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Cloudways Can Help in Managing Cloud Providers like DigitalOcean Effectively – An Interview with Sysadmin, Mattias Geniar

Published on September 16, 2019 - Content Updated on

7 Min Read
Mattias Geniar

In our interview with Mattias Geniar – a developer, Sysadmin, blogger, podcaster, and a public speaker – at par, we had the opportunity to get his insights on server management. Mattias is passionate about coding and we asked him about his GitHub contributions, podcast experience, and the two applications that he has developed through trial and testing.

Here are the highlights of the interview:

Cloudways: Let’s start with a traditional question. Please tell us a bit about yourself. How did it all begin? Who motivated and inspired you to be who you are today?

Mattias: Hi Cloudways! I’m Mattias. I consider myself to be a developer first, and a (Linux) sysadmin second. I learned to program in PHP when I was 14-15 years old. My first project was a website that allowed us to exchange homework at school. I loved spending all my time coding, just to avoid having to do the homework (If I had just done my homework, I’d have a lot more free time!).

That’s when I got the bug: you can automate anything you want by writing code. I guess I never really stopped writing code since then.

Cloudways: When I first met you on Twitter, I saw that you have built two interesting applications; OhDear and DNS Spy. How did those two ideas come to you? Who is Freek Van der Herten and where did you guys first met?

Mattias: The first project I started was DNS Spy, back in 2017. It came from a personal need. Perhaps some quick background info: I worked as a sysadmin at a large hosting firm, so we were managing the servers that ran thousands of websites.

I wanted to know when a website’s DNS would change, it would inform me of two things;

  1. When we were waiting for a client to start migrating to us, seeing the DNS change instantly allowed us to quickly follow-up if everything went OK (and if all DNS records were modified, perhaps one or two got skipped).
  2. If a client migrates away from us, we might not immediately notice – the site remains online (and it’s usually the exact same site), but the DNS just points to a competitor.

That tool existed for my personal use since around 2010. It was one of the first tools I ever built for myself. But, around 2017, Laravel – the popular PHP framework – released a tool that changed everything for me: Laravel Spark. Spark is a framework on top of Laravel, that included invoicing, handling online payments, a user-account system, lost password functionality, … it basically included everything I didn’t want to build myself for a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) project.

I rebuilt my tool in Spark and launched it three months later. Suddenly, I could accept monthly online payments with very little effort on my part.

OhDear! started a year later, when I got frustrated with the current monitoring tools out there. Pingdom is expensive, Uptime Robot didn’t have all the features I wanted, … so I reached out to Freek, who I hadn’t really met before, but I knew him from online communities, Twitter, his Laravel exposure, …

We basically got together for beers, brainstormed the idea – back then Dries Vints was also part of the Oh Dear! crew, but he had to leave for personal reasons – and a few months later we had our first beta version online. This was also built on Spark, so we could focus on our core service, not worry about the online payment/invoicing part.

Cloudways: OhDear looks like an amazing tool that can be whitelabled to web hosting companies. Are you doing it already or have plans to do it in the future? How DNSSpy works and how it can help the end user?

Mattias:We have quite a few Oh Dear! clients that do some kind of whitelabeling of our service to their clients. We do uptime monitoring and broken link checking. We have noticed that many of our clients appreciate the broken links so they can inform their clients on what needs fixing. It’s also an upselling method for them, to prove that a website needs continued maintenance – otherwise, it breaks down.

DNS Spy is a different beast. It’s very niche, has fewer customers and attracts a very specific customer base that is interested in security or low-level monitoring. Not everyone understands DNS (or what can break if it doesn’t work).

Cloudways: You Twitter handle says, “/sys/admin”. How do you think sysadmin role has changed in the past 10 years? What are 5 do’s and don’ts for a sysadmin that you recommend?

Mattias:There’s clearly a much bigger focus on automation. A “sysadmin” will always try to automate his tasks, but in the last 5-ish years there’s more standardization around that. Things like Ansible, Puppet, Chef, etc. have given us frameworks to structure our code and tools. It’s introduced developer-methodologies like code review, Agile/Scrum, PRs, etc. A lot of progress has been made in this regard.

For many sysadmins without a dev background, it’s all become more complicated, I feel. On the plus side, as the sysadmin task becomes more and more dev-focussed, we finally start to speak the same language as the users we support. It’s easier to communicate if we share the same languages, naming schemes and methods.

Cloudways: How do you think of server management tools like cPanel or Plesk? Don’t you think that they are antiquated and there is a huge opportunity for companies that can build modern control panel? If you were the owner of these two products, what change would you have done?

Mattias: It’s true that they’ve been around for a long time, ever iterating on their previous set of features. There’s always room for improvement, of course. I think if I were to start one myself, a couple of missing features would be along the lines of:

– Easier deployment of PHP applications (this is something we often see third party tools being used to deploy standard Symfony/Zend/Laravel applications)

– Built-in application monitoring, both for website availability as error/exception tracking

But at this point, both Plesk and cPanel have become a kind-of standard for “normal” user control panels. I wouldn’t put too much focus there, but aim for a niche group of developers where you can tailor to their needs.

Cloudways: Besides being a sysadmin, you are a blogger, podcaster and public speaker. How do you do all these things? Are you a superhuman?

Mattias: Hehe I learned about my breaking point a few months ago. 🙂

I was doing too many things at once and had to make a choice. Keep working 24/7 or take some time off and prioritize things. Fast-forward to today, and I’ve quit my sysadmin day job to focus full-time on Oh Dear! and DNS Spy. It became too much to combine, and burnout was imminent, not to mention the burden on my family with me always working and never really being home.

Cloudways: What are some other podcasts/podcasters do you really like and why? As a public speaker, what was your last talk about? And where will be you speaking next and on what topic?

Mattias: Most of the podcasts I listen to are tech- or business-focussed. I love the Accidental Tech Podcast (Apple/tech in general) and the What Bitcoin Did podcast (which is, you guessed it, about Bitcoin and its adoption). Next, to that, I have a list of 20+ podcasts feed including Reply All, What Grinds my Gears, Stephan Livera, Startup, Hello Internet, Cyber, Nerdland (Dutch), etc.

In terms of public speaking, I’ll be at the Full Stack Europe (Antwerp) conference in October to talk about how we – as sysadmins – debug applications (using native Linux tools). I’m very much looking forward to that one!

Cloudways: What are some of the most interesting people you have met in your life who have helped you with inspiration and elevated you in your career?

Mattias: In terms of inspiration, I can think of these two that have influenced me the most recently. They’ve shown what you can do on your own and what you can achieve.

But over the last 10 years, a lot of people have shaped and influenced me, too many to name really.

Cloudways: What are some of your favorite self-built opensource projects? And what are some projects that you really liked on Github recently by other contributors?

Mattias: One of the projects I’m most proud of are my Varnish templates. They’re being used all over the world, and now power some of the most high-profile and high-traffic websites. It’s a super niche piece of software, with great impact.

I also like my mailing list aggregator at mojah.be (focussed in bitcoin-related tech mailing lists) and my collection of PHP exploit code found on servers.

I don’t really pay a lot of attention to other contributors. I have the tendency to want to get involved in every project I see and I need to protect myself from that urge. 🙂

Cloudways: I have read your blog, ‘I forgot how to manage a server’ in which you shared your experience with DigitalOcean servers. Do you think solutions like Cloudways can help in managing cloud providers like DigitalOcean effectively?

Mattias: Absolutely, but the same pitfalls remain. We need easy-to-use tools to manage our servers. As a result, many of us will forget what the low-level tools or technologies are.

Then again, how many of us write our own TCP-packets? We don’t, because it’s abstracted away. If server management can become a commodity much like the internet is, we’ll have more creative freedom to create the applications that actually matter.

Cloudways: How do you see the evolution of Debian from 8 to 9 to 10? What will be the future of Debian as a Linux operating system?

Mattias: Hmm I can’t really answer this, I’ve been deep into the RHEL/CentOS ecosystem in the last years and haven’t really worked on Debian (yet).

Cloudways: What tools and processes form your workflows? Also, what apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?

Mattias: In terms of tools: I work on a Macbook Pro, basically live in iTerm or Visual Studio Code (my preferred PHP editor) and a browser. I could probably just as easily work on a Chromebook, given the limited tools I actually use. 🙂

Cloudways: How do you keep track of what you have to do? And how do you recharge yourself?

Mattias: I track my todo’s in Github. Every project I work on lives there (in private repos) so I can use the issue tracker to note down ideas, bugs I encountered, various tidbits.

As for recharging: I have no idea yet. I haven’t really recharged in the last 10-ish years. It’s a skill I’m going to have to learn now.

Cloudways: What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?

Mattias: Currently reading The 4 Hour Body. Not far in yet – can’t say much of it really – but I’m hoping it might get me to eat healthier. Before that, I really enjoyed The Bitcoin StandardThe Internet of Money, Mastering Bitcoin and The 4 Hour Workweek.

Cloudways: Can you share a pic of your work desk?

Mattias Geniar Desk

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Salman Saleem

Salman is a software engineering graduate and digital marketer by profession. He works as a Digital Marketer Strategist at Cloudways. He loves to create value for the Startup community & help entrepreneur reach their goal. He is a big fan of cricket and does play AAA games in his free time.

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