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Farewell MathLAN Web Server (#984)

Topics/tags: Miscellaneous, technology

The MathLAN Web server [1] was the first Web server on campus. It was created before I arrived at Grinnell. Knowing our SysAdmin, it probably existed within a year or two of the initial creation of the World Wide Web. I don’t like to lose that bit of history. It’s also been an important force on campus; it was the first place that Grinnellians [2] could play with building Web pages, then the first place the Grinnellians could play with building database-backed Web pages, then the first place Grinnellians could play with building more complex Web services, and then, once again, the only place in which people could create their personal sites [3,4].

Last year, ITS decided to decommission the MathLAN Web Server (or at least many of the primary uses of the MathLAN Web Server). In many ways, the decision was reasonable; while serving pages from home directories made sense two decades ago, it is now clearly a security risk. Unfortunately, the risk has gotten worse of late, not least because updates to our Drupal server often get delayed [5].

So, over the next [fill in period of time] [6], we’ll be moving our personal Web areas to separate servers. For example, the page you previously found at will soon be found at More importantly, the files that used to live in /home/rebelsky/public_html on the MathLAN file server will soon live on a separate machine. More importantly, files that are not in my public_html directory won’t be accessible to the Web server.

As I suggested, putting our Web areas on a separate machine makes sense; that way, even if someone breaks in through a Web page, they can’t access other files in our home directories or files in other people’s directories. I’m less certain about the transition to separate servers for each person. It does keep the system more secure; if someone can break in through, say, a student account, they still can’t access my Web files.

What about the departmental pages that live on the MathLAN Web server? As far as I know, what is happening with them is still to be determined. We’ll likely move the documentation of the museum collection to Islandora or some other College site designed for archiving. But the information about the department and such? I have no clue. We discussed putting it on the primary site, but I’m not sure how Communications would feel about that, and what arrangements we could make to ensure that the department can make timely updates. It may be that we retain as a separate server but only use it for CS department pages. In any case, I’m assuming that ITS, Communications, and CS will be able to figure out some direction forward.

As I said, I still don’t understand all of the details of what happens next, even with individual sites. For example, while I know what’s happening with the individual sites, I don’t know what will happen when we want to teach students how to create their sites with raw HTML and CSS. Having students create Web pages in class used to be a five-minute task: Create a public_html directory, change permissions, copy this HTML file, open it in your Web browser, make some changes to the file, observe that the changes show up, create your own. Now we’re going to have to have them transfer files over to a separate server. It’s not as easy and not as natural. And students might even have to configure their servers. Bleh. Doing Web development in class will also have to be a less spur-of-the-moment activity since I expect that the sites will need to be set up in advance [7].

You might say that almost no one creates raw HTML pages anymore. And, if you said that, you would be correct. But our goal is not for people to build Web pages. Rather, it’s for students to understand the underlying technologies, such as the hierarchical structure of Web pages or the separation between content and appearance that CSS supports. We want the students to understand these issues so that they can build programs that build or analyze Web pages. So having them run their own servers is tangential to our learning goals.

I’m hoping that having separates sites and giving students more administrative control may provide some advantages, at least for some situations. Nonetheless, I’m glad that I have spring semester to figure things out before I teach this stuff next Fall.

It makes me sad to know that the server is going away, at least in the sense I think of it. Farewell, MathLAN Web Server. You supported a great deal of learning. You shall be missed.

Postscript: Adjusting to the change in URLs and infrastructure is likely to require a significant amount of work on my part. I’ll report on that in a subsequent musing.

[1] More precisely, the original

[2] Students, faculty, and staff.

[3] I’ve written about that issue in an earlier musing.

[4] These days, is helping pick up that role again.

[5] It’s not clear where that responsibility lies. Some of the delay has to do with department inattention, but some also belongs in ITS.

[6] The time frame is not clear. I understood that it would happen over winter break. But there’s only one week of Winter break left, and we have not yet had the opportunity to play with even a test site.

[7] Students may already have sites. However, those will often be WordPress sites and may even serve as student portfolios. The raw HTML experimentation should happen elsewhere.

Version 1.0 of 2020-01-12.