… with all the acting pistache of maybe… Steven Seagal?

Sure I can futz around cpanel and run some command line stuff (on a really good day maybe vi) but it’s far from my wheelhouse. But I can stretch.

Last fall Clint Lalonde came bearing some much needed contract work for BCCampus and his new project in Open Homework Systems. The need was for setting up a server for faculty to give three different math applications a place to evaluate them.

Wow, did Clint have some faith in my abilities.

But as pretty much elsewhere, when I don’t know how to do something (99% of the time), I can look it up and figure it out. And oh did the internet save me.

What I got was an EduCloud server setup with Ubuntu 14.04, a VPN access, and a login. The three systems we tested I nocknamed the Three Ps, since they each used a different P named programming language:

Before I even did anything there, I had to install some basic server things, like an Apache web server, MySQL, git, PHP, and other things along the way. I’ll spare you the 29 pages of notes I kept on all the errors and fixes.

My friend was

And my nemesis continually was file/directory ownership and privileges, and versions of PHP and assorted modules.

Before getting to the apps, I made a small website to house project information (the server has been shuttered), relying on the HTML5Up Massively template.

I got to choose the subdomain, and I liked mathtest as a wordplay on testing math testing software. My own joke.

And yes, that image is open licensed one from pixabay.

The web site was mainly to provide links to the three apps, help documents, and some status updates, and a google form I made for bug reporting. And again for my own amusement, at the bottom is a GIF I found to remind anyone that this web site would self destruct (well when directed) in May 2020.

Mission Possible?

I started December 12 and had two apps (IMathAS and WeBWoRK) running before the end of the year. Numbas took a few more weeks in January, involving a lot of exchanges in GitHub with the developer, and eventually a Skype call for him to realize a site ID that was hard wired into their script.

All of the apps took some finagling, whether it was finding the IMathAS docs references a not new enough version of PHP, some ened arounds in WeBWorK for missing perl modules and other things. Numbas was, as mentioned before, the most difficult (a lot likely because of my weakness in python and no experience in django).

For all this set up, I was able to find solutions relatively easily in the software support forms, but more typically, by googling the error and adding ubuntu to the results — https://askubuntu.com/ was the usual source, but I found other answers in Digital Ocean docs, other stackexchanges, blogs, well, just all over the place.

I’m pleased to have gotten all three applications running without having deep experience in them and being minimal on doing sysadmin stuff. I bet a lot of things I ran into would be second nature to most pros (like I can wend my way around WordPress) but it was not too much of a stretch to find answers.

And just for fun, for testing one packages SCORM exports, I even managed t install moodle (I have to admit, that was the easiest).

Thanks Clint for trusting I could do this. I’m not about to look for sysadmin work, but I did pick up a lot of insight and tips along the way. In this matter, it’s almost better not knowing everything before diving into a project, it leaves room for brain stretching.

And that is where I am hanging up my sysadmin shoes. Unless there is a reprise needed for the flick Under Siege 3: The Bad Permissions.

Featured Image: Based on File:Penguin Admin.svg shared into the public domain using Creative Commons CC0, I inserted the screenshot of the test web site, and put in the background a screenshot of my own terminal doing some unsophisticated directory listing.

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. WeBWorK is actually a product from my humble institution’s Math Dept. (now since widened into a much larger Internet/Higher Ed enterprise) Mike Gage and Arnold Pizer kicked that project into gear back around 1995 or so. Been going ever since.

  2. Hey, if Groom can parlay googling into a full-on professional sysadmin role, you can do it! Keeping that server and the various bits of kit running on it patched and secure could be fun…

  3. Heck, if only every sysadmin I worked with was half as able and amenable (“er, I know we never talked about installing Moodle and testing a – gulp – SCORM package, but….”) as you were for these past few months. And not only did you get everything up and running, you documented everything like a machine. Thanks for making this part of the project go a lot smoother.

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