Geeking Out: I Love Cloud9!


LOVE Cloud9.

For the unGeeky

Me: Cloud9 is a development environment.

You: Great, that was singularly unhelpful.

Me: A development environment is the way one configures one’s computer to run the various applications used in programming (writing an application).

You: And this is so great because?

Me: Because setting up a development environment can be time consuming. There are usually a number of different applications you need to install and configuration changes that need to be made before the development environment is ready to use. For example, if you want to develop a PHP application (Wikipedia and WordPress are built on this) you’ll need an application to write code in as well as a web server to run the application. Most likely you’ll also need a database server to store all the data your PHP application works with.

In addition, programming can be messy and you may mess up your development environment and want to reinstall your Operating System (e.g. Windows, Mac OS X, Linux) – in which case you’ll have to do a bunch of work all over again to setup your development environment.

Personally, I like to have separate “workspaces” (aka development environments) for different projects. I may be writing a WordPress plugin in one development environment, experimenting with Node.js (currently one of the “hot” technologies), and have another project or two floating around. It helps me to keep things organized when my “workspace” only has the files related to the project I’m working on currently – and if I make any changes to configurations (e.g. to the web server) they will only effect this one project and not any other projects I am working on.

If you are looking to try out programming I’d recommend codeacademy and once you’ve got the swing of things, use Cloud9.

For the Geeky

Cloud9 provides a dockerized instance of Ubuntu preconfigured for development and a web-based IDE. It has prebuilt configurations for Node.js, LAMP, Python/Django, Ruby, C++, WordPress, Meteor, and HTML5.

Cloud9 IDE Screenshot
Screenshot from the Cloud9 IDE. Don’t be scared, you don’t have to have this many windows open at once.

For free you can create multiple workspaces, each workspace having 1 CPU, 512 MB of RAM, and 1 GB of HDD.

The IDE includes code completion, a JS/Node.js debugger, and a number of other features you can read about on their site.

It integrates seamlessly with Github and Bitbucket, allows you to share workspaces with others, provides a publicly accessible URL (if desired) so you can show off your application, and so on.

Looking to do a little WordPress development? You can have a workspace setup in under five minutes!

Ohh, and did I mention that the Code9 IDE is available via GitHub?

Looking for an Alternative?

On a semi-frequent basis I am asked by individuals for recommendations on software programs that they can use for some purpose. I have a fairly large knowledge of software applications – but as the years pass, the ability to “stay on top of” even the major products in most categories has become difficult if not impossible…this is where AlternativeTo comes in (and can serve as an alternative to talking to an IT geek like me if you don’t have one lying around).

AlternativeTo Logo
AlternativeTo Logo

AlternativeTo allows you to type in the name of a piece of software in the category you are researching and it will then display that application’s information along with alternative options.

I use AlternativeTo almost every time I’m looking for a new application. It makes finding the major alternatives easy – and it makes gauging their popularity easy as well.

AlternativeTo doesn’t just cover Windows applications – it includes categories for Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android, Linux, Web-Based, Blackberry, and Chrome OS.

If you are interested in what applications I like, you can see my profile here:

Now, go give it a try. Its easy, its free, and it is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. 🙂


Tech News Summary for April 25, 2013.

Church Management Systems.

I’m a huge fan of using technology to augment and expedite whatever we are doing – within and outside of ministry. Obviously, technology is not the answer[1], but in seeking to be “wise as serpents, innocent as doves” technology can certainly be a tremendous asset.

For the last number of months I’ve been doing a lot of research on Church Management Systems (ChMS). These are the church equivalent of business ERP and/or CRM systems. I’m hoping that the hours I’ve spent pouring over a variety of websites and systems will be of use to others as they consider the options available.

This is a living document, it will grow with time.

TouchPoint Software (Open Source)

  • Since 2007.
  • Formerly TouchPoint software.
  • Developed initially for the megachurch Bellevue Baptist and still “underwritten” by Bellevue Baptist.
  • Free to download and deploy, or you can have hosted by TouchPoint.
  • Web-Based.
  • My Take: This is the ChMS I have chosen to go with. It is extremely robust, utilized by a number of churches from tiny ones to mega-churches, etc. It continues to improve at a rapid pace. Its UI isn’t entirely intuitive, but this is getting better by leaps and bounds.

Roll Call (Developer: BytheBook)

  • Since 1991.
  • Workstation or Client/Server Deployment.
  • Free Trial
  • Pricing begins at $100 for 100 people capacity, unlimited is $1699.
  • Runs on Windows and Mac OS X.
  • My Take: Seems like a fairly good application and the pricing is reasonable. The help system seems to be for the 4D development environment they used to create the application and not for Roll Call itself. I may be looping back to these folks for a reconsideration if I don’t find anything else.

ChurchPro (Developer: Database Designs)

  • Since 1994.
  • Workstation.
  • Free Trial.
  • Pricing starts at $299 for a one computer license.
  • Runs on Windows.
  • My Take: Hmmm…the fact that they use Paradox/BDE pushes me away. The UI definitely has that feel to it…still, the pricing is right and the UI appears fairly intuitive.

Church Helpmate (Developer: Helpmate Technology Solutions)

  • Since 1997, acquired by ACS.
  • Workstation or Client/Server Deployment.
  • Free Trial.
  • Pricing starts at $297 for 100 people capacity, unlimited is $1197.
  • Runs on Windows.
  • My Take: UI is intuitive and pricing is reasonable. I’m not a fan of their synchronization scheme, which uses a disconnected model which can sometimes result in conflicting data that needs to be merged. That said, I may be looping back around to them.


  • Since 1984.
  • Workstation or Web-Based.
  • Free Trial.
  • Pricing starts at $295 (sale price), regularly $595 or the web-based version for $40/mo.
  • Runs on Windows, Mac, Linux.
  • My Take: The longevity of the company is impressive, unfortunately as is usual with older companies, the UI and overall feel carries some legacy characteristics. The web-based version is really just a remote-desktop-type experience to their servers – which is fine – just be aware you are getting the exact same program.

ACS Technologies

  • Since 1978.
  • One of the largest vendors of ChMS systems.
  • Offers various applications targeted at small / medium / large churches, organizations, schools, daycares, and specifically Catholic institutions.
  • There small church ChMS is Membership Plus which starts at $280 for a single user license or $380 for a multi-user license for the Standard edition and for the Deluxe edition is around $500.
  • My Take: I haven’t tried the software, but the site looks nice, the features look robust. If I need to investigate further, this ChMS would be on my list.

FellowshipOne (aka F1)


Other ChMS Options:

  1. [1]In my humble opinion, Christ is.

SugarSync – For Backups, Archiving and Sharing.

Image representing SugarSync
Image via CrunchBase

I am continuously encouraging individuals and businesses to make backups of their systems. I am continually shocked by the number of individuals who take no steps to protect their data against a catastrophic failure and repeatedly see clients who ask, “So…can you get my documents off this computer?” Far too often I have to tell them that I cannot, that it might be possible to if the drives are sent to a data specialist – but the cost will be steep and even then the results not assured.

There is no reason for anyone to be without a backup of their sensitive and important data. In the past this was a time consuming and costly endeavor – now it is simple and inexpensive. One service (among many) that can assist in this area is SugarSync. SugarSync provides you with 2 GB of free storage – no strings attached. This is enough to cover your critical documents – but won’t be enough for those thousands of pictures you’ve taken with your digital camera. But for $5 a month you can get yourself 30 GB (this is what I have) – which should be enough for most enthusiasts – though probably not enough for those with large music collections (they have even larger subscriptions for you – still at reasonable prices).

Let me highlight just a few of the reasons I love SugarSync:

  • Versioning: SugarSync backs up your files – but what happens if you have a Word document and you make an edit to it and then save it? Does your old file get overwritten on SugarSync? No! SugarSync keeps the old version and the new version – and allows you to roll back to older versions. This is a huge feature – extremely useful.
  • Syncing: SugarSync allows you to install the client on multiple computers/devices that then synchronize files between the systems – in my case this includes my home laptop, home desktop, and work desktop. Now you can access your files from anywhere – make edits from anywhere – and know you are always using the latest copy of your file.
  • Simple Web-Based Editing: You can access your files via a web browser on any computer and SugarSync automatically handles syncing the changes back to SugarSync – no need to download the file, open the file, save the file, upload the file – now SugarSync compresses all of these steps into a smooth operation.
  • Sharing: You can share your files with others. This is a great feature – and can be done on a strictly controlled basis so only those you want to can access your files.
  • Platforms: SugarSync supports not only Windows but Mac and Linux. Further SugarSync provides extensive mobile device support including the iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile, and Blackberry!

That said – I do have a complaint (and will add more as they arise):

  • I use SugarSync for my personal files but also for my church. Unfortunately, I cannot tell my SugarSync to sync files from my church account. I have to use the web-based interface. This is a significant nuisance and there is no reason I shouldn’t be able to download the church files as long as I authenticate. This has been a long-standing issue and SugarSync has done little to resolve it.

ScrewTurn Wiki (ASP.NET Software).

For those who are interested in website design / management ScrewTurn Wiki will probably be of interest. Free, open source (GPLv2), and under constant development ScrewTurn Wiki is a ASP.NET wiki application. I use it on my freewargamer site.

Why would I suggest ScrewTurn as worth a turn or two? Well:

  • It depends on whether you are looking for a Windows based stack or a Linux based stack. There are lots of options out there for Linux based stacks – but for Windows there are far fewer.
  • As mentioned above its free, open source, and licensed under the well-known, widely utilized GPLv2.
  • ScrewTurn also seems to be under continuous development with regular releases and well supported forums…and its not some new project that just popped out of the woodwork – its been around for a while.
  • Its extremely easy to setup. Anyone who can learn how to purchase some shared hosting and use an FTP client can get ScrewTurn up and running within minutes.
  • It supports a good variety of databases (e.g. MSSQL and MySQL) but also allows for flat filesystem site creation (what I use on freewargamer). This makes setup/management even simpler and reduces the requirements in a shared host (which usually limit or don’t provide database access).
  • The UI is simple and easy to use. Its intuitive.
  • It has WYSIWYG editing of articles.
  • It supports Active Directory integration!

The list could go on – but check it out for yourself. Enjoy! (P.S. they recently released the final version of 3.0 which is pretty awesome).

BlueHost – Simple, Effective Web Hosting.

Its not uncommon for me to get asked, “What web host would you recommend for me to use when building a new website?” I figured now would be as good a time as any to post about one of the hosts I utilize. This host is great for beginners and advanced users alike. That said, I’ll also note right at the beginning that the instigator of this post was actually a server outage on Bluehost‘s part. Yesterday I was writing a review of the movie Amazing Grace (don’t worry, I’ll rewrite it soon) when the Bluehost server went down. But no host is perfect and this is one of only a few times I have experienced any performance problems from Bluehost’s service.

First, lets talk about Bluehost from a beginner’s perspective. If you are looking to create a website or start a blog there are a few easy ways to get started. One is to hire someone to assist you in doing so (you can always hire me). Another is to utilize any of a number of free services that allow you to create sites/blogs easily – for example in the blogging arena one can get free accounts from blogger and wordpress. The third option, and the one I personally prefer, is utilizing a shared host. This scenario gives you the most flexibility. When determining what sort of host you should utilize ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I enjoy technology? (If no, hire someone).
  2. Do I want to learn more about web-based technologies? (If yes, utilize a shared host).
  3. Do I have time to expend on learning new technologies? (If no, hire someone or utilize a free account).
  4. Do I want a professional presence? (If yes, either hire someone or use a shared host and expect to spend a significant amount of time learning and experimenting).

Should you decide to go with a shared host you face one additional large question: Do I want a Windows or a Linux environment? If you are new to technology generally, I recommend Linux. In fact, unless you already utilize web-based technologies that are Windows specific I recommend Linux. Why? Because its built around a nice word – free. There is one exception. If you want to do custom product development rather than just building a straight-up site, you may want to consider using Windows for your development environment. Microsoft’s Visual Studio is pretty kick-butt. I really enjoy ASP.NET and think it is great for developing applications in.

Okay…So we’ve decided to go with a Linux host. In that case, open an account with Bluehost. Here’s the main factors I consider killer about Bluehost:

  • $6.95/mo. What? Yes. $6.95/mo. We eat that at McDonald’s in one lunch! That includes a free domain name (e.g., which is pretty huge since these usually cost around $10 in and of themselves.
  • Unlimited Hosting/File Transfer. You can store as much data as you want on their servers (okay, there are some exceptions, but generally…you’ll never run out of space) and you can also transfer as much information to and from the server as you want (again, some exceptions…but mainly apply to people who are trying to abuse the service).
  • Free MySQL Databases. MySQL Databases (or PostgreSQL) are the backbone of most modern web applications. They store data in a way that makes it extremely easy and quick to retrieve.
  • SimpleScripts. Allows you to within two minutes deploy popular web applications including WordPress (blogging), Joomla (cms), Drupal (cms), phpBB (forums), Zenphoto (photo gallery), Roundcube (webmail), and WikkaWiki (wiki) among many others. Seriously – two minutes.
  • Bluehost includes lots of other standard features like FTP, email, free advertising credits (Google, Yahoo, Miva), and automatic backups.

So what are you waiting for? There are no contracts. Even if you just want to familiarize yourself with some web-based technologies – open an account, use it for a few months, and then cancel. Its a great learning tool. No, it won’t run the next Google, but once you grow big enough and learn enough you can move to a larger host (we’ll talk about them in another post) who can handle your highest demands.