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Make Your Computer a Web Server or Development Machine in Under 10 Minutes

The first web server

When you learn, or develop for, web browser-based technologies, such as HTML, CSS, or Javascript, a couple of things are true: first, you don’t need anything beyond a web browser and a text editor; and second, your learning curve usually happens on your machine. No one else sees your hideous progeny until you’re happy with it, or at least are ready for criticism.

But if you’re learning or designing for or developing any of the newer server-based technologies, such as (to pick two wholly at random) WordPress (ProfHacker on WordPress) or Omeka (ProfHacker on Omeka), things are a little different. First, the software’s server-based, so you need a webserver. (Blogging pro tip: always start with the low-hanging fruit!) And since most people don’t have servers set up on their machines, it feels as though all the learning takes place in public. That can be intimidating. Maybe you want to use Omeka for a genuinely private collection, and you aren’t comfortable having it be online at all.

Or maybe you have a blog, and you want to try a new plugin (or write one!) or theme. Only the foolhardy install new plugins–especially ones that change the reader or author experience of a site–on a live setup. Any plugin can seem innocuous, but until you’ve seen it interact with your content, and with the other plugins you’ve installed, you’re taking a risk.

What you need is a development machine: a computer, such as the desktop or laptop you already use, that has a web server installed locally. Once you have that, you can install WordPress or Omeka or what-have-you, and experiment away with it, all from the privacy of your own hard drive. You can mirror your online content on your local server, and make sure you thoroughly understand the consequences of installing the IHeartMalware plugin.

What you need, in short, is XAMPP, a cross-platform (Windows, OS X, Linux) distribution of open-source technologies that makes setting up your own production server trivially easy. (X = cross-platform; A = Apache server software ; M = MySQL ; P = PHP ; P = Perl.) How easy is XAMPP to use? This easy:

Twitter Screengrab

There are, basically, four steps to using XAMPP:

  • Go to the XAMPP page of the Apachefriends website.
  • Click on the link for your operating system and download the distribution package.
  • Install the software exactly the same way you install anything else from the internet: Double-click the distribution package and let the installer do its thing.
  • Launch XAMPP.

There are a variety of screencasts on YouTube of people installing XAMPP–here’s one about installing, and here’s one about fiddling with the configuration.

Once you have XAMPP installed, it’s super-easy to install WordPress or Omeka. (Here’s a two-parter on WordPress–part 1, part 2, with a bonus 3rd video about mirroring your online blog to the local one. The Omeka folks have a lovely screencast about installation in general. The only issue I had with Omeka was that the folders needed to have their permissions changed, as detailed here in the 4th bullet point under “unsuccessful installation.” ) As Julie has already mentioned, XAMPP can fit on a USB stick, which lets you walk around with the installation to all the different computers or classrooms that you use.

All of which is just to say that while the thought, “I need to set up a local web server so that I can learn about WordPress and Omeka” might sound intimidating or just time-consuming, in fact you’re probably about 7 minutes away from getting it done.

How did you set up your development environment? Or, what’s keeping you from setting one up?

(As the tweet makes clear, I learned about XAMPP’s ease-of-use from former ProfHacker Julie Meloni.)

Image by Flickr user raneko / Creative Commons licensed

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