Virtual Hosts

I’ll never be a server administrator but sometimes I have to get my hands dirty.

When developing a website, there’s always a tricky, slightly nerve wracking, moment when you point an existing domain at the new server and hope that everything resolves correctly. Here are a few simple steps to help you set up and test virtual hosts on Apache when building a website.

How to set up and test a virtual host.

Virtual Host files are small config files which live on your apache server which tell apache which directory to return to the visitor’s web browser. You can have many virtual hosts on a server, all returning different content based on the domain name the user types into their browser.

1) This is where you can find the default virtual host:

2) Make a copy of this file to add a domain name
sudo cp /etc/apache2/sites-available/000-default.conf /etc/apache2/sites-available/

3) Open the file with nano:
sudo nano /etc/apache2/sites-available/

4) Edit the files and save it.

DocumentRoot /var/www/
ErrorLog ${APACHE_LOG_DIR}/error.log
CustomLog ${APACHE_LOG_DIR}/access.log combined

5) Enable the new virtual host file:
sudo a2ensite

6) Restart Apache so the changes kick in:
sudo service apache2 restart

7) Open your local host file:
On your LOCAL machine (NOT your server):
sudo nano /etc/hosts

8) Add an entry for your domain name to test how the server will react upon receiving a request from a particular domain name.
Effectively, copying the way a domain name servers (DNS) works.
Add your servers IP address followed your domain name:

9) Save it!

10) Now you can test how your domain resolves on your server. You might have to restart your browser / clear your cache. Remember to delete this record when you’re ready to point you domain name. So you know when the DNS has updated and the domain name become available to everyone.

DNS Switching

I had a head scratcher earlier tonight. My wife was able to see the website I’d just launched for her, but I wasn’t. There we were, sat on the same sofa using the same wi-fi with the same URL in our web browsers and yet, we were seeing different websites. How come?

I’m not a server administrator so it took a few minutes to realise that it was to do with which DNS servers we were using. When a new website is launched it can take a couple of days for the new IP address to propegate through all the DNS servers around the world. Because the update happened so recently we realised that we were using different DNS servers, one of which had updated and the other which hadn’t.

The solution was surprisingly simple.

Apple > System Preferences > Network > Advanced > DNS

On the left hand side of the screen you’ll see some IP addresses. The IP address at the top is the one that you’re currently using to surf the web. Simply drag another IP from further down the list to the top. Press OK > Apply and refresh your browser to see if things change.

They did for me.

Installing an SSH key

If your developer passes you an SSH bundle containing a couple of files to give you access to a web server.

Don’t panic.

Open terminal type:
open ~/.ssh

drop the files into this directory.

Back in terminal type:
ssh-add ~/.ssh/webSSH

Now you can type: