Dustin Ingram

WritingSpeakingGithub

The backstory

The year is 2005. A friend-of-a-friend’s father has heard that I’m “into” computers, know a thing or two about the internet, and have written some HTML and CSS. He’s an ex-Microsoft guy, who retired (read: cashed out) a couple of years beforehand at the peak and then started a small business supplying alternative energy solutions (solar panels, wind turbines) for use with high-end sailboats. The business is doing great, but the business’ website… not so much.

I get hired to help bring them into the burgeoning world of the World Wide Web – he wants to do keywords, he wants to do Search Engine Optimization, he wants to do mailing lists, he wants to do e-commerce, etc.

Problem number one

The first real problem though, is that the site is pure static HTML, and as such, it’s nearly impossible for anyone to edit who doesn’t know what they’re doing or whose hourly rate isn’t low enough to merit wading through poorly-formatted HTML for an hour just to change a price for a single item. Lucky for them, I fell into both categories, but still, it wasn’t scalable or sustainable to maintain the website this way. As the company inevitable grew larger, it would be harder and harder to add new product or modify existing ones.

Problem number two

The second problem is that even though this guy was a bona-fide “Microsoft Millionaire”, he was one heck of a cheap-skate. His website was hosted on the lowest-tier shared hosting service possible – it barely had enough allotted bandwidth and disk space to serve up the page every month, the only server-side scripting it could do was PHP, and had no option to add a database whatsoever. Basically, if he had to buy domain names by the letter, he’d probably be sitting on “x.com” right now.

I couldn’t convince him to upgrade to a database – their “web budget” was capped out having to pay me. It was probably a good thing, because I was clueless about MySQL (the only RDB that was available, at all, at the time). So, I had to get creative.

A solution, and more problems

AJAX… Stronger than Dirt!

AJAX was the hot buzzword at the time… I had just gotten my Gmail account and everyone was talking about it and how important it would be. I realized that I could store their entire product catalog in individual XML documents save them as static files on the server, and with a little bit of Javascript, pull them down as necessary to create the page.

I quickly wrote a PHP script to handle this “XML database”, as I called it, which handled simple queries for product IDs, categories, etc by literally parsing through every XML file in a organized series of directories, accumulating the relevant documents. The XML fields were easy to update by hand, or by another home-brewed script, and everything worked well, really well. But the performance was bad – really, really bad.

Big-oh-no

As it turns out, doing a linear search across hundreds of XML documents with a PHP script and individually parsing each one takes a non-trivial amount of time. Looking up individual products and their details was quick – each document essentially had a “key”, the file name of that products XML file, which corresponded to the unique product ID. But if it was necessary to do any other type of query – grouping by some detail, for example, everything would grind to a halt.

Even though I didn’t know what a “relational database” was at the time, I figured out that my life would be easier if I could somehow relate or reverse-correlate details to products. So what did I do?

ln -s

Symlink to the rescue! How, you say? Whenever a product’s corresponding XML would be created in the “database”, the db would create the XML file, give it a name identical to the product ID, and store it in a directory. Then it would create a complex secondary directory structure corresponding to the hierarchy of the XML tags, and would place a symlink to the original XML file in corresponding places.

This resulted in almost no increase in disk space at all, but a huge speedup in performance! Everything was blazing fast, AJAX kept the bandwidth to a minimum, and it was incredibly simply to modify details of products and have the changes instantly appear!

And on, and on, and on…

Amazingly enough, my creation continued chugging along, as efficient as ever, through hundreds of products and thousands of edits, for over five years – long enough to witness the “birth” of many well-known document-oriented databases – until the company was eventually sold and the website was folded into a larger parent company.

I still wonder what some poor, hapless developer must have thought when he inherited what I had wrought – probably: “What the….”, and then “rm -rf *”.