Tips for developing on a web host that offers only FTP (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Mon, 23 Feb 2015

Tips for developing on a web host that offers only FTP

Generally, when I work on a website, I maintain a local copy of all the files. Ideally, I use version control (git, svn or whatever), but failing that, I use rsync over ssh to keep my files in sync with the web server's files.

But I'm helping with a local nonprofit's website, and the cheap web hosting plan they chose doesn't offer ssh, just ftp.

While I have to question the wisdom of an ISP that insists that its customers use insecure ftp rather than a secure encrypted protocol, that's their problem. My problem is how to keep my files in sync with theirs. And the other folks working on the website aren't developers and are very resistant to the idea of using any version control system, so I have to be careful to check for changed files before modifying anything.

In web searches, I haven't found much written about reasonable workflows on an ftp-only web host. I struggled a lot with scripts calling ncftp or lftp. But then I discovered curftpfs, which makes things much easier.

I put a line in /etc/fstab like this:

curlftpfs#user:password@example.com/ /servername fuse rw,allow_other,noauto,user 0 0

Then all I have to do is type mount /servername and the ftp connection is made automagically. From then on, I can treat it like a (very slow and somewhat limited) filesystem.

Well, that's not quite all I had to do. There are a few other steps. Of course, you have to install curlftpfs (duh). But then you'll also need permission to write the local directory where you're trying to mount. I suggest using group permissions for that:
# chmod 775 /servername
# chgrp adm /servername
and then edit /etc/group and add yourself to the adm group. Unfortunately, that means you'll have to log in again, since /etc/group is only reset on login.

For instance, if I want to rsync, I can

rsync -avn --size-only /servername/subdir/ ~/servername/subdir/
for any particular subdirectory I want to check. A few things to know about this:
  1. I have to use --size-only because timestamps aren't reliable. I'm not sure whether this is a problem with the ftp protocol, or whether this particular ISP's server has problems with its dates. I suspect it's a problem inherent in ftp, because if I ls -l, I see things like this:
    -rw-rw---- 1 root root 7651 Feb 23  2015 guide-geo.php
    -rw-rw---- 1 root root 1801 Feb 14 17:16 guide-header.php
    -rw-rw---- 1 root root 8738 Feb 23  2015 guide-table.php
    
    Note that a file modified a week ago shows a modification time, but files modified today show only a day and year, not a time. I'm not sure what to make of this.
  2. Note the -n flag. I don't automatically rsync from the server to my local directory, because if I have any local changes newer than what's on the server they'd be overwritten. So I check the diffs by hand with tkdiff or meld before copying.
  3. It's important to rsync only the specific directories you're working on. You really don't want to see how long it takes to get the full file tree of a web server recursively over ftp.

How do you change and update files? It is possible to edit the files on the curlftpfs filesystem directly. But at least with emacs, it's incredibly slow: emacs likes to check file modification dates whenever you change anything, and that requires an ftp round-trip so it could be ten or twenty seconds before anything you type actually makes it into the file, with even longer delays any time you save.

So instead, I edit my local copy, and when I'm ready to push to the server, I cp filename /servername/path/to/filename.

Of course, I have aliases and shell functions to make all of this easier to type, especially the long pathnames: I can't rely on autocompletion like I usually would, because autocompleting a file or directory name on /servername requires an ftp round-trip to ls the remote directory.

Oh, and version control? I use a local git repository. Just because the other people working on the website don't want version control is no reason I can't have a record of my own changes.

None of this is as satisfactory as a nice git or svn repository and a good ssh connection. But it's a lot better than struggling with ftp clients every time you need to test a file.

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[ 19:46 Feb 23, 2015    More linux | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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