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malevolent design weblog

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Book Review: Building Scalable Web Sites

Building Scalable Web Sites coverFor the first time in a while I’ve bought a few books, including Building Scalable Web Sites. Cal Henderson’s articles cover some useful topics with pragmatism and attention to detail, and he’s kept Flickr going nicely, so I reckoned I’d probably learn something.

Firstly, I have to say that despite the neutral title, it’s a strongly LAMP-orientated book. Yes, there are valuable principles explained, but if you’re using other technologies then you won’t get anywhere near as much out of it, and all of the examples use PHP and MySQL.

It’s also a book that’s as much about development practices as it is about scalability in particular. It isn’t really until towards the end, with chapters covering bottlenecks, database scaling, monitoring, etc., that it gets into the territory you might expect. Earlier chapters are about source control, Unicode, data integrity, email and remote services, and much of it tenuously relates to the book’s title.

But those ‘off topic’ chapters are mostly really good. For example, nowadays sites do need to be truly Unicode-friendly, yet many developers don’t understand it and PHP still makes life awkward. Devoting a whole chapter to what Unicode is and how it can be used with PHP, MySQL, JavaScript and email makes sense in that context. Similarly, the data integrity chapter provides valuable guidance on validation and filtering to avoid XSS and SQL injection (CSRF isn’t mentioned), including PHP snippets for filtering UTF-8 and markup.

The only chapter that seems way off target is the one about email, which merely covers receiving it into applications when sending it is usually the primary concern. There’s also nothing about tweaking PHP/Apache/MySQL configuration for performance, but that’s about it in terms of grumbles.

A more accurate title might’ve been Building Great LAMP Sites That Scale Well; I’m sure they considered it but didn’t want to crowd the fish on the cover. If you’re a PHP developer then it’s a must-read book, and even experienced coders will spot useful ideas or rethink their approach to something. Have a look at the free sample chapter and see what you think.


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