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Tintisha Technologies
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Top 10 questions you should be asking your potential web host

1. Will I have read/write FTP access to my hosting account on the server?

You'll want to be able to upload and download files from the server as and when. You don't want to have to raise a support ticket each time you want to upload a file. Also, beware if they only offer you access to the file manager through CPanel; it's not the same thing!

2. Will I be given CPanel (or equivalent) access?

CPanel is a popular control panel that comes with most linux-based servers. It allows you to safely perform key tasks related to your hosting account, such as setting up databases, email accounts, auto-reponders and loads more. If you do have access to CPanel, also ask for a list of extensions/features available through CPanel. Some hosts give you access to CPanel, but then strip out 90% of it's features!

3. Is there a limit on the number of databases I can setup on my account, and am I able to set them up myself through CPanel?

Chances are, that at some point, you will need to create a database. Moodle, Drupal, Joomla, WordPress etc all require a database to function.

4. Will I be given access to PhpMyAdmin in order to administer the databases?

You may or may not need this, depending on how 'involved' you are going to become in developing your website. Any reasonable web host should give you access to this though.

5. Am I able to upload third party applications/scripts to my hosting account?

Some hosts, for security reasons, refuse to allow the uploading of third party scripts or applications. If the host says no... I would look elsewhere.

6. What is your backup procedure for my hosting account, and are backups supplied free of charge?

The ideal response would be that the server is backed up to a remote server in a second data centre on a weekly basis. Most hosts offer a daily backup at an additional cost... but in our opinion, it's well worth it.

7. Do you offer telephone and email support, and what is your average response time?

It's really important that you are able to contact your host easily. Ideally you should be able to send an email, or pick up the phone. Ticket-based support is fine, but you don't want to have to login to their website and fill out a web form every time you want to open a support ticket. You are also looking for a average response time of under 1 hour in order to quickly resolve issues.

8. Is your technical support free of charge as part of my hosting package?

Look closely at the terms and conditions. Your technical support should be free of charge, and you shouldn't be limited to a specific number of support hours per month.

9. How is the server protected against malware and other attacks?

It is highly likely that at some point, your site will be the target of an attack. So it's important that the server is protected against this. Ask if a firewall is installed and configured to protect against SQL Injection attacks.

10. What contingency measures do you have in place for your servers?

A good host will always backup to remote servers, run hot-spares on site (which enables them to restore your site to a equivalent server in the event of server failure), and should be protected against power failures by running UPS and backup generators. They should also have installed an automated monitoring system on the server that alerts them of suspicious or potentially damaging activity.

... is that 10 already?! OK... just four more!

11. Am I limited to a set number of addon domains?

An addon domain enables you to setup a second site on your hosting account. It's a good idea to make sure you are allowed at least 2 addon domains.

12. Can I setup Cron Jobs for my hosting account?

Most software like Moodle, Magento, Drupal etc require a Cron job in order for specific and important features to run correctly. The host may need to setup a Cron Job for you, which is fine, but if they flatly refuse, I would look elsewhere.

13. If you are opting for a shared hosting package, ask the host how many other sites you are sharing the server with.

Shared hosting means that you are allocated a segment of a server. The resources of the server are shared across all the accounts on the server. You want to be sharing with as few other sites as possible.

14. Where are the servers located?

If you are based in the UK, and much of your traffic is UK based, then you'll want servers located in the UK.

Other considerations

If you are going to be running a Moodle, WordPress, Drupal, Joomla etc installation, check the system requirements for the software. They will require specific software to be installed on the server (and specific versions of that software). Send the host those requirements, and ask them to double-check that they are able to support the software.

If you are expecting large volumes of visitors, or are transferring lots of data backwards and forwards between your site and the user (such as video/audio streaming, or web applications), check your bandwidth limits on the hosting account, and consult with the hosting provider. The higher the number, the better!

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We're always interested in trying out new online services if we think they can help us improve our end-product or save us time and money. I wrote a post a short while back about Typecast App, which has just gone into public beta. We weren't totally satisfied with it, and it didn't really end up saving us any time in the long run, so we looked for an alternative, and I found it (sort of) in the form of www.easel.io.

Easel aims to offer web designers/UI designers a simple way to create mockups within the browser. This has numerous advantages over designing in Photoshop, Fireworks or Illustrator. Some big advantages for us:

Typography - We can easily select from, and design with popular web fonts from providers like Typekit and Google. The text on screen is an accurate portrayal of what it will look like on your site (apart from some minor sizing issues).

Amendments - Photoshop makes it notoriously difficult to manipulate shapes, text, rounded corners etc after you have initially created them. It's not Photoshop's fault... it just wasn't intended to be used as a web design tool. Easel makes that a breeze, and it's so refreshing!

CSS styling - Now that the majority of the visual elements you see in a website can be controlled with CSS, it's nice to actually design with CSS in mind. Easel does just this: I can set a border radius, I can set a gradient, I can insert an input field, and I can use a range of shadow effects. In Photoshop, I have to 'replicate' these effects, and it's never accurate. In Easel, what I'm seeing on screen is all done through CSS, so I know what I'm seeing is truly what I'm getting.

The Easel service itself has worked well for me so far. The speed is fine (unless I start to work on documents that are large like 2000px +). The autosaving seems to work well, and it's easy to share mockups with colleagues. The interface is great, extremely simple... but they do keep tweaking it every now and again, I wish in a way they would concentrate on adding new features rather than changing the UI.

I've encountered a few issues, but nothing major. I can see all of these being fixed as it matures:

Font size seems to be set in Points. It would be nice to be able to select pixels, ems or %.

There is no pen tool, so you're limited to the rectangle and circle tools. The kind support team did enable a beta pen tool for me... but it needed a lot of work, so it would be unfair to review that here.

The font library could be larger. There are loads of fonts that I regularly use with Typekit, that just aren't included in Easel.

I would like a Save button. I know it auto saves, but sometimes... especially just before I close my browser tab, I need the extra re-assurance that my work has been saved. At the moment, it's a 'hold my breath and cross my fingers' moment when I next login to Easel!

The Group function, and Lock functions don't quite work as well as they should. When I group things, the layer order sometimes gets a little messed up. When I lock things, I can still move them with the arrow keys on my keyboard.

I'm used to holding down the space bar in Photoshop to drag the canvas around. If I do this when using Easel... it works, sort of, but does constantly try and switch between the select tool and the drag tool. Minor, I know... but it's pretty important.

All in all though, I'm extremely impressed. I'm onto my third mockup in Easel, and the work I have produced is quite possibly some of my nicest, cleanest work to date.Compared to Adobe Muse (which I tried out last week) .... well there is no comparison, Easel smoked it!

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Screencast Production

In our last post, we talked about PayPals Website Payments Pro solution, and promised we would sum up the benefits of that service in our next post... so here it is!

We have recently integrated Website Payments Pro into two of our clients e-commerce stores, and we have to say, the process was amazingly straight forward.

As soon as the client was 'approved' by PayPal (application online), we received a dedicated support contact who would help us with the integration. Both stores were Magento stores, and as PayPal bought out Magento a while back, I don't suppose there would be too many issues!

We experienced a few niggles with code missing from our theme files (not PayPals fault), and we had to update the Magento versions before we could integrate the 'Hosted' solution, but apart from that it was plain sailing.

The 'Hosted' solution loads the PayPal payment screen in an iFrame inside the Magento checkout page... so as far as the customer is concerned, they never leave your site.

With the integration complete, we could ditch the various Magento extensions that we had been using to integrate with SagePay, and begin to reap rewards for our client in terms of cost savings:

1. No more fees from the bank for the merchant account (previously around £30 pcm)
2. No more fees from the bank for PCI compliance testing
3. No more fees from SagePay (previously around £30 per site pcm)
4. No currency conversion fees from the bank

Just one single fee of £20 pcm, and we were allowed to use the same PayPal account for two sites, as they fell under similar business categories. So that has saved our client around £80 per month. 

As well as the obvious cost savings, you also get a 'Virtual Terminal' which enables you to accept telephone payments.

We would thoroughly recommend looking into Website Payments Pro if you are a small business and have a relatively small number of online transactions per month (as PayPal charge a flat rate % fee for each transaction). For larger e-commerce stores who process thousands of transactions a month, then you could either negotiate a reduced fee from PayPal, or opt for the more expensive payment gateways like SagePay who will cap fees at a monthly cost.

Many thanks to the PayPal support team for making the whole process as enjoyable as it possibly could be!

We build lots of eCommerce sites here at Tintisha, and as a result, need to be able to offer impartial and accurate advice to our clients. We often find that our clients are unaware of the additional (and hefty) costs of being able to accept card payments on their sites, and it's then down to us to offer them some advice on choosing the best solution.

Most of the commercial business to consumer sites that we build are built with Magento. It's a great, free, open-source eCommerce platform that we have been using for many years. The payment process is handled by three different elements:

1. The payment gateway... this is the service that actually processes the card payments/transactions.

2. The merchant account... usually supplied by your bank. It is separate from your business bank account, and is used for receiving funds from the payment gateway.

3. Business bank account, this is where your funds finally arrive.

All three incur costs for a business, but it's number 1 and 2 where we think cost savings can be achieved.

SagePay have been our preferred choice of payment gateway for several years, and have served our clients incredibly well. Integration is sometimes a problem though, and often requires us to purchase additional extensions for Magento to get it working. Alongside the integration woes, payment gateways will also charge a monthly fee for the service, as well as per transaction fees which largely depend on how many transactions they will be processing.

Merchant accounts have typically been set up through banks, which can be expensive(!). They usually charge a set up fee, cancellation fees, and a monthly fee for the account (depending on your contract with them). Some banks also place limits on how quickly the funds are transferred into your bank account. This could be 2 weeks or more... which certainly has a big impact on cash flow for start up businesses.

In an effort to help out our clients in the current tough economic climate, we have been exploring PayPal Website Payments Pro as a cheaper, simpler alternative. In our next post we'll explain the benefits of using PayPal's service, and the cost savings that can be achieved.

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We have noticed a bit of a rise in the number of 'cloud-based' Software-As-A-Service LMS solutions lately, and it's got us a little bit worried!

For those of you who are not familiar with the terms I just used:

1. Cloud-based, in this context means the LMS software is hosted on several servers potentially spanning several continents throughout the world. It's a scalable system, so if your site suddenly has a massive increase of traffic, you can quickly add more performance or space on your server, with minimal hassle. It's great for enterprise-scale operations.

2. Software as a service (SAAS) - the LMS is hosted for you, and updates to the software are all controlled by the company providing the service.

3. LMS - Learning Management System. Some popular examples being Moodle, Blackboard, Angel etc.

I'm going to talk about two cloud LMS services that have come to our attention. Open Class, and Canvas. Both look like very 'flashy' systems, beautiful graphics, nice and clean, and come with lots of handy features like Google integrated Calendars, reporting tools, grading etc.

Why are we concerned? We are concerned that these services look TOO appealing to the non-techies amongst us. They look great, they are fresh and new, they are FREE, and the hosting and updates is all taken care of. So that would introduce massive cost savings for many of our clients.

But there are many downsides of such services:

1. No guarantee how long the service will remain free, and if it becomes a paid service, it's would be pretty difficult to migrate to another system whilst keeping your students and finance department happy!

2. Ownership issues. It's in the cloud, great, but who actually owns my content? You can't access the content via FTP, and you certainly can't backup the database. So even if the service claims that you are in full ownership of your content, is that enough?

3. What happens if the service stops, shuts down, or changes hands?

4. Limited ability to theme or brand the LMS. It's a shared service by nature, so although you might be able to change the logo, and colour scheme, full theming is not an option.

5. Feature requests are non-negotiable. You have a great idea from your students, and want it implemented immediately. Normally you would ask your developers to give you a price and timescale. You don't have that luxury here. If you're lucky you could put in a feature request... but unless the majority of the other customers using the system also make the same request, it will most likely go ignored. If they do agree to develop... you'll have to wait until the next software release.

6. Limited integration with other systems. Open Class integrates with Google Apps, but what if you want to integrate with a bespoke system? They say an API is to be made public later this year, but we can't see that offering much flexibility in terms of bespoke integrations specific to a single organisation. It's more likely going to be a way for the community to develop widgets that will benefit everyone using the service.

We're not saying this would be a bad move for all organisations. Small start-ups, or organisations who are in a position to take the gamble may well benefit hugely from SAAS LMS, but for many of our clients, it just wouldn't be a sensible option.

Have you used Open Class, or Canvas, or you do you have any opinions on similar services? We would love to hear from you.

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Over the past few weeks, we have revisited the options available to organisations/businesses who want to offer paid courses from their Moodle site. Paypal was the obvious choice in terms of getting something up and running at no additional cost to the client, but can it really offer a true commerce solution?

In short... no, not really. The Paypal integration is really very basic; it offers a one-time payment, for a single course. If our clients need anything more, the answer is unfortunately "no, it can't do that". Not an ideal response by any measure!

The other options seem to be:

Integration with Magento and Moodle (this looks relatively easy to achieve using External Database authentication in Moodle).

Proprietary software called Course Merchant from Connected Shopping.

We use Magento quite a bit here at Tintisha, and the flexibility of the software is amazing. But we're just not convinced how stable this sort of customised integration would be. How would it behave when newer versions of Moodle are released (or new versions of Magento). And is it just a little overblown for our clients needs?

We're very interested in Course Merchant, it seems to offer all the features we want, and it's specifically for Moodle... which gives us some confidence. It integrates with all the major payment gateways (including Paypal), and has received lots of positive feedback from the community. Our own concern is the pricing, and the fact that it is proprietary... I suppose you can't have everything!

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We have recently completed a small web design project for local Accounting Training company ATB Accounting Training for Business.

The site was built using the popular WordPress platform, and we used the amazingly simple Genesis theme Framework from StudioPress as the basis for the design.

The company prides itself on providing friendly training delivered in a straight forward manner, so it was particularly important that the website reflected that, in terms of both design and navigation.

Take a look at the brand new website here: http://atbaccountingtraining.co.uk

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Clients are often a little sceptical when we initially suggest the idea of developing a self-contained bespoke eLearning course for them, to sit on their Moodle (http://moodle.org) site.

Initial questions are usually 'Why can't we use Moodle to develop the course?', or 'Is it something we could do ourselves using Moodle's core features?'. Concerns over developer tie-in, and spiralling costs are also cause for concern among our clients, and quite rightly so.

ELearning developers who have attempted to develop eLearning courses with Moodle will share our heartache. Sure... certain Moodle activities are great: Wiki, Forum, and Assignment to name a few, but they are best used in addition to a self-contained eLearning course. They can't be combined, interlinked, or customised to any great degree without developing custom Moodle Modules... which would inherit cost and potentially developer tie-in.

Explaining the mainly pitfalls of the Moodle approach is difficult though, especially when you're put on the spot. The advantages of developing bespoke self-contained eLearning courses are so great, it almost becomes impossible to explain without getting bogged down in technical details.

We have spent a little time today coming up with 10 reasons not to use Moodle for developing eLearning courses... I'll add a link to the article as soon as we put it online.
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