Do you know what is under the hood?

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I’ve spent the last few evenings after logging off of World of Warcraft poking away at my new Linux box, which is running the 64 bit version of Fedora 15. What’s astonishing to me is how much the infrastructure pieces have changed since I last fully administered a Linux server at the command line level. So much of what used to be incredibly laborious, unpleasant compiling of software from source code has been happily reduced to sets of packages that are good enough to get the job done.

root@li368-57:~ — ssh — 147×58

More important, the capabilities that come more or less out of the box now are vastly different than I remember. Take a look at just a few of the php packages I pulled out of the yum repository:

yum install php-ZendFramework.noarch php-PHPMailer.noarch php-cli.x86_64 php-eaccelerator.x86_64 php-email-address-validation.noarch php-fpdf.noarch php-gd.x86_64 php-mysql.x86_64 php-nusoap.noarch

Non-technical folks will look at that and completely gloss over, so let me break down the packages so you get a sense of what’s happening and why it’s important.

  • php-ZendFramework.noarch: when up and running, this will make my blog MUCH faster than it currently is on a shared host
  • php-PHPMailer.noarch: a powerful email library class that could, in combination with Amazon SES, let me become my own email service provider at very low cost
  • php-cli.x86_64: who loves black screens with green letters? Me!
  • php-eaccelerator.x86_64: In concert with the Zend framework, this will keep things speedier than ever.
  • php-email-address-validation.noarch: all those email libraries I wrote years ago for validating email addresses have been superseded by one nice, compact library that will let me keep my mailing lists cleaner than ever
  • php-fpdf.noarch: one-stop shopping for making PDFs on the fly at the webserver level. Imagine dynamic PDFs that are customized, generated whenever a user wants them! What’s amazing is that this capability used to cost hundreds of dollars just a few years ago. Now it’s free.
  • php-gd.x86_64: the GD image library. I can make graphics on the fly, which is very useful for things like sign-makers and dynamic advertising systems.
  • php-mysql.x86_64: enterprise database integration.
  • php-nusoap.noarch: you know all those fancy web APIs that require tons of coding? The NuSOAP library makes that coding much less strenuous, which means I’ll be able to do more, faster, with services like Klout, EmpireAvenue, and the major social networks.

What’s amazing is that just a few years ago, you’d have to manually build these pieces from scratch, endure hours of testing, debugging, fixing dependencies, and more. Now you just type it all in one long command, and your webserver is ready to go. That means if you’re getting a Web 2.0 company up and running, it’s easier than ever and faster than ever to get up and running and be fully capable of doing business.

Here’s the most important takeaway from all of this: if you understand the underlying technologies that make up social media and digital marketing, you understand what capabilities and potential you do or do not have. If you don’t know what’s under the hood, you don’t really know what you’re driving. Even if you’re not a technologist, a developer, or an IT person, you should still have some passing familiarity with all of these pieces, because knowing what’s under the hood will let you know if you’re doing the technological equivalent of driving a Lamborghini Aventador (one of the top 10 fastest cars in the world) to the grocery store at 10 miles per hour, vastly underusing its potential.

Here’s a secondary takeaway: if you know what the pieces do, if you know that you have the potential to get them in place rapidly (even if you’re not a technologist), then you know what solutions you can provide. Here’s an example, the php-oauth.noarch package. You’ve heard of OAuth in the context of social media authentication and you use it every time you click a “Log in with Twitter” or “Sign in with Facebook” button. If you know this software package is available on your webserver for free, you now know you can do a lot more with OAuth applications, which in turn means you can offer more capabilities to your customers and clients for things like custom sign-in forms.

You don’t need to be a car mechanic to know what’s under the hood of what you drive. Likewise, you don’t need to be a developer or a systems administrator to at least have a sense of what your website is capable of. Take some time to learn the basics, ask your in-house IT staff (IT people love free food, so buy them lunch in exchange for a tour), and you’ll be in a much better position to know what you’re capable of.

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One response to “Do you know what is under the hood?”

  1. I almost always have Ubuntu installed in a VirtualBox on my machines (even the netbook) because there’s almost always something useful via Linux (like remind and alpine–yes I still like to do email by console sometimes). APT and DEB has improved a lot like RPM and YUM have.

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