially what I had accomplished in my early days as a webmaster, by going with Apple hardware and software for my servers. Apple took care of managing the AMP stack for me.
Managing the Linux Server Operating System
After some deep searches and enquires, I came across an emerging service company called ServerPilot, which provided the Linux server management I was after. ServerPilot provided their own advanced version of the AMP stack, which used a new up-and-coming web server software — nginx (“Engine X”). Nginx was built to handle far more simultaneous connections than Apache. ServerPilot configured nginx to be the front-end service. It receives requests for web pages. Then it routes them to PHP for processing, or to Apache for static or cached pages.
ServerPilot also configured Apache and PHP to run as discreet server instances, with each instance assigned to a unique system user, with one system user per website. They were effectively turning a single virtual server instance into multiple isolated servers, which dramatically improved security. Nginx was the traffic controller for all these silo servers. And in addition, ServerPilot managed all the Linux operating system updates, including periodic security patches, and new versions of PHP as they were released. ServerPilot made for an unusually secure server at the operating system level, and their familiarity with Linux filled the server knowledge gap I was looking for.
ServerPilot offered two other features that were key to the further advancement of my web hosting business…
- Quick and easy spin-up of new WordPress websites on my servers (along with an API to automate the process.)
- Quick and easy installation of SSL Digital Certificates for encrypted connections to each website.
ServerPilot is the “S” in my new professional webmaster “SAM stack.“
By 2017, I had nearly a decade of experience with developing and managing WordPress websites. Every client website I managed was built with WordPress, or was migrating to WordPress. And ecommerce had become a core specialty of my business. Most of the client website businesses I was now hosting had products or services they could sell online.
Along with the transition to cloud-based virtual hosting, and exclusive WordPress hosting, I had dramatically reduced the design and programming parts of my business. Much of this work was superfluous because of WordPress. Design was accomplished through Themes, and WordPress functionality was largely implemented with Plugins. My focus turned to building a network of other “web techies” — website designers, programmers, developers, artists, photographers, videographers, and marketers. These young specialty creatives all had businesses of their own which I could feed through outsourcing any design and programming. As new website development opportunities appear, I am now routinely referring them to a growing network of connections. And in return, these creatives are happy to outsource the website hosting to Oakley Studio. I am tapping into an ecology of related businesses that are becoming more specialized with each passing year.
Becoming a Professional Webmaster – Managing WordPress Websites
At what point does a jack-of-all-trades webmaster become a professional webmaster? This gradual evolution of my business over a period of years is how I was able to extricate myself from hardware, from design, and from programming. I’ve been able to “reinvent website hosting” by focusing my business. I am now better positioned to serve WordPress website owners, designers, programmers, media producers, and marketers.
Still, something was missing. To really manage all my client websites in an efficient manner, my “professional webmaster stack” needed a few more critical components. For one thing, I needed webmaster tools to easily backup and restore WordPress websites. I needed tools to quickly migrate sites from one server to another. And I had already found it, when I needed a way to move my client websites off Macintosh servers to my new Amazon cloud servers.
For that task, I used a free plugin from a company called “ManageWP” which had a website “cloning” tool that could easily copy a WordPress site from one server to another, and from one domain to another. Having had good success with this cloning tool, I took a look at what else ManageWP had to offer. Turns out ManageWP presented a whole suite of webmaster tools that were a perfect match for my reinvented business…
- A WordPress updating module for installing new releases of Plugins and Themes across all the websites I host.
- Security and Performance modules for baseline assessment of WordPress sites.
- WordPress maintenance modules for spam cleanup, revision purging, and database maintenance.
- Exploit and Vulnerability warnings for quickly responding to malicious threat risks.
- Plus a Collaboration Portal which allowed me to make these tools available to my network of associates.
ManageWP is the “M” in my new professional webmaster “SAM Stack.”
The “SAM Stack” for Professional Webmasters
Putting it all together — my “SAM stack” — is how I’ve been able to create a demonstrably better managed WordPress hosting service than anything that has previously existed. It came about by focusing on improved hosting, and in the process, I have become a professional webmaster.
Reinventing website hosting has been a lengthy process. It took several years to accomplish. In the end, I now have an infrastructure that can scale as needed. The original “AMP Stack” is still there, and will remain at the core of website hosting for years to come. But now more than ever, it is the “SAM Stack” that will be the growth engine for my business.
- ServerPilot – maintaining and securing the Linux operating system and automating startup tasks for new WordPress sites.
- Amazon Web Services – providing powerful easy-to-configure “virtual servers” on the internet.
- ManageWP – all the tools a professional webmaster needs to ensure proper maintenance and sustainability of client websites.
Knitting these services together, I’ve built a unified platform that can scale. I now have a deep reservoir of technical support undergirding every part of my business. I have assembled the best minds in cloud computing; operating system and server management; and WordPress website maintenance and upkeep. This is what it takes to be a professional webmaster.
I am excited about the business Oakley Studio has become. I am confident that it will serve my clients well in the years ahead. We have entered a new era where any business can become a reliable component of other businesses. Any business can be a platform on which other businesses can build. An ecosystem of well-connected expert services is emerging. For business owners, consider how you might reimagine your products and services in this flourishing ecosystem. Specialize, outsource, network, interconnect. Build on the work of others and ultimately discover the things you do best.
*Acronyms within acronyms!? Let’s unpack this just a bit more. “SQL” is Structured Query Language, a logical format to request information from a database. And “PHP” is a Hypertext Preprocessor, a programming language used to embed database queries into static HTML web page code. With the AMP stack of software installed, any computer becomes a “web server” — a computer capable of hosting websites, responding to requests for web pages, processing data requests, and formating and serving those web pages to web browsers all over the world.