Reviews – TipsFor.us http://tipsfor.us Tech Tips, Reviews, Tutorials, Occasional Rants Fri, 21 Mar 2014 05:03:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8 How WordPress Destroyed the Internet http://tipsfor.us/2012/01/10/how-wordpress-destroyed-the-internet/ Tue, 10 Jan 2012 07:38:15 +0000 http://tipsfor.us/?p=2804 WordPress is so popular that it is taking over — it’s behind 22% of all new sites on the internet, but this sets a dangerously poor coding standard. Our infrastructure is crumbling!

Yes, this is a rant. My beef today is this: the WordPress manager might be easy to use, but under the hood, it sucks. There, I said it. It’s awful architecture and it has taught thousands of web developers that it’s Ok to write piss-poor code. This has single-handedly dumbed-down a whole generation of developers by setting a bad example. WordPress is the junk food of coding standards: ubiquitous, tastes good, but lacking any nutritional value.

I’ve ranted about WordPress before but what put me over the top today was the Suffusion Theme. It looks like a clean layout, so I thought I’d give it a try. Holy flaming monkey balls, was I in for a shock!

Suffusion Theme Options
Holy Smokes: The Suffusion Theme is not just a Theme

This theme not only has a metric-crap-ton of options, it also does the unthinkable: it allows you to register custom post-types and custom taxonomies. Does that sound like something else? Why, yes, it does: THAT, my friends, is A PLUGIN. Now, no offense to the theme’s author — it’s a clean interface and he obviously takes a lot of pride in his work — but this type of thing should never occur. A theme should never introduce extra functionality. What happens when you change the theme? Your whole site could collapse.

The conclusions that I have to draw about about the architecture here are pretty negative: WordPress allows (or even encourages) the polluting of application layers in very unhealthy ways. It’s a very serious black mark for an application to allow a theme to get away with that. The view layer should be static: no logic, no functionality, it should merely determine how data is displayed.

This is hardly the end of the architectural infractions WordPress is guilty of, but it is perhaps one of the most obvious. I’d better leave it at that: the way WordPress is built allows for severe architectural flaws that make development difficult or impossible. Buyer beware.

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Review of Web-based Project Management Software http://tipsfor.us/2011/12/30/review-of-web-based-project-management-software/ http://tipsfor.us/2011/12/30/review-of-web-based-project-management-software/#comments Sat, 31 Dec 2011 05:00:52 +0000 http://www.tipsfor.us/?p=1968 Help! I gotta keep track of everything I gotta do! There is help available to track your projects, you just got to know where to look.

A lot of developers, designers, students, and even web-hobbyists have a lot of items on their to-do lists for any particular site or project. You have to remember to fix that one CSS glitch, or rewrite a page to use some new function… the lists can be long and daunting. If you’re like me, you’re likely to forget half the stuff you need to do, and if it weren’t for project management software, I might as well stay in bed.

To put it mildly, there are *a lot* of applications out there that help you track bugs and manage projects, and this article only looks as a handful of them. Although the general purpose of these web-applications are similar, there are substantial differences in the pricing models, features, and usability, and hopefully this article will help you identify an application that is right for you. Or, if you’ve never really thought about using one before, maybe this article can help show you why project management / bug tracking software is good to have around.

This post only covers project management. I’ve discussed invoicing softare in another post. Some of these packages include time-tracking and invoicing, but that’s just a “nice-to-have” for the purposes of this article.

DISCLAIMER: I am not affiliated with any of these companies. None of the links in the article text are affiliate links; I don’t get a kickback or commission on referrals, I’m merely sharing my opinions and experiences using the software in the hopes that it’ll help inform the decisions of others.

Here’s the list… some of these are hosted solutions (software-as-service), and some you have to download and install.

Zoho

Cheapest Option: Free

# Users: unlimited

Wiki?: yes

Notes: This suite of Apps seems like they were hoping to get purchased by Google Apps… kinda similar, but more labored somehow.

My Intervals

Cheapest Option: Free

# Users:4

Wiki?:yes

Notes: You can get 1 project for free… but the functionality is limited.

Bit Bucket

Cheapest Option: Free

# Users: 5

Wiki?: yes

Notes: yet another solution…

Unfuddle

Cheapest Option: Free

# Users: 2

Wiki?: Yes, called “Notebooks”

Notes: This is one of my favorites for hosted solutions. I recommend Unfuddle — it’s not a silver bullet, but Unfuddle is a great tool for maintaining sanity: clean, simple, and easy to use. If you pay a little bit, you can unlock the best features.

Code Spaces

Cheapest Option: $3.99/mo

# Users: 2

Wiki?: yes

Notes: I felt the manager here was heavy… sorta Windowsy in a bad way, as in the interface needs to lighten up, but did have a good set of features.

Feng Office (Formerly OpenGoo)

Cheapest Option: $59/mo

# Users: unlimited

Wiki?: yes

Notes: this is a popular solution for its thoroughness. — you have to install it on your servers, which is actually a good thing for people storing sensitive info.

Achievo

Cheapest Option: Free

# Users: unlimited

Wiki?:no

Notes: This one you have to download and install on a server that runs PHP and MySQL — it includes features for sales teams. It’s built using the ATK framework.

Project Pier

Cheapest Option: Free

# Users: unlimited

Wiki?: yes

Notes: you gotta download and install this PHP/MySQL app. This is like the PHP cousin of Redmine, so if you don’t have the ability or resources to work with Ruby on Rails, this is a nice option.

Collabtive

Cheapest Option: Free

# Users: unlimited

Wiki?: Yes

Notes: This is a clean app — another one you have to download and install yourself. It’s a nice option (try the demo). The only thing I didn’t care for was that the app relies heavily on icons, so it’s hard to get your bearings. Good German engineering!

Redmine

Cheapest Option: Free

# Users: Unlimited

Wiki?: Yes

Notes: This is my favorite. It’s not perfect, but it’s a clean interface and easy to navigate. The major downside is that you have to install this yourself. Can you install Ruby on Rails on your server? No? Then this might not be for you.

BaseCamp

Cheapest Option: Free

# Users:unlimited, but only 1 project.

Wiki?: Yes

Notes: although this is hugely popular hosted solution and it’s well integrated with many software projects, this does not have a good ticketing system, and it does not tie into code versioning (e.g. SVN), so I don’t fully comprehend its popularity. It’s pretty good, but it seems over-hyped.

FogBugz

Cheapest Option: $25/mo

# Users: unlimited

Wiki?: yes

Notes: This integrates with their Kiln product to tightly integrate bug tracking with code revisions. There’s another product Trello that does visual project organization, but to be honest, I’m kinda confused by these interrelated projects.

Pivotal Tracker

Cheapest Option: $7/mo (free for non-profits)

# Users: 3

Wiki?: sorta

Notes: This is a serious app from the boys in Boulder for agile development — they’ve really thought through the way that large projects should be managed. It’s a hosted solution, but they can install it in on-site if needed.

Lighthouse

Cheapest Option: Free (for open source), otherwise $15/mo

# Users: 10

Wiki?: yes

Notes: another clean app. This is a hosted solution.

Google Code

Cheapest Option: Free

# Users: unlimited

Wiki?: yes

Notes: This option is available ONLY for open-source projects. It’s clean, with an easy interface. Updating wiki pages and bugs seems to triggers errors not infrequently, but I recommend this for any open source project.

Trac

Cheapest Option: Free

# Users: unlimited

Wiki?: yes

Notes: A lot of projects use this (e.g. WordPress): You download and install it. It’s written in Python and can run on several common databases.

Mantis

Cheapest Option: Free

# Users: unlimited

Wiki?: yes

Notes: It’s functional, but the UI/UX is pretty crusty. Sorry to poo-poo the hard work of the devs here, but I never felt like I could get clients to use this app… it’s a bit disjointed.

Jira

Cheapest Option: $10/mo

# Users: 10

Wiki?: Yes

Notes: This is popular with big corporations. The biggest disadvantage of this is that it’s HEAVY: you gotta have a rock-solid sysadmin to setup Tomcat on your server to install this behemoth.

Bugzilla

Cheapest Option: Free

# Users: unlimited

Wiki?: no

Notes: this is a powerful Perl application used by Firefox that can be the public face of your app. You have to download and install this.

GitHub

Cheapest Option: Free

# Users: unlimited

Wiki?: Yes

Notes: this thing is on fire — GitHub is THE thing right now. It’s wiki is a pain in the ass compared to Google Code when it comes to formatting special characters. Paid plans get private repos.


Hopefully that’s a good list to help you narrow down your choices. If that’s not good enough for you, check out Wikipedia’s comparison of issue tracking systems

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Why GoDaddy is a Horrible Host http://tipsfor.us/2011/12/24/why-godaddy-is-a-horrible-host/ http://tipsfor.us/2011/12/24/why-godaddy-is-a-horrible-host/#comments Sat, 24 Dec 2011 19:16:44 +0000 http://tipsfor.us/?p=2755 GoDaddy sucks… their dashboard is completely un-navigable, their shared hosting has repeated errors, their VPS hosts are so poorly configured that they can’t even run updates on themselves, their CEO murders elephants for his own amusement, and they think that a few Superbowl ads featuring Danica Patrick will somehow make us forget how bad they suck. And now this…

You may remember my earlier comparison/rant of VPS Hosting Providers. GoDaddy was on that list of hosts to avoid, but recent events have loaded my arsenal with rant-fuel and I cannot contain myself any longer: GoDaddy is a horrible web host and a terrible company that not only wastes your time and money, it may actively be trying to F you in the A!

The Technical

First, the the technical stuff. This is stuff that actually happened. These are facts, and I invite any other developer to share similar experiences. I got a call late Friday night from a frenetic client with the horrible words: “THE SITE IS DOWN!!!”. Any developer who has heard those words on a Friday night knows that they can kiss their weekend goodbye, and so it was.

The site in question was hosted on a GoDaddy shared host. Ok, so what happened? Well, it’s an eCommerce site that required that a certain port be open for incoming and outgoing requests in order for the site’s software to communicate with the credit card processing (hosted on secure site somewhere else). Without warning, GoDaddy changed their firewall rules and they closed that port. Oops. That prevented the site from doing any business.

So what’s more frightening here? The fact that GoDaddy shut down this port without any warning, or the fact that they denied ever having that port open in the first place? In a separate incident, I had another GoDaddy server upgrade its version of PHP from 4 to 5. Any application developer will know that such a dramatic change in the underlying code can be catastrophic. And it was: the application completely broke because much of the code was not compatible with PHP 5. So the point of the story here is that I have personally experienced massive server changes on GoDaddy servers without any warning and sometimes without any acknowledgement. This is just not acceptable for any web host, and to date, I’ve only experienced this with GoDaddy.

And then it gets worse. The client wanted to keep his GoDaddy account, so he forked over the money to get a Linux VPS with GoDaddy. Man. The provisioning took over 12 hours and several calls to tech support. The GoDaddy dashboard is awful, and their ticketing system is equally poor: you can’t see your open tickets (!!!), so you have no idea what status they are in. You can chat with the techs (if the chat window doesn’t crash before you get through to somebody), but you cannot see any updates or add any information to your requests… you have to call to get information, and this can take a looooooong time.

But eventually GoDaddy got it up (heheh), and I started to configure the Linux Server with Plesk. Now the site required PHP 5.2.4 or greater, but the server shipped with PHP 5.1.6 (CentOS). There was no option to select different distros or different setups other than Plesk or cPanel on CentOS. So I started to get the server ready for take-off by updating packages and compiling a new version of PHP. I tried to download core updates… but out of the box, the repos were not correctly defined, and the VPS could not update itself. So I tried to run some updates by hand — we just needed PHP 5.2.4. So I tried to download and compile it. But the damn thing kept hanging. After some googling, it turns out that GoDaddy intentionally spikes the CPU which causes memory allocation failures. So the Plesk setup as offered by GoDaddy could not even put its own pants on.

So we had to pay an extra $10/month to get a WHM/cPanel server. So it was another 12 hours of provisioning (turns out the process hung, but without the ability to see the status of the ticket, I only got this info when I phoned in). But basically the same thing happened with the cPanel server: EasyApache could not finish executing due to memory/CPU throttling (not even on the command line). Something on those servers was completely F’d. As usual, GoDaddy techs denied everything, even when confronted with error logs. It was ridiculous and a waste of time for me and for the client (who hadn’t been able to sell anything on his site for about 48 hours at this point)

The final bit of ludicrousness was when we requested a separate IP address for the server so we could install the SSL certificate. With LiquidWeb, getting an extra IP address takes about 60 seconds. With GoDaddy? It took about 6 hours. Blink blink.

So the final solution here was to move this site over to my own server, which only took an hour or so. Instead of taking all weekend, it took only an hour. The conclusion is that GoDaddy is really good at creating billable hours, but not at actually having a working product.

The Non Technical

The non-technical stuff here is a bit more subjective, but it’s equally unflattering. You may remember the controversy when GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons bragged about shooting and killing an elephant and a leopard. Mr. Parsons tried to play it off as some kind philanthropy because “elephants are destroying Zimbabweans’ crops”. In my opinion, anyone arrogant and/or stupid enough to justify their actions with a statement like that really deserves a punch in the dick. LEOPARDS DON’T DESTROY CROPS. And if Bob Parsons really cared about the plight of Zimbabweans’ crops, he’d do something more effective like fund charity organizations in Africa or help them build a fence. I mean, seriously… have you seen his Video Blog? Arguably, the elephant and leopard got treated more humanely with bullets to the face than those of us who watched a 61-year-old man ogle the scantily clad women grinding against him while he lectured us on “hiring great employees.”

Bob evaluates his employees greatness

And remember my disgust with QuickBooks? Looks like Bob had a hand in that as well: apparently, he sold his accounting software to Intuit in 1994.

And now with the internet censorship laws coming up in relation to the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (aka SOPA), we see that GoDaddy is a political animal. First they came out in support for SOPA. Then after a “maelstrom” of internet backlash, they later discontinued support for SOPA. But what bothers me is the casual internet citizen is fooled by this token gesture. It seems that it was a calculated move by GoDaddy where they make a public statement to placate the sheople, but behind closed doors, they still are working to game the system for personal gain and the expense of public freedom. This article about a judge forcing domains to be transferred to GoDaddy was alarming. How much does the system have to be corrupted if the legal system is ORDERING domains to be transferred to GoDaddy? Why does this sound like Iraq under Saddam Hussein where oil companies were ORDERED to do business with Saddam’s relatives. It just stinks to high heaven.

What to Do

Get your sites off of GoDaddy. They are Ok as a registrar if you can tolerate their idiotic dashboard and general ineptitude, but you’re wasting your life and your money if you host with them. Gotta love developers: here’s a good reference for how to move your domains off of GoDaddy: Moving Domains off of GoDaddy, but really, if you want to stick it to GoDaddy then you should call them and tie up their phone lines as much as possible. Have them walk you through how to transfer your domains…. step…. by…. step.

Sign up to boycott Godaddy here.

Find another registrar. NameCheap offers pretty much every TLD you can think of, and they at least as cheap.

If you need some good VPS hosting, I still have some space on my server: you get more horsepower than you’d get on your own VPS, and you don’t have to spend all the time setting the thing up. Contact me if you’re interested.

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Comparing Online Invoice Software http://tipsfor.us/2011/04/22/comparing-online-invoice-software/ http://tipsfor.us/2011/04/22/comparing-online-invoice-software/#comments Fri, 22 Apr 2011 14:06:27 +0000 http://tipsfor.us/?p=2713 Following up on an article I wrote a couple years ago on Free Online Invoice Software, I wanted to write a blurb about paid online billing software. My business has grown, and I was spending more and more time dealing with invoices. So it was time for me to actually pay for the software that pays me. Seems kinda silly doesn’t it? I was so uptight about spending money on software that actually pays me. So I spent a few hours with each of the programs below, and well… you can read about what I found.

  $$$/mo Users Clients Projects Invoices
FreshBooks $19.95/mo 1 (you), additional logins (e.g. for accountant) @ $10/mo (clients can optinally be granted viewing privileges) 25 ??? Unlimited
Harvest $12/mo 1 (you), additional logins (e.g. for accountant) @ $10/mo Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
Invoicera $9.95/mo 1 (you), plus 2 additional logins 25 25 Unlimited
QuickBooks $12.95/mo 1 (you) + your accountant Unlimited (?) Unlimited (?) Unlimited (?)

* Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

FreshBooks

Freshbooks offers a very clean interface that made a lot of sense to me right off the bat. It was easy to add clients and recurring monthly expenses (holy %!**! I didn’t realize how much I was spending on server hosting!). It integrates right into my PayPal account, so when a client pays an invoice, POOF, that invoice automatically updates and marks itself as paid. I used to have to do that manually with BillingManager.

FressBooks Menu
FressBooks Menu

The price was a bit high for what I got, so I’m sorta waffling on that, but what really sold me on FreshBooks was the nice desktop timetracking software, ChronoMate. It’s $1/month more to use it, but I can clock stuff while working offline, then it syncs directly with my FreshBooks account, so I know (and my clients know) exactly how much time I’ve spent working on a project. Throw me a bone (affiliate link)

Harvest Invoices
Harvest Invoices
Harvest

Harvest is a solid application, and they are actively developing improvements. The menu organization here was also very similar to FreshBooks and Invoicera.

Harvest Menu
Harvest Menu

I have nothing but good things to say about Harvest: this is really a well-crafted application, and its pricing and features offer a superb value: unlimited Clients, Projects, and Invoices for all plans. They offer some really nice integrated time-tracking features, so I’m eyeing this very seriously: the ChronoMate integration with FreshBooks is pretty good, but it has some shortcomings that Harvest doesn’t have. I have to give a big tip of my hat to Matthew Lettini (one of? their Designer) for his detailed responses to my questions. Harvest gets massive bonus points for its commitment to good communication and taking their customers seriously, so if you want to work with a company that works with you, I don’t think you could ask for more.

invoicera
invoicera
Invoicera

Invoicera also offered a really nice application. It too offered a very similar set of menu options, and it was very easy to navigate. I can’t think of anything wrong with this software.

Invoicera Menu
Invoicera Menu

It was easy to set up invoices, both one-offs and recurring. The expense management was a little bit confusing to me, but I got the sense that with a little bit more time spent using the software, it’d become really clear — they too were responsive to my questions about the software. The user interface was somewhere between Harvest’s and Freshbooks.

Probably the biggest draw here is what you get for the price: you and 2 additional users (e.g. your accountants) get logins for free with the default package. You have to pay for that with the other systems.

quickbooks
quickbooks
QuickBooks

Originally I thought I would end up going with QuickBooks because I was already using its little brother: BillingManager. Wow… that was a bad assumption. All the simplicity and ease of use that was present in BillingManager was completely gone in QuickBooks… gone as in “scorched earth, salted ground.” The supposedly “automatic” transfer of data from BillingManager to QuickBooks was completely botched: half of my data from 2 years ago made it over, the rest… who knows. And nobody over there seemed to know what was going on. BillingManager was sort of treated like Intuit’s bastard child that nobody knew what to do with. It would have saved me time if they could have just deleted the partial data.

QuickBooks Menu
QuickBooks Menu

If you look at the menu closely, you can see that it’s WAY more complicated: QuickBooks offers features not offered by its competitors, but the price you pay is dealing with a wonky application and befuddled responses from the support hotline. To boot, most of the features that might justify this complexity (e.g. time tracking, integrations with online banking and credit card statements, and bill management) comes only with the beefier packages starting at $24.95/month.

The biggest waste of time with QuickBooks is that they offer NO email support and NO public ticketing system of any kind (one of their pages says they offer email support, but their support staff said they didn’t, so who knows what’s going on there… they don’t even know it seems). Compare the time it takes you to fire off a 2 line email identifying your problem with the software to the time it takes to wait in the call queue and finally get transferred to someone who might know what you’re talking about. That’s lost money right there: your time, wasted. It made it worse that I’m living abroad while trying to set this up, so figuring out the time differences of when I could call them, and then paying international calling fees to wait in their call queue is just poor. I wouldn’t recommend using QuickBooks unless your accountant demands it.

Summary

This was really close: pretty much a three-way tie in many ways between FreshBooks, Harvest, and Invoicera. Look at their menus: they are all very similarly structured. Honestly, I think that Freshbooks, Harvest, and Invoicera are all great products, and I would have been happy using any of them. QuickBooks is the only one that annoyed the piss out of me: having a site that runs on pop-ups and forcing all their support requests to take place over the phone were just nails in their coffin. QuickBooks may be the “industry leader”, but I think they’re ripe for unseating because their site and their software were just painful to deal with. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a comment on this post asking me to “please give us a call to discuss”, but meh… I’ve spent too much time on the phone with them already.

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WordPress vs. MODx http://tipsfor.us/2011/04/19/wordpress-vs-modx/ http://tipsfor.us/2011/04/19/wordpress-vs-modx/#comments Tue, 19 Apr 2011 17:04:56 +0000 http://tipsfor.us/?p=2694 There are a lot of Content Management Systems (CMS’s) out there, so I wanted to give a blow-by-blow analysis comparing two of them: MODx and WordPress. I feel oddly qualified to do so: Brian and I just authored a book on WordPress plugin plugin development (WordPress 3 Plugin Development), and I am a MODx Solution Partner who was invited to speak at the MODxpo conference in Dallas last year. I’ve used both flavors of MODx (Evolution and Revolution) and WordPress while building somewhere around 50 web sites over the past couple years, and I like both systems. I have even contributed a couple plugins for both systems (e.g. Custom Content Type Manager for WordPress). So after the urging of some friends and colleagues (like Kris), I’m organizing my techno-ramblings into a coherent article.

I’m going to walk through a series of areas and compare and contrast both how both CMSs work in those areas. The comments here apply to WordPress 3.x and (mostly) to MODx Revolution, but MODx Evolution is mentioned where appropriate.

Basic Stuff

System Requirements

WordPress 3.1 MODx Revolution
Server OS ???
  • Linux x86, x86-64
  • Windows XP
  • Mac OS X
Web Server
  • Apache ???
  • NGINX ???
  • Apache 1.3.x or Apache 2.2.x
  • IIS 6.0+
  • Zeus
  • lighthttpd
  • Cherokee
  • NGINX
Database
  • MySQL 4.1.20 or higher (5.0+ recommended)
  • SELECT, INSERT, UPDATE, DELETE, CREATE, ALTER, INDEX, DROP privileges
  • MyISAM table types
  • MySQL 4.1.20 or higher (excludes 5.0.51)
  • Default table encoding of UTF-8
  • SELECT, INSERT, UPDATE, DELETE, CREATE, ALTER, INDEX, DROP privileges
  • InnoDB and MyISAM table types
PHP Version 4.3+ (5.2+ recommended) 5.1.1+ (excluding 5.1.6/5.2.0)
 

  • Running as FastCGI
  • safe_mode off
  • register_globals off
  • magic_quotes_gpc off
  • PHP memory_limit 24MB or more

PHP Modules ???
  • zlib
  • JSON
  • cURL
  • ImageMagick
  • GD lib
  • PDO, with database driver
  • SimpleXML

*Source: WordPress requirements, MODx requirements

If the requirements for MODx Revo look insanely detailed, ask yourself this: “do you really want to be guessing whether or not your server will support a given app?” MODx Revo does a pretty good job of testing for the necessary requirements during installation, so you don’t have any unexpected surprises.

Installation

WordPress offers its “famous” 5-minute install, and I give them credit where credit is due: WordPress is a simple web app to install, but to be fair, installing MODx Evolution is also very straightforward.

MODx Revolution has beefier requirements, and it’s far more likely you’ll run into troubles setting up your webserver permissions or PHP extensions (e.g. PDO). Moving a Revolution install to a new server is also a tricky operation that requires some patience (see this how-to).

Summary

In short, WordPress and MODx Evolution are easily installed on practically any web server that supports PHP and MySQL. MODx Revo takes longer to install and configure and it requires a beefier server.

Templating

Hands down, MODx offers the gold standard in templating. Expression Engine is a healthy second place, but only in my days of doing Perl development with the venerable Template Toolkit did I encounter a templating system that followed good MVC architectural principles as well as MODx.

What does that mean? It means that if you’re a front-end designer who likes to roll your own HTML and CSS, then MODx will grant you total freedom to implement the designs you want, whereas WordPress may result in headaches and holes punched in your walls (no comment on the convoluted mess that is Drupal and Joomla templates). I’ve posted previously about creating templates in MODx Evolution and how to import existing layouts into MODx Evolution, and the process in MODx Revolution is nearly identical (the only difference is the format of the placeholders).

In MODx, you can easily have multiple templates (i.e. layouts), and use any one of them for any page. In WordPress, the ability to use a specific template is possible only with pages, not posts. The thing that really gives me convulsions is understanding how WordPress formats its special pages, e.g. a category page, or an author page. See the image below as a reference for how WordPress formats page requests.

WordPress Template Hierarchy
WordPress Template Hierarchy

See the official WordPress docs for Template Hierarchy for more information. I honestly have a hard time fathoming that this is the solution that actually got implemented… what other crazy ideas were on the drawing board?

Summary

If having a specific HTML/CSS layout for your site is more than a “nice-to-have”, then MODx will save you many hours; the time to rework layouts in WordPress can be considerable and some of the PHP hacks are not trivial, whereas MODx templates are easy to create, modify, and maintain.

Menus

MODx offers nearly infinite menu flexibility through use of menu-generating PHP Snippets, primarily WayFinder, but it’s not aimed at the average user. WordPress has a built-in GUI for creating menus, but I have experienced some bugs with it when using custom content types. Your WordPress theme may not support more than one or two menus, so in the end you may end up writing some code in your tmeplates (e.g. using my Summarize Posts plugin) so you can list the posts that you want to see.

In a nutshell, WordPress offers an easy GUI, but if you need more customization MODx’s flexibility here is far greater.

Plugins

WordPress has a huge number of user-contributed plugins available, whereas MODx has relatively few. The sheer number is not a good comparison, however; I downloaded and tested hundreds of plugins in the process of writing my WordPress book, and the number of plugins that are unusable due to sophmoric errors or plain-old bad coding is huge. I estimate that at least half of the plugins in the WordPress repository are unusable, and perhaps only a tenth of them are worth using. There are crufty plugins in the MODx repo to be sure, but the playing field is more even than you might think.

The real difference here comes when you have to write your own code: MODx is a lot easier to work with with a shorter learning curve for a majority of code, whereas learning the ropes of WordPress plugins requires more guidance (hey, did I mention we wrote a book about that?).

Architecture

This is an area that is hard to discuss unless you’re a geek, but in a word, MODx offers a robust and well-architected MVC framework under the hood that can make writing custom plugins (Snippets, manager pages, et al) a breeze. The work done by Jason Coward and Shaun McCormick is really astounding.

Some of the limitations to WordPress are really staggering: it is basically a stateless application, so by default it does not use sessions, and nearly all of its API functions exist as procedural functions in the main namespace, so naming collisions are a big concern when authoring plugins. This makes certain functionality damn near impossible in WordPress. For example, creating a WordPress application with a login portal and access to custom data models would require an enormous amount of time. Even accessing WordPress’s posts and categories is difficult at times; I basically had to rewrite core WordPress functionality with another plugin (Summarize Posts) just to get the menus and summaries I needed for one recent site.

Another severe limitation is WordPress is that all extensions to the core occur via plugins that are triggered by system events (confusingly they are loosely categorized into “actions” and “filters”). This construct can be awkward at times, and the WordPress architecture is showing its age as the number of events exponentially increases, whereas the amount of documentation for them continually wanes. Realistically you can get WordPress plugins to do just about everything you need using only a handful of events, but debugging someone else’s plugins is a nightmare: there is no centralized location listing which events are being hooked into, and new events are often created and executed on the fly. Debugging WordPress plugins is like Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole: majorly trippy,and you don’t know if you’ll ever come out.

User management is another area where MODx dwarfs WordPress: Revolution can handle totally granular control of permissions, but it is admittedly overly complex for 90%+ of use cases. Evolution offers a much more sensible permissions scheme that covers most use cases.

MODx offers much more sensible implementations of custom code: like WordPress it uses event-driven plugins, but it also uses custom PHP snippets which can be placed anywhere on a page or in a template.

Another impressive feat is how MODx Revolution has abstracted the database into a separate coding layer — that means it is relatively easy to interface with custom database tables (or even to other database engines) using code that is completely database agnostic (support for SQLite and PostGREs is in the works). That’s some seriously geeky stuff that has kept me awake at night trying to comprehend how they accomplished that. MicroSoft has even worked directly with the MODx team because MODx’s architecture is flexible enough that it can run on an all MicroSoft stack (i.e. IIS and MS-SQL). I can’t think of a single other system that switch-hits as well as MODx.

Summary

If the site you are building is more of a web application that requires a lot of custom coding, go with MODx; the level of maturity in the underlying MODx framework is light years ahead of WordPress, but be advised that the coding in MODx is sometimes so advanced, it takes a very senior developer to understand what’s going on. If you decide to do a more serious application-type-project in WordPress, be sure to allocate extra time to augment or rewrite the core code. If you’re doing basic extensions or variations of a simple site/blog, then WordPress plugins can do that pretty well, so don’t overcomplicate things.

Dashboard

WordPress offers a clean manager dashboard for its administrators which relies on the jQuery JavaScript library to provide AJAX functionality and smooth user experience. It’s pretty easy to find your way around.

WordPress Manager dashboard
WordPress Manager dashboard

MODx underwent a huge change in its manager dashboard between Evolution and Revolution, and the Revolution dashboard is overwhelming for many. Evolution’s dashboard is cleaner and snappier.

MODx Evolution Dashboard
MODx Evolution Dashboard

MODx Revolution’s manager dashboard is still being optimized. It’s based on ExtJS. For those of you not familiar with ExtJS, it was based on YUI (the Yahoo User Interface library), and it offers some fatastically powerful features for building interfaces for web applications. My only complaint with it is that it’s heavy: the MODx Revo dashboard can take a long time to load, and sometimes clicking on buttons and links feels unresponsive.

MODx Revo dashboard
MODx Revo dashboard

Summary

Do not make your decision about which system to use based on the dashboard alone — that’s like marrying a girl for how big her tits are. I know some clients who have loved and hated the dashboards in both systems. Again, MODx offers more flexibility if you want to change the dashboard behavior. The big difference here is simple: WordPress gives you a super clean view of your posts based on time whereas MODx gives you a hierarchical view of your posts.

Blog

Everybody wants a blog, just like everybody wants a shiny new car. Authoring blogs has been a core competency of WordPress, and they get massive props for making them very simple to setup: out of the box, you can get a blog up and running with integrated tags and categories and comments within minutes. It’s really what WordPress is all about: blogging. WordPress even has some nice security features in place with its Akismet spam filter.

Contrary to some of the on-line murmurings out there, both versions of MODx can run blogs, but until MODX 2.2, the process to set them up was painfully laborious in comparison. The Articles extra for MODX gives you a quick and easy blog — it can even import your posts from WordPress, so the gap between the two systems is closing quickly. The only thing it doesn’t do as well as WordPress right out of the box is its taxonomies (tags and categories): you still have to do some configuration to get those configured how you want them, but as the docs say:

“MODx Revolution is not blogging software, but rather a full-blown Content Application Platform, it doesn’t come pre-packaged with a cookie-cutter blogging solution.” 

Summary

If your priority is to get a blog up and running as quickly as possible, and you have few requirements for supporting any other content, then WordPress is the way to go. Starting with MODX 2.2, however, you can use its “Articles” extra, which gives you simple blogging functionality, with many of the features available to WordPress.

Custom Content (CMS functionality)

If blogging is where WordPress shines, then CMS functionality is where MODx clearly has the upper hand. WordPress does support custom fields for its posts and pages, and in version 3.x, they support additional “post types”, so finally WordPress is getting some traction as a CMS, but it’s still a bit of a toy in comparison to MODx.

One of the biggest problems with WordPress as a CMS is its lack of support for sensible custom fields: for each post or page, you have to manually add the same custom fields over and over again, and by default, the custom fields are always simple text fields. I have attempted to rectify this in my Custom Content Type Manager plugin, and my plugin does a lot to give WordPress CMS capabilities, but it still represents a series of awkward workarounds that stretches the WordPress core nearly to its breaking point.

One related area here is how MODx can manage and serve static files via what MODx calls “Static Resources”. This is a great way to enforce permissions on viewing, streaming, or downloading static files (e.g. PDFs or Flash movies). WordPress just flat out can’t do that.

Although MODx offers greater flexibility, WordPress’ integration is a bit cleaner for the manager user (it’s a holy pain in the ass for the developer, but if you download my plugin you should avoid this unpleasantness). When WordPress registers a new “post type”, you get a nice menu icon in your dashboard and it’s really clear to the manager that he/she is adding a new post, page, or movie (etc). For example, if you want to add a movie post, you’d click on “Add Movie”. It’s really quite logical. In MODx, this same type of distinction occurs at the template level. Architecturally, this makes sense, but it’s confusing for the manager user, because it may not be at all clear that they need to add a “normal” page (i.e. resource), and then choose to use the “movie” template. I’m planning a MODx plugin to help rectify this UI “wart”.

A custom post type in WordPress
A custom post type in WordPress

Summary

If you have to display multiple types of content on your site (e.g. an eCommerce site), then MODx offers far greater flexibility, but it does take longer to configure. If your CMS requirements are simple and you don’t need to worry too much about customizations, then WordPress can do that very well and very quickly.

SEO

SEO is the an cyclical buzz, and at the moment, a lot of SEO guys are hailing WordPress as the holy grail of search-word wad-shooting. To be blunt, I think SEO is largely an over-hyped crock of crap. If you build a well-structured site with good content, your pages will show up in search results: if there is a site out there with awesome content that is not showing up in relevant search results, I have yet to see it. Search engine optimization is often a pseudo-science practiced by get-rich-quick marketeers who are convinced that they can turn lead into gold by over-hyping a site with various gimmicks. 90% or more of SEO should have to do with creating good content, and perhaps the last 10% of your efforts should go into polishing your site. It can be used to improve search results, but it tends to fail when you try to make search results come out of thin air. Too often I have seen companies do this the wrong way around: they spend 90% of their time publicizing a site that is a vapid cesspool instead of spending their time making a site that’s worth visiting. At best, SEO techniques are constantly changing as Google updates and refines their indexing algorithms. If you optimize your site today and Google farts tomorrow, all of your work may be for naught. Do your due dilligence, but it’s just not worth spending inordinate amounts of time tring to beat Google at their own game.

Rants aside, both systems offer ample ways to do search engine optimization. Assuming that you have good content, the rest of the process boils down to having well structured HTML (which relies on a solid templating system), and the ability to effectively index your pages. WordPress offers built-in taxonomies (categories and tags) for flagging your posts, and MODx can be set up to do this rather easily by using an Auto-Tag custom field (a.k.a. a MODx “Template Variable”).

MODx offers a much more flexible system for generating URLs (basically you can use any URL you want for any page). WordPress does offer flexibility here, except for its special pages (e.g. category listings or author pages).

Summary

Comparing SEO features between MODx and WordPress is a moot point: both systems allow you to adequately structure your content and your site.

Security

No system is 100% secure. MODx has had relatively few serious exploits; WordPress has had many, no doubt due in part to its popularity. For what it’s worth, I have had WordPress and MODx Evolution sites hacked, but not yet a Revolution site. It’s hard to quantify how secure an application is… I’d love to see the detailed forensic results of a penetration test against default installations of both CMS’s. In general though, the WordPress architecture is primitive and more ripe for being hacked: it’s more difficult to lock down spaghetti code. WordPress also offers many more plugins, and the plugin authors tend to be less experienced, so their code is more likely to have security holes.

There are many fingerprinting utilities out there that will attempt to locate known weaknesses in plugins, and WordPress is more easily fingerprinted; MODx Revo allows you to change default locations for the MODx manager or to even remove it from public view altogether. There are some discussions in the MODx Forums about how to harden MODx, but I haven’t yet seen a detailed how-to on how to eliminate the most common attack vectors. There are also good posts out there for hardening WordPress.

I reported a nasty vulnerability in phpThumb that affected MODx and numerous other CMS’s (phpThumb is a popular image manipulation library), but the MODx Revo architecture prevented the exploit from succeeding on Revo (good job to Shaun and Jason for architecting the connectors in the way they did).

Summary

I feel that MODx Revolution is probably more secure, but there are no guarantees when it comes to security. No system is bulletproof, so you best have redundant backups on hand and follow the recommendations of Basic Web Security no matter which system you’re on.

Support

This is another area that is pretty black and white in my opinion: WordPress support sucks. Although WordPress is more popular if you look at the numbers, you wouldn’t know it if you post questions in the WordPress Forums. I have rarely gotten any useful answers (if I got answers at all): anything beyond simple inquiries tend to go unanswered, leaving me alone in the dark reverse-engineering damn near everything.

My other gripe with WordPres is their weird distinction between WordPress.com and WordPress.org. You can host your blog at WordPress.com, and then you get more support, but it is effectively software as service: you can’t upload plugins and you can’t modify code, so the interface suddenly becomes a bit like BlogSpot.

By contrast, the MODx Forums are full of helpful people. It’s a great place to be: it’s not uncommon to get responses from the core team on almost any level of inquiry, from trivial to cerebral meltdowns. There are some superstar participants, such as Susan Ottwell and Bob Ray, who have both contributed immensely helpful posts and tutorials on how to use MODx. MODx also offers commercial support; it’s still in its infancy, but for a yearly fee, you can get access to a kind of “MODx hotline” and get help resolving MODx issues on your sites.

Documentation

In the same breath as support, I must mention documentation. In general, documentation for both systems is lacking, in some areas painfully so. While using WordPress, I have often I have searched for hours trying to find a way to do a certain thing, only to end up grepping through the code base and deciphering the raw code myself. Frequently the official documentation has holes or in some cases, it’s just plain wrong. The best resources for some advanced WordPress features are blogs written other developers.

MODx’s documentation is also frustratingly AWOL on a number of topics, but least the MODx code base is integrated with a standard documentation publishing system so if needed you can see for yourself how the functions are structured without having to grep through the code base. The vibrant MODx forums fill in a lot of the holes in the documentation, and that’s a huge benefit for any open-source project.

Summary

If you need support for your site, especially guaranteed support, then only MODx offers a paid support service; WordPress doesn’t offer a paid support option.

Scalability

WordPress can handle a huge number of posts, but it does get bogged down with a large number of pages, and there are lots of whisperings about this (e.g. here). I suspect it has to do with WordPress’ convoluted templating system (see above), which makes me wonder what the limits are on custom post types.

MODx Evolution suffered from a limit of approximately 5000 resources (in MODx, pages and posts are types of resources), but that limit has been corrected in an upcoming release thanks largely to the efforts of Charlie over at ProWebscape.com.

MODx Revolution has no such limits: it offers a great built-in caching system that allows it to serve pages very quickly. It has been benchmarked as twice as fast as Expression Engine (see this blog post).

More importantly, MODx Revolution was built with scaling in mind: it stores session data in the database, so it is easily deployed on load-balanced servers. This is hugely important if you are building a site that might one day get massive amounts of traffic; WordPress can be deployed like this, but such usage is not generally anticipated. I don’t know of many large commercial sites running WordPress (in fact, I only found one: 9rules.com).

Summary

MODx is by far the more mature option here if you anticipate building a large site.

Conclusion

I do like both systems, and I use them both daily. WordPress has a much lighter footprint and is easier to use for a large number of use-cases: if you just need to get a site out the door fast, then WordPress is really hard to beat. WordPress is plug-and-play for just about everything and that saves you hours of setup time, so it can be the right solution for a majority of sites. But the more customizations you require (particularly in scripts or in layouts), then the more appealing MODx becomes: WordPress has thousands of plugins available, but if those aren’t meeting your needs, I’ve found certain types of customizations to be extremely difficult in WordPress whereas most often, MODx handles them with ease. Doing things like building web applications with strict formatting requirements is much easier in MODx because it’s built more as a launchpad for customizations: it’s really more of a content management framework (CMF). MODx Evolution is the best system I’ve used for building small to medium sized informational/brochure sites, WordPress rules as the blogging king, and I’ve been very impressed with how easily I can build web applications using MODx Revolution. There isn’t one tool that’s right for every job; the more projects you complete, the better idea you’ll have as to which system will accomplish your requirements more easily, and hopefully this article helps you spot more of what each system is good at.

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Comparison of VPS Providers http://tipsfor.us/2011/04/18/comparison-of-vps-providers/ http://tipsfor.us/2011/04/18/comparison-of-vps-providers/#comments Mon, 18 Apr 2011 16:08:13 +0000 http://tipsfor.us/?p=2631 So you’ve graduated from the world of shared hosting providers and it’s time for you to set up your own big-boy hosting package. You need a Virtual Private Server (VPS) of some sort, but the options are dizzying because these services have become a commodity: it seems that nearly everyone is peddling some variation of them. Well, we feel your pain. And I feel my own pain… I’ve dealt with a number of hosting providers over the past few years, and I’m writing this article to share with you my opinions. I’ve set up accounts for myself or for my clients on all of the following systems, and here is my unbridled opinion of each of them. Keep in mind that these reviews and opinions relate primarily to using the services for web hosting.

These aren’t affiliate links unless otherwise indicated (hey, if you want to throw us a bone for saving you the pain of experiencing these guys yourself, then please, feel free to click the affiliate link: it costs you nothing and it is your way of saying “thanks for saving me the trouble of learning this stuff the hard way”).

LiquidWeb

LiquidWeb has impressed me with its clean integrations and its “heroic support”. That doesn’t mean they’ve been able to fix every problem I’ve had, but to be fair, a lot of the tricky stuff was weird 3rd party installs that *I* struggle with greatly. But they have been very responsive in their tickets and I’ve never felt abandoned or in the dark.

The standard VPS’s offer a good value, but if you need more horsepower, their SmartServers offer a nice combination of virtual/cloud and dedicated qualities, and it’s a good combo for many folks. These come by default with WHM/cPanel, so it’s easy to set up sub-accounts with their own logins. Throw me a Bone (affiliate link)

Media Temple

This is a popular option, although I’m not sure why… their cloud servers go down frequently, they’ve had several pretty severe security issues, and using SSH on their servers is a holy pain in the ass because SSH dumps you in some foreign directory miles away from your home directory, whereas FTP takes you to your home directory. What? Yes, it is obnoxious and confusing, and they disconnect your SSH session after 5 minutes, which is approximately 1 minute less than the time it takes you to RTFM through your notes and emails to find where the hell your home directory is or which command you need to run to escalate yourself to the proper user to be able to do anything useful. MediaTemple uses Plesk to offer control panels to their clients, and Plesk is a nightmare if you ever try to do any sysadmin work on the command line. I’ve had a couple clients on MediaTemple, and it just seems like it’s a rocky road with bumps in the service and difficulties in doing basic tasks. It’s not the worst out there, but I wouldn’t rate MediaTemple as anything better than mediocre.

VPS.net

I do not recommend these guys. They do have a nice looking site and what looks to be a nice product, but my experience with them was wholly negative. “Jeez”, you might be thinking, “don’t flame a brother in writing!”, but sit down around the campfire and let me tell you why I feel completely comfortable doing so….

It all started when I set up a VPS server with VPS.net and I signed up for their paid snapshots knowing that I was liable to screw up my server at some point and I’d want to roll back to a snapshot image. Sure enough, I borked my server by removing the sqlite package, which completely destroyed the functionality of my yum utility (don’t ever do what I did, by the way). “No problem”, I thought, “I’ll just roll back.” Well, the restoration process had a fatal flaw, which completely toasted my server. After using their “restoration” utility, I didn’t just have a server with a broken yum utility, I had a completely fried server (ooo… that’s a bad code taco on that one). The people over at VPS.net were completely unwilling to admit the problem. I wasted about 2 days waiting for them to either fix the problem or to just come clean and say “hey, we’re really sorry, but we had a glitch in our snapshot utility so we only have partial backups of your server.” No. They hemmed and hawed and wasted my time for 2 days until finally one of the techs admitted that there had been a problem. I think he was probably later executed by firing squad for insubordination and refusing to tow the party line. I needed to clock in about 40 hours (all un-billable, by the way) to rebuild the server from scratch, and they acted like the Soviets when Chernobyl blew up: in typical fashion they denied anything happened until European scientists started measuring massive amounts of radiation and said “uh, comrades… did something happen at your reactor?”

While waiting days for a response (all while my server and all of its sites were completely down), my patience got exhausted, so I finally threatened to make a blog post like this one. The CTO jumped in saying “I was approaching this in the wrong way”. I listed the several tickets that I had filed that had gotten no response for 48 hours (even ones that *he* had initially responded to). And then even the CTO stopped responding to my requests for information (read: he must have known how badly they screwed up). His response was literally an advertisement: he blabbed on about how awesome their servers were and what great new offerings were available. I felt like he had just run over my dog, and instead of apologizing for killing my best friend, he was yammering on about awesome his car was with its dual-hemi’s, turbo-charged engine and high-performance tires. The final “kiss my ass” message they sent me was a legalese “F-U” which basically stated that none of their services, including backups, were guaranteed. Seriously, I don’t often say stuff like this this in writing, but VPS.net can go french kiss a donkey’s ass. I gave them every opportunity to respond to my questions or to justify their actions, and they ignored me, so I feel I’m being more than fair.

So dealing with VPS.net cost me several thousand dollars, it almost cost me a client, and their ineptitude set me back on several high priority projects, and their response to a completely legitimate issue was childish and unprofessional, and my requests for just basic professionalism were ignored. So there you have it: my rant against VPS.net. Use their services at your own risk.

VPSlink.com

These guys offer a simple no-frills hosting package, and I’ve used them for several dev projects over the years. Nothing fancy, but they are responsive to the requests, and I’ve only had minimal fuss with their servers and their control panel is easy to navigate. They may not give you as much RAM as some for the price, but they do give you lots of CPUs (like 16!). I like these guys and I give them a good thumbs up. There is no cPanel type dashboard for sub-accounts, so this one is only for command-line sysadmins only.

ServerAxis.com

This is another no-frills VPS system that offers some pretty nice stats for the price: lots of RAM and a good amount of CPU. They offer a few more options than VPSLink (e.g. you can pay extra to get an external backup volume mounted to your server), and they are a bit more scalable, but I didn’t find their admin panels very intuitive, so I’ve lost time fumbling through them. There is no cPanel type dashboard for sub-accounts, so this one is only for command-line sysadmins only, but still a solid thumbs-up with these guys.

GoDaddy

Ah yes, now even GoDaddy is offering VPS services (hey, we said this stuff is becoming a commodity). The prices there look competitive, but my experiences with GoDaddy as a host have been mindbogglingly poor. Their shared hosting is a complete disaster — hands down, it’s the worst I’ve seen… they arbitrarily limit functionality, it takes hours to complete tasks that take only minutes on other hosts, and all for a cost that is higher than their competitors. I even had one of their techs tell me that the MySQL dump was “working perfectly” when the log file showed clearly that there was an error. Blink. Are they blind? Or just stupid? They also had zero understanding of how DNS records worked, so they weren’t able to offer any assistance in configuring a custom zone file. Furthermore, their dashboard is impossibly confusing to navigate. Do you know that weird castille soap by Dr. Bonner? I’m pretty sure the intern that did the layout for that soap is the same person who did the UI for GoDaddy’s control panel because I always have to dial their support # when I have to do anything in there.

Did the same guy do GoDaddy's control panel layout?
Layout designed by GoDaddy: Worst Layout Ever

I mean seriously… can you read that?

So even though these look like competitive prices, I have severe reservations about using GoDaddy as anything more than a registrar. Hey, I want to jump on Danica Patrick as much as the next horny guy, but maybe if they spent some time cleaning up their site and services instead of Super Bowl ads and models, they’d have a product worth recommending, but as it stands, you should pass on GoDaddy as a host.

Amazon cloud EC2

This is a popular option because hey, it’s Amazon… but I’ve found EC2 cloud stuff to be a pain in the ass to use simply because you get lost on the command line. It’s worse than MediaTemple from a command-line standpoint. In my opinion, being on the cloud means your data theoretically is always there (there are outages), but if you’re coming in via SSH, then you can’t find it. Haha. Only sort of kidding there. In general, this isn’t a very nice option for those people doing simple web hosting types of services. It’s more appropriate for companies doing persistent application deployments.

Other Providers

I feel obligated to mention the following 2 providers because so many people I work with recommend them highly:

I don’t have first hand experience with them, so I can’t comment directly.

Conclusion

There are a lot of options out there, but with enough time, patience, and trouble-shooting elbow-grease, you can find a web host that works for you.

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Comparison of Online Email Marketing Companies http://tipsfor.us/2010/02/21/comparison-of-online-email-marketing-companies/ http://tipsfor.us/2010/02/21/comparison-of-online-email-marketing-companies/#comments Sun, 21 Feb 2010 20:13:35 +0000 http://tipsfor.us/?p=2543 Continue reading Comparison of Online Email Marketing Companies ]]> If you work on commercial web-sites, eventually you find the need to add email marketing services such as newsletters and special advertisements. The article compares 4 services: Campaign Monitor vs. Constant Contact vs. Mail Chimp vs. Topica in several categories, primarily templating abilities, the usability, and the documentation. This review does not cover the reporting capabilities of these products, but all of them offer the standard set of success metrics.

DISCLAIMER: The review only reflects my own experience using each product for about an hour each; I’m not affiliated with any of these companies.

Campaign Monitor

Price: Pay as you go: a flat delivery fee of $5, plus 1 cent for each recipient.

Templates: HIGH MARKS. You can get started with a library of their own templates, and you can easily customize the HTML and CSS via their custom tags, e.g.
<$title$>
Or
<$title link='true' default='Enter Title Here'$>
They provide a good cheatsheet and plenty of template samples.

Limits: only 10 custom fields allowed on email forms.

API: HIGHEST MARKS. Very well documented, code samples of each method in various languages. Like Mail Chimp, Campaign Monitor also offers plugins to various CMS’s including WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, Expression Engine etc.

Demo: Yep, try it totally free. You only pay when you send an email.

Summary: Very easy to use, offers one of the most flexible templating systems available with a lot of samples and a really helpful CSS comparison guide for styling emails for different email clients. Campaign Monitor distinguishes itself from Mail Chimp with its ability to resell distributions (you can set up campaigns for multiple clients through one account) and its payment structure.

Constant Contact

Price: uses pricing tiers based on the max number of emails you will send. Starts at $15 a month for up to 500 emails/month; there are also limits to the number of images you can host in your account.

Templates: Somewhat limited… the UI felt boxy, and although they support custom HTML/CSS, the pseudo code they used did not resemble anything I’d seen before: it uses XML-looking tags, so they are difficult to see once they are actually used alongside HTML. Clicking on the help links dumped out to a PDF page… but the PDF never loaded, so I had to email customer service before I could check out the Advanced Editor’s Guide and see how they handle templating.

Limits: varies per subscription level; the site itself is not friendly with Safari, and there were problems accessing their PDF docs.

API: Yes, but it’s a little hard to find: http://developer.constantcontact.com/. The interface is very XML centered (which is not PHP’s strong suit) and the docs are a bit hard to navigate and don’t include many examples. As expected, you can Import Outlook or csv files to populate your contact list.

Demo: 60 days with full support.

Summary:
The strengths are that this company also does Online Surveys and Event Marketing in addition to the Email Marketing, and they get HIGH MARKS for customer service — a representative called me to follow up and sent me an email with links for everything I asked for. But I have to take off points for limiting special characters in the account passwords (If you’re gonna pretend like you care about my password strength by putting a Password Strength widget on your form, then you gotta follow through and allow special characters in the passwords!). Their representative assured me that their email templates were tested and functional across all browsers, but their control panel doesn’t work with Safari and there were problems accessing the PDF documents — even their little helpful survey widget asking “how you doing?” failed to submit properly, probably due to some browser-specific Javascript.

Mail Chimp

Price: HIGHEST MARKS! 3 options:

  • Monthly (50k subscribers): starts at $380, up to 600k sends.
  • Pay as You Go (you buy “email credits”, starting at 3 cents per email)
  • Forever Free (up to 3k sends/mo, list less than 500 contacts, emails include affiliate badge in footer)

Limits:
no built-in surveys, but there is a built-in integration with SurveyGizmo.

API: Yes! HIGH MARKS! Documented for PHP, with some code samples in many languages. There are plugins for Drupal, FoxyCart, ExpressionEngine, etc.

Templates: HIGH MARKS! Yep, you can choose from their starter templates or use your own HTML/CSS using tags like this:
*|MC:SUBJECT|*
The tags even support if statements and formatting options. Template Language documentation is here: http://www.mailchimp.com/resources/email-template-language

Demo: Yep, free to try for as long as you’d like.

Summary: High marks all the way around. Flexible pricing options, custom templates, thorough API, and helpful videos. This is a very good product.

Topica

Price: starts at $49.95 for up to 1,000 names… but the pricing page is hard to find.

Templates: You can use your own HTML, CSS, and images, but you can’t store them on their server — it’s a bit difficult to see where to do this, exactly: go straight to the “Campaigns” menu and choose to use “No Template”. You can use up to 15 custom tokens (configurable under “Preferences”), e.g. ${token1}, but heavy use of tokens is discouraged because it increases database load.

API: Yes, it’s SOAP based, but (again) it’s hard to find: http://topica.com/services/. As expected, you can do bulk imports and bulk exports of contacts or audience data.

Demo: Limited 14 day “demo” is available, but it’s really an “opt-out” purchase requiring credit card authorization “If you do not cancel during your trial period, your account will remain active and be charged a minimum monthly fee of $49.95” as well as $0.01 per name in your database if you use more than your selected capacity.

Summary: Topica gets HIGH MARKS for customer service, and their biggest strength is that they’ve been around a long time and their servers are said to be in the “good-graces” of most ISPs and, like Constant Contact, they got people available to take your calls. They have reasonable customer service: questions were answered during normal times. However, the site is hard to navigate, it has some browser display issues and even a couple 404 errors in the control panel (!), and searches for documentation tended to funnel me back to contact their sales/support people instead of to actual pages. And personally, I’m not too keen on an opt-out purchase agreement in order to “demo” the software.

Summary

In summary, I’d say that MailChimp and Campaign Monitor were the best I looked at: both offered very flexible templates, thorough examples, and a flexible, well-documented API. I’d have to say that Campaign Monitor code samples are amongst the best I’ve seen, but Mail Chimp has excellent documentation and an equally flexible templating system. Topica came across as a bit boxy and overpriced for smaller campaigns given its features. Constant Contact was somewhere in the middle… I know it’s a popular option, but browser issues in the control panel and the lack of a sensibly-documented API make it an unattractive option for me.

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Networx – Free Bandwidth Monitoring Software (Getting the Most Out of It) http://tipsfor.us/2009/08/01/networx-%e2%80%93free-bandwidth-monitoring-software-getting-the-most-out-of-it/ http://tipsfor.us/2009/08/01/networx-%e2%80%93free-bandwidth-monitoring-software-getting-the-most-out-of-it/#comments Sat, 01 Aug 2009 22:02:26 +0000 http://www.tipsfor.us/?p=2389 Continue reading Networx – Free Bandwidth Monitoring Software (Getting the Most Out of It) ]]>

Systems: Windows Only (2000, XP, Vista, 2008 / Both 32 and 64 bit)

Donationware: Technically it’s free, but when you see the level of craftsmanship in this program, you will want to donate.

Website: Softperfect.com

networx-prevI recently changed ISPs to one with much more consistent service, but the trade off is that I now have a rather small bandwidth cap. As much as we hate them, bandwidth caps are probably in all of our futures. The important thing is to have control over and be informed of your usage (before the bill arrives). I needed a reliable way to keep track of my bandwidth, so I tested out several free bandwidth monitoring softwares. My ISP has its own online bandwidth usage calculated, but I wanted a redundant system (one which I could use to make sure they were honest in their tracking).  In my experiments, I found Networx to be the best. Its primary virtue is its ability to be as advanced as you need it to be. For my multiple computer home network, it has every feature I could ask for. Let’s take a closer look.

The software is so unobtrusive; it even lacks a full control window.  Instead, you can access all aspects of the software from the taskbar icon.

Networxscreen1

A left click will give you a quick bandwidth summary/ a right click will show you the menu.

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Before we get to ridiculous number of features available in the menu, let’s check out my favorite feature.A right click anywhere on the task bar brings up a windows menu that has a “toolbars” option, if you go there you will find a new entry: Networx Desk Band. Activating this toolbar gives you a quick real time read out.

Networxscreen3

I know what you’re thinking: But I don’t like red and white graphs! Well, you can fully customize that little read out; I’ll get to that a little later on.First, lets go back to that right click menu from the Networx taskbar icon.

Your first 3 options all work together:

Show Graph

– This displays a full size visual read out that you can place on your desktop wherever you want.

Networxscreen4

Reset Graph (Only present if “Show Graph” is clicked first) – This option will clear the current data displayed on the graph, not unlike the trip counter reset in your car.

Enable Click Through (Only present if “Show Graph” is clicked first) – Will make the graph act as if it is not really there.You can literally click through the graph to select things. Be careful though, this means you can’t resize or move the graph window without turning off “Click Through” the same way your turned it on.

Networxscreen5

Speed Meter

– This works sort of like a heart monitor for you bandwidth.You hit “Play” and for the duration you allow it to run, it records average, maximum and total transfer.You can then export it directly to a txt file.

Networxscreen5a

Usage Statistics

– You can access this menu from a double click on the icon.This will probably be your most visited window in the battle to keep informed about transfer totals. The first thing you will see is the “General” Tab:

Not much to do here, except see a quick summary of your total usage all in one place.

Networxscreen6

The Daily Report – Here is where you can really begin to see detail present in this program.If you have this set up on the family computer, you can directly see what day of the month the highest transfer happened.If you are not a fan of the spread sheet, they also provide you a visual readout of the past week.

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Weekly/Monthly Report – The same data as the daily, but handily calculated for you either size increment.

Custom – The most powerful data aggregator in this entire software. You can give it the date-through-date specifics and it will automatically set up the graph in the most appropriate way.

Networxscreen8

Dial-up Sessions – If you have a minute/transfer based dial-up connection, this tab is vital.It records every time you connect to your dial up provider, the date, amount of time spent, transfers, etc.You might think this is outdated, but you would be surprised how many areas still do not have broadband.

Hourly Rates – for you true statistics hounds out there, you can follow your transfer rates on an hourly basis.

Networxscreen9

Export – Oh yeah, you can also export all of these charts to Excel for easy archiving.

Users – If everyone who uses the computer has separate logons, you can track the data per user.You know, easily figure out which roommate is the bandwidth hog.

Networxscreen10

Quota

This is a handy system for letting you set the maximum transfer/duration.For me that is 50 gigs per month.I set it at 45 gigs, however, because it notifies you with a little pop-up window when you have met your quota.

Networxscreen11

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Settings

All of the settings for the program.Let’s go one tab at a time.

General – This tab has the settings for “Load on Windows Startup, Check for Updates”, And most importantly: Which internet connection is monitored. This is essential if you have multiple connections, or utilize a different connection for intra-network traffic.

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Graph – Settings to tweak how the graph output functions.This is really for power users who want control over aspect of their graph.

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Graph Colors – This may seem trivial or nit-picky, but on some monitors you may want to adjust the colors of the graph for optimal resolution.High contrast is an option in every aspect of most operating systems for those who need it for accessibility.Or, you may just want to make it look pretty.

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Notifications – This tab’s settings tell the software when you notify you of certain things.It can tell you if your connection falls below it’s usual transfer rate, or if it exceeds a predetermined speed.You can also customize how exactly it notifies you, a tone or a pop up, ect.

Advanced – There is one truly important feature in here.In this tab you can set what day your billing cycle begins on. I’m lucky, my bandwidth resets at midnight on the first.For some of you, it might be on the 14th or 21st, etc. DO NOT FORGET TO SET THIS, OR YOUR TOTAL BANDWIDTH USED FOR THE MONTH WILL NOT BE ACCURATE!

If you have multiple computers using the same network, you will need to install Networx on all of them, and tick the box under “Synchronization” or else YOU WILL ONLY BE TRACKING THE DATA TRANSFERRED FROM THIS COMPUTER.That will not be an accurate measure of the total usage.

Networxscreen16

Trace Route

– This is a power user feature.Your average user will never have a need to track a packet from your computer to a source IP.

Ping

– This works the same way as the command line ping.You enter a location to ping, and it will tell you the millisecond duration of the test transfer.

NetStat

– This is pretty useful, it lists every program or service that is accessing the internet, or has rights to do so, and where it’s sending from and to.

Conclusion

So that’s about all you need to know to keep up with your bandwidth use by utilizing Networx. If you have a different favorite Bandwidth tracker, let us know in the comments below.I am on month 2 of using Networx, and have had no problems, if you have, also let us know.At the end of my first month of use, there was a 458 megabyte discrepancy between my Networx report and my ISPs total report.I attribute this to the Xbox360 updates and purchases along with my iPhone app downloads.

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An Overview of Free Antivirus Programs – Part XI – Rising Antivirus http://tipsfor.us/2009/02/05/an-overview-of-free-antivirus-programs-part-xi-rising-antivirus/ http://tipsfor.us/2009/02/05/an-overview-of-free-antivirus-programs-part-xi-rising-antivirus/#comments Thu, 05 Feb 2009 12:00:00 +0000 http://www.tipsfor.us/2009/02/05/an-overview-of-free-antivirus-programs-part-xi-rising-antivirus/ Continue reading An Overview of Free Antivirus Programs – Part XI – Rising Antivirus ]]> Rising Antivirus logo Welcome to the eleventh installment in our series on free antivirus programs. Be sure to also see the Main Overview, which contains links to all the separate reviews.

Up for review today is Rising Antivirus 2009 (version 21.24.20).

Product link: Rising Antivirus Free Edition

Rising Antivirus is a relatively new competitor in the free-antivirus arena. Based in Beijing, Rising does not yet have the big reputation in the West that other security programs enjoy, but that doesn’t mean it sucks. Google thinks highly enough of Rising Antivirus to bundle it with Google Pack China, so let’s see how it compares.

Installation

At just over a whopping 60 MB, Rising Antivirus 2009 is one of the heftiest downloads in this series, topping even the latest version of AVG by a few megs. Fortunately, no registration, serial number, or activation is required. Just download and install. Some other free antivirus products could learn from this model.

During installation, you can select components to keep or remove. We applaud the inclusion of an automatic USB Flash Disk scanner. Make sure that box is checked.

Rising Flash Disk Auto Scan (install)

A reboot is recommended after install. Once rebooted, Rising will finalize its setup process and do an initial memory scan. During post-install, you have the option to join Rising Cloud Security (helps them more quickly contain a new malware outbreak). It’s better for the Internet in general to participate, but the option is yours. I read the privacy notice and didn’t see anything alarming.

For the record, I’ve installed Rising on everything from Windows 2000 to Windows 7 without problems. It even works on Server 2008.

Interface

Rising Antivirus 2009 has a slick, dark interface. Here’s the main screen, featuring tabs across the top and buttons for common actions at the bottom:

Rising Antivirus - Main

I appreciate the ability to change the Running Mode from Standard to Silent. The fewer interruptions an antivirus program provides, the better.

Rising Silent Running Mode

Updating

To check for updates manually, just mash the big Update button on the main screen. Like any antivirus program worth its salt, Rising Antivirus includes an automatic update feature. You can adjust any additional Updating parameters by going to Settings – Schedule SmartUpdate.

Rising - Scheduled SmartUpdate

To make sure the updates do not interrupt you or break any full-screen applications, be sure to check the box next to Silent SmartUpdate.

Footprint and Scanning

Rising’s resident scanner occupies roughly 8 MB of RAM on my machine. When I trigger a full scan, the memory usage crept upwards of 50 MB – not the lightest program I’ve tested, but not terrible (unless you scan your computer every two hours). Most importantly, my system feels responsive even during a full scan – a subjective test, but an important one.

Rising offers two main types of scan: a Quick Scan and a Full/Custom Scan. The Quick Scan took mere minutes to run on my machine, whereas the Full Scan allows much more control over which disks and directories to scan, including scanning of memory and the boot sector.

Rising Antivirus - Custom Scan

In prior reviews, I calculated how long it took to run a full scan. Since it has been a year since my last entry in this series and the contents of my disks have changed drastically, that test no longer has a valid basis for comparison. Suffice to say that in my subjective testing, Rising’s scanning speed seems comparable to its competitors.

Types of Protection

Rising is similar to both AVG and Avast in that it scans for viruses and spyware, but does not include a personal firewall. Main features include:

  • On-access and on-demand scanners
  • Spyware detection, blocking, and removal (includes rootkit detection)
  • E-mail monitor (POP3/SMTP)
  • USB Flash, CD/DVD, and Network Drive monitor (Nice!)
  • Embedded Scan (protects Instant Messengers and Download Managers)
  • Web Trojan Defense
  • Malicious Behavior Interceptor (watches for program changes)

Like most antivirus programs, Rising includes a right-click targeted scan in the Explorer contextual menu. When performing a targeted scan, Rising will quickly scan the file or folder, then display the results. Dismissing the results screen exits the program. Not bad, but I still prefer Avast’s method of handling targeted scans – if nothing is detected, the program automatically exits. Why waste a click?

One handy feature is the Audit option. At a glance, Rising will share just how protected it thinks your computer is, based on its own features. There’s not a ton of information, but it will let you know if you have a deficiency, such as not scanning for a while.

Rising Antivirus - Audit

EICAR Test

Here is a link where you can download a harmless test file that should be detected as malicious by antivirus programs. As I’ve mentioned before, it is NOT a real virus. In order to test the functionality of a program, I download the EICAR test file to my desktop and start counting to see how long it takes the antivirus program to find it. Sooner is always better than later. Let’s see how Rising handles it.

Rising Antivirus - EICAR

No problem. The EICAR file is by no means a test of effectiveness, but merely whether the antivirus program is functioning and how it handles malware. I should really try to get my hands on a system chock full of viruses for more effective testing.

Final Thoughts

Rising Antivirus 2009 does a lot of things well. The interface is professional, the features are commendable, and the price is just right. Unlike some programs, it doesn’t nag you constantly to upgrade to the paid version. I also appreciate how silent you can make it run, thereby making it an ideal install-and-forget security program.

Feature-wise, I’d say that Rising is comparable to Avast. Both include anti-rootkit protection by default (are you listening, AVG?), both have IM and POP3/SMTP mail protection, and both include specific plug-ins for protecting MS Outlook.

One killer feature of Rising is the inclusion of the USB Flash auto-scanner. More programs need to do this by default, as we have already seen a number of malware programs that spread via Flash drives.

One area that remains yet to be seen is the long-term performance of the software. Rising Free Edition is still a pretty young product, and its performance record is short. To its credit, it has already won three VB100 awards (all in 2008). Hopefully it will continue piling on awards and accolades.

Rising Antivirus is near the top of my personal recommendation list. As to whether it will de-throne Avast on my XP machine remains to be seen (though it IS my current choice on Server 2008).

Last Christmas, I set up a new machine for my parents, and I installed Rising Antivirus on it since I didn’t want them to have to deal with re-registering Avast every year. I’m not sure I can give any higher recommendation than that.

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An Overview of Free Online Invoice Software http://tipsfor.us/2008/12/13/review-of-free-online-invoice-software/ http://tipsfor.us/2008/12/13/review-of-free-online-invoice-software/#comments Sat, 13 Dec 2008 14:17:13 +0000 http://www.tipsfor.us/?p=1208 Continue reading An Overview of Free Online Invoice Software ]]> I got tired of tracking invoices for clients using an Excel spreadsheet. I knew there must be some good solutions for on-line invoices, so here’s what I found. All of these had a paid counterpart, and some of the free versions were too limited for all but experimental use. E.g. when they say there’s a limit of managing only 2 clients, that means you have to delete one and create a new client (entering name and address) each time you have to send an invoice to someone new.

Billing Manager lets you easily create invoices
Billing Manager lets you easily create invoices

Billing Manager

Link – https://billingmanager.intuit.com

This is the only service I found that offered unlimited invoices and unlimited clients for free. They are iPhone compatible, which means their site is iPhone friendly (it’s relatively fast), but they don’t have a standalone app yet. I had some serious problems importing my OS X Address Book contacts (see below), and their documentation didn’t help, but they responded promptly to my emails. In order to use Credit Cards and Electronic Checks, you have to set up an account with QuickBooks merchant service, which will run $15/month. One other irk with this software is that it requires you to disable your pop-up blocker for the preview functions to work.

Freshbooks

Link – http://www.freshbooks.com

The free version gives you one login and lets you manage only 3 clients. They have auto-bill gateways so you can charge credit cards using Paypal (yes, even using a basic Paypal account). This looks to be a nice and professional service… they even sent me a nice snail-mail sample invoice welcoming me to my trial account.

Lite Accounting

Link – http://liteaccounting.com

With the free account, you cannot use a custom logo on invoices, and you are limited to 5 invoices per month. They boast the “most affordable” solution, and yes, their full membership is almost as cheap as some of the others’ entry level membership.

Invotrak

Link – http://invotrak.com

They actually have an iPhone app and an OS X Dashboard widget. The free service limits you to 2 invoices per month and 2 clients per month.

Greener Billing

Link – http://www.greenerbilling.com

Their free (dirt cheap) plan offers you 3 invoices per month. Unlimited clients and unlimited staff access is nice… but you can’t send unbranded emails to clients (in other words, when you send an email invoice, it’ll somehow reference Greener Billing… which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

In summary, I thought that Billing Manager was the best deal out there for those users who need a basic service (and who aren’t simply evaluating). Billing Manager was the only one that offered unlimited invoices and unlimited clients.

Outlook Address Book CSV Fields

As I mentioned, I had trouble working with Billing Manager’s address book importer. It worked fine for my Outlook address book, but it did not work well with with my OS X Address Book. This is probably because I’ve got it synced with my 10 year old Yahoo! address book (yikes!), and there are some real messy fields in there. So here are the steps you can use to get your address book into Billing Manager’s format:

  1. 1. Unfortunately, OS X’s Address Book Application does not allow for you to export your addresses into a CSV format. There is an Address Book to CSV Exporter linked on the Apple web site, but it won’t work for this task. You need a program that enables you to export a header row. Download the Address Book Exporter by David Martin & Gwenhiver.net. It allows for far greater flexibility. Download it.
  2. Once inside the Address Book Exporter, click on the “Configure Settings”. Check the “Write column titles as first line” — this is your header row.
  3. Check most of the fields (see image). Outlook doesn’t seem to have columns for any Instant Message addresses, so I left those out of my export.
  4. Open the resulting file in Excel (I know I know… groan… I don’t know another way to do this). Open another blank workbook and paste Outlook’s Header Row values (below) into the first row. Two tips here: first remove the commas. Also have a look at Excel’s “Paste Special…” feature. There’s a checkbox in there to “transpose” the paste. This will paste rows into columns or columns into rows.
  5. Copy the columns from your OS X Address Book Export into the matching columns in the Outlook-friendly workbook.
  6. Save the workbook as a CSV file.
OS X Address Book Exporter
OS X Address Book Exporter

Outlook’s Header Row

For the record, when you export your Outlook contacts, these are the fields that show up in your header row:

Title, First Name,Middle Name, Last Name,Suffix,
Company,Department, Job Title,Business Street,Business Street 2,
Business Street 3, Business City, Business State, Business Postal Code,
Business Country, Home Street, Home Street 2, Home Street 3,
Home City, Home State, Home Postal Code, Home Country,
Other Street, Other Street 2, Other Street 3, Other City,
Other State, Other Postal Code, Other Country, Assistant's Phone,
Business Fax, Business Phone, Business Phone 2, Callback,
Car Phone, Company Main Phone, Home Fax, Home Phone,
Home Phone 2, ISDN, Mobile Phone, Other Fax, Other Phone,
Pager, Primary Phone, Radio Phone, TTY/TDD Phone,
Telex, Account, Anniversary, Assistant's Name,
Billing Information, Birthday, Business Address PO Box, Categories,
Children, Directory Server, E-mail Address, E-mail Type,
E-mail Display Name, E-mail 2 Address, E-mail 2 Type, E-mail 2 Display Name,
E-mail 3 Address, E-mail 3 Type, E-mail 3 Display Name, Gender,
Government ID Number, Hobby, Home Address PO Box, Initials,
Internet Free Busy, Keywords, Language, Location,
Manager's Name, Mileage, Notes, Office Location, Organizational ID Number,
Other Address PO Box, Priority, Private, Profession,
Referred By, Sensitivity, Spouse, User 1,
User 2, User 3, User 4, Web Page

Did I miss any free invoicing products? Let me know in the comments.

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