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March 16, 2017

What is Always On SSL (AOSSL)?

By Ross Gerring

Always On SSL, or AOSSL for short, is the practice of ensuring that all pages of a website are always forced (in a nice way!) to be using an SSL certificate.

Q. How do you know that a web page is using an SSL certificate?

The closed padlock, the word ‘Secure’, and https instead of http, show that this page is secure. This should be visible in the address bar of your web browser.

The closed padlock and the word 'Secure' shows that this page is secure

 

 

 

Q. How you know that a web page is NOT using an SSL certificate?

The words ‘Not secure’ show that an SSL certificate is not in use. You may also see http and not https. You may also see an open padlock, not a closed one.

The words 'Not secure' prove that an SSL certificates is not in use.

 

 

 

Q. What does “secure” actually mean?

It means that information you’re supplying to a website is completed encrypted, and not visible/readable in plain text to anyone who might be snooping (maliciously or otherwise) on the data being exchanged. You are exchanging data with a website when, for example when you are:

  1. Filling in a “Contact Us” form.
  2. Logging in to a members-only area.
  3. Buying something, i.e. an e-commerce transaction.

When you are exchanging data with a web page, your data is actually travelling across multiple computer networks, with multiple owners of those networks. At an absolute minimum, there’s the owner of your internet connection (i.e. your ISP), plus there’s the data centre where the website is being hosted. In other words, there are lots and lots of touch points between your data and the destination website (hosting server), and therefore multiple potential points where someone – if they really wanted to – could attempt to capture, store and read your data.

Q. How does a web developer force a website to be always-on SSL (AOSSL)?

Here’s a test: try to visit http://google.com.au. What happens? The URL should get automatically changed to https://www.google.com.au (or possibly a local country version of Google, e.g. google.com or google.co.uk). The page went from not secure, to secure. Note 2 things:

  1. http got changed to https
  2. google.com.au got changed to www.google.com.au. See http://www.yes-www.org/why-use-www/ for information about this.

You (the visitor) went to visit the website on a non-secure (http) connection, and you got automatically redirected to the https version. And it doesn’t matter what Google web page you visit, you’ll (almost certainly!) get auto-redirected to the https version if you initially attempted to visit the http version.

OK, from a website developer perspective, what we do is:

  1. Ensure that the website actually has a valid SSL certificate associated with it in the first place. The great news here is that there’s no longer any excuse for a website to be without an SSL certificate, because some SSLs are now free: http://www.itomic.com.au/tag/free-ssl/.
  2. Add some code to your website which detects if the site is being visited on an http URL, and auto-redirects it to the https equivalent page. Getting more technical, we typically use a thing called a 301 redirect.

Q. Why not just ensure that the pages where information might be exchanged (e.g. a ‘Contact Us’ page) are using the SSL certificate, and not the others?

Two reasons:

  1. Too hard to maintain. It’s technically easier to ensure that all web pages on a website are using the SSL cert, and not just some of them.
  2. Google is actively preferring websites that always have SSL protection, versus those that don’t. Which means that, all other things being equal, a website with SSL protection will rank more highly than one that doesn’t.

Q. Why are sites only now getting on the SSL bandwagon? If all the above is true, surely all sites should have been AOSSL as standard, years ago?

  1. Until the relatively recent advent of free SSL certificates, purchasing an SSL for your website used to be a relatively expensive exercise, especially for small businesses. Therefore many have opted not to bother.
  2. Many websites – even some big ones – offer little or no functional opportunity for a visitor to supply any information. Or if they do, then the information being exchanged is considered to be of low confidentiality or sensitivity, i.e. relative to, say, credit card information.
  3. Google has recently (2016/17) ramping up the pressure to increase security on the web, and one of the ways they can do this is to strongly encourage AOSSL websites by methods that have been identified above.

Q. How do I check if my website currently has an SSL certificate?

Our favourite tool is: https://www.sslshopper.com/ssl-checker.html#hostname=www.itomic.com.au. Look for all ticks, and no crosses, of course.

Q. My website appears to have an SSL certificate, but isn’t auto-redirecting visitors to the https version. Why not?

It’s one thing for your website to have an SSL certificate available, it’s another for your site to be actually making use of it. That’s where you website developer comes in handy, see below.

Q. How do I get my website to have AOSSL?

Speak with your website developer and/or website hosting company. Don’t forget to remind them that SSL certificates can now be acquired at no cost! That said, note that it’s reasonable for a web developer to charge a small fee to make AOSSL happen on your site, given that skilled labour is required. Itomic does.


March 3, 2017

Itomic en-route to Transform 2017

Itomic is headed to transform 2017 in March to sharpen our senses and stay on top of the upcoming trends in Australian government digital services. http://www.webdirections.org/transform/

Transform2017_Itomic

It’s a 2 day conference focused on the business of transforming and (obviously!) improving the delivery of government services, principally by digital means. The venue is the prestigious National Museum of Australia, with workshops and presentations on March 29th and 30th, 2017.

We are attending for two main reasons:

  1. Itomic is privileged to work with a number of government clients, some of whom no doubt we’ll enjoy meeting at the conference. It’s our interest and opportunity to keep bang up-to-date with all the latest ideas, trends, initiatives, challenges, etc. that are impacting, or will, impact our friends in government.
  2. We’re taking the side opportunity for a mini “Itomic retreat” in Canberra. Key personnel from our Perth and Melbourne offices will be there to strategise Itomic’s performance and direction, both independently from, and including, what we learn from the conference.

Speakers are both domestic and international, including:

  • Ben Holliday, lead designer for the UK’s largest government department, the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP)
  • Dan Sheldon, technology consultant, and author of the “Self-Harm Playbook” (how IT in government tends to self-harm!)
  • Ariel Kennan, Director of Design and Product at the NYC Mayor’s office.

All these speakers know that digital transformation in the modern age is necessarily an ongoing process. It’s never “set and forget”. The more we can all get this message out there, the better.

Are you in government, or a service provider to government, like Itomic? As the website says, “Transform is designed for everyone involved in government transformation: service designers, Web designers, front end developers, product owners, product designers, UX experts, user researchers, web, interaction designers, agile and transformation coaches in all levels of government, and independent professionals and agencies who work with them.

We hope to see you there!


October 7, 2016

Itomic Offers Free SSL Certificates for Life to all Website Hosting Clients

By Ross Gerring

Let's Encrypt LogoItomic is very pleased to announce that we are now supplying free SSL certificates to the owners of all new websites that we develop and host. And for all existing clients, we’ll be offering the same over the coming months.

We strongly recommend that all websites have an SSL certificate, as explained in our still-valid 2014 article “Does your website need an SSL Certificate?”.

How are free SSL certificates possible?

Two stars have aligned:

  1. ‘Let’s Encrypt’: genuine, industry-standard SSL certificates for $0.
  2. Automation: the certificates self-validate and self-install, so we anticipate minimal involvement from Itomic. Let’s Encrypt certificates are issued for 90 days, and automation ensure that certificates are reissued every 90 days.

Let’s Encrypt SSL certificates are provided by the Internet Security Research Group (ISRG). This group is sponsored by many big players including Cisco, Facebook, Google Chrome, Mozilla and Shopify. It recognised that a) online security is very important, and b) putting a price tag on security will naturally put SSL certificates out of reach for some. You can read more about the how and why here: https://letsencrypt.org/about/.

ISRG has worked hard to ensure that the process of validating and installing the certificates is 100% automated. (author’s note: I’ve been hands-on with SSL validation and installation since about 1998, and it’s always been prone to error, human and machine. It’s been one of my least favourite tasks over the years!). Luckily for us and our clients, the hosting platform that powers all our hosting servers, cPanel & WHM, has integrated their software with the Let’s Encrypt service. They call it AutoSSL. So we are now able to enable this service for our clients.

Are there any catches?

For existing Itomic clients wishing to have this service enabled, you’ll need to have an active service & support contract with a minimum balance of 3 hours of labour. In the unlikely event of any technical issues associated with the SSL installation and configuration, this allows us to attend to these issues without delay. If you don’t have an active service & support contract with Itomic, just ask!

What if my site already has a current, paid, SSL certificate?

A Let’s Encrypt SSL cert will automatically replace your existing certificate shortly after it reaches 3 days to expiry. Your existing paid SSL will be absolutely fine and unaffected until then. If you wish to continue paying for your SSL certificate – and some organisations will (more on that below) – then we will continue to offer this service as before.

Are these free SSL certificates as secure as the paid ones?

They provide identical levels of encryption to the paid ones, and therefore will be suitable for the vast majority of our clients.

It’s important to note the difference between encryption and authentication. A Let’s Encrypt SSL certificate provides a website with genuine, industry standard encryption, but it does not authenticate that the organisation using the encryption is who they say they are.

Let’s Encrypt supplies a type of SSL certificate known as Domain Validated (DV) certificate. This validates that the domain name is registered, and someone with admin rights (in this case Itomic) is aware of and approves the certificate request. No official proof (authentication) of your entity’s official registration is required, e.g. that your organisation has an ABN number, as all recognised entities have here in Australia.

If you evaluate that your website needs to display a higher level of authentication (e.g. because you’re a large high-profile organisation, government department, etc.), then you need an OV (organisation validated) or an EV (extended validation) certificate. These types you have to pay for, not least because of the additional manual overhead in acquiring and installing them. Note that, just because a website is using an OV or EV certificate, it doesn’t guarantee that the organisation behind it is reputable, or handles your data securely or responsibly after receipt, or that the website hasn’t been hacked.

For more information on the different types of SSL certificate: https://support.dnsimple.com/articles/ssl-certificates-types/

Does an SSL certificate (Let’s Encrypt or otherwise) make a website ‘secure’?

Only in the sense that it guarantees that data being transferred between your device (e.g. desktop PC, tablet, etc.) and the hosting server is fully encrypted. This means that it’s extraordinarily unlikely to be unencrypted and read by a 3rd party. An SSL cert is only a single component of a comprehensive data security strategy. Other components include, for example, ensuring that your website and web server is regularly updated with the latest recommended security patches.

My site is basic, with no e-commerce. Do I even need an SSL certificate, free or otherwise?

  • Many basic sites have a backend admin area for the purpose of managing the content on your site. It’s better to login to this section of your site using a secure (encrypted) connection, than a non-encrypted one.
  • Google prefers sites with SSL protection. All other things being equal, your website will rank more highly in a Google search if it has an SSL certificate, compared with one that doesn’t, i.e. it’s better for SEO (search engine optimisation).

Will Let’s Encrypt issue wildcard certificates?

Currently no, but it is a possibility in the future. Thanks to Let’s Encrypt, wildcards certificates are no longer necessary for the vast majority of websites because it’s easy to get and manage free certificates for all subdomains. Prior to Let’s Encrypt, Itomic always recommended wildcard SSL certificates over single SSL certificates so that the same certificate could protect all subdomains without having to purchase additional single SSL certificates per subdomain.

Are other SSL Providers getting on the free SSL bandwagon?

Yes, they’ve got no choice, e.g. https://ssl.comodo.com/free-ssl-certificate.php. We’ve chosen Let’s Encrypt because they are clearly the first movers and leaders in this field. We want to acknowledge and reward them for their efforts.

Remember that an enormous amount of money has been made over the years by companies who issue SSL certificates. There are some major vested interests who’d prefer to hold back the tide as long as possible.

Why aren’t all hosting companies offering these free SSL certificates?

We assume that, eventually, all hosting companies will. In the meantime, it’s just a question of hosting companies satisfying themselves, like we have, that this service is a) good and b) here to stay. Then they have to ensure that they have the administrative and technical systems and procedures in place to support them.

OK, so my website has now got an SSL certificate. Why is it still showing http and not https (with the padlock symbol) in my browser?

If a website has an SSL certificate installed, it’s only actively being used when either:

  1. You directly visit the https version of the site, and not the http version, OR
  2. You directly visit the http version, and the site or hosting account has been programmed to automatically redirect the visitor to the https version.

When Itomic initially installs the SSL certificate on your site, #1 will apply. Over time (no desperate hurry!), we will work with our clients to ensure that #2 applies as standard.

I’m still unsure about whether or not I should pay for SSL certificates (OV or EV) in the future, as I’ve done in the past.

  • As previously mentioned, government departments and larger, high profile business may decide that they wish to demonstrate a higher level of authentication than a DV certificate provides. That’s totally fine by Itomic, we’re happy to oblige.
  • Do your own Google searches to better educate yourself about the pros and cons, and see how others are debating this question.

Still unsure? Ask Itomic!

Further reading:

https://letsencrypt.org/docs/faq/ – FAQs about Let’s Encrypt.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_key_certificate – Wikipedia on SSL certificates and related.

For your interest, below is how a Let’s Encrypt SSL certificate presents to a web browser, using our Itomic’s own site https://www.drupalise.com.au as an example:

Let's Encrypt SSL certificate for Drupalise


June 20, 2016

Mobile-friendly. What does it mean?

By Ross Gerring

Mobile-friendly means that a site retains good design principles and functionality (i.e. usability), irrespective of the device being used to view and interact with it. “Device” typically means desktop PC, tablet, or smartphone.

City of Fremantle website is mobile-friendly

Itomic’s site for the City of Fremantle is mobile-friendly

In industry lingo, a mobile-friendly site is known as a responsive site.

Not that many years ago, before smartphones and tables were widespread, responsive sites were a nice-to-have. Today, mobile-friendly sites are standard, unless there’s a special reason why the target audience(s) will only ever interact with a site on, say, a desktop PC. (side-note: more effort is required to build mobile-friendly sites than desktop-friendly-only sites, but that’s another article).

Why go mobile-friendly?

  1. Because the world is (still) going mobile. Despite recent evidence that smartphone ownership has reached peak levels in key markets worldwide, people are still trending towards using and preferring their mobile devices, over their less-mobile desktops, to consume digital content.
  2. Because Google searches are increasingly preferring sites that are responsive over sites that are not. And in the never-ending battle to get your site found ahead of your competition, every little bit helps.

How does Google decide if a web page is responsive or not?

From Google’s own blog post on the subject, a mobile-friendly site exhibits the following characteristics:

  • Avoids software that is not common on mobile devices, like Flash.
  • Uses text that is readable without zooming.
  • Sizes content to the screen so users don’t have to scroll horizontally or zoom.
  • Places links far enough apart so that the correct one can be easily tapped.

If working out the above for yourself sounds too hard – never fear! Google offers up more information about, and tests for, responsive sites in the same blog post: https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2014/11/helping-users-find-mobile-friendly-pages.html.

How to make your site mobile-friendly?

If it’s determined that your site is not responsive, or “could do better”, then what next? In the first instance. have a conversation about it with your preferred web developer/consultant. Depending on how old your site is, and/or what technologies it’s built with, it may be more economical to rebuild your site from scratch than it is to improve it, or retro-fit it, to be responsive. By all means get a second or 3rd opinion if you’re not convinced by the first one or two.


June 8, 2016

Laravel – what is it, and why Itomic has embraced it

By Ross Gerring

Itomic has embraced Laravel because CMS’s like Drupal and WordPress can’t do everything.Drupal v WordPress logos

Itomic was founded in 2000 when quality, affordable CMS were literally non-existent. So in common with other web agencies, we built our own. It was (and still is!) very popular. It’s called Nucleus, and although it’s built using open source technology (Zend Framework) it’s essentially a home-grown solution. Which means that although non-Itomic developers can work on it without restriction, they would definitely prefer not to, because the initial learning curve would be quite steep, and there’s no broader community of developers to assist or support them.

We could see the writing on the wall for Nucleus when Drupal and WordPress really started to mature into high quality – and free – CMS. A very hard combination to compete against! If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em…. so Itomic rapidly became Drupal and WordPress experts.

Drupal and WordPress are excellent at helping non-technical people to manage content (text, graphics, etc.) on their sites. They are, after all, content management systems! Furthermore, their functionality can be extended in a myriad of different and sometimes amazing ways through configurable add-on software (also known as plug-ins or modules) and/or custom-coding. But the fact remains that, first and foremost, they are content management systems.

We’ve always prided ourselves on being the company that is more technically capable than your average web agency. When your average agency says “too hard”, we say “bring it on”. Great attitude, but sometimes this means that we’ve had to battle and bend a CMS a bit too far outside of what it was primarily designed to do. Sure, such customisations are fully-integrated into an existing CMS website which is a definitely “a good thing”. But the downside is that the time and cost to achieve and maintain such outcomes is sometimes too great.

We knew there had to be a better way.

Enter Laravel.

What is Laravel?

Let’s start with the Laravel Philosophy in full:Laravel logo

Laravel is a web application framework with expressive, elegant syntax. We believe development must be an enjoyable, creative experience to be truly fulfilling. Laravel attempts to take the pain out of development by easing common tasks used in the majority of web projects, such as authentication, routing, sessions, and caching.

Laravel aims to make the development process a pleasing one for the developer without sacrificing application functionality. Happy developers make the best code. To this end, we’ve attempted to combine the very best of what we have seen in other web frameworks, including frameworks implemented in other languages, such as Ruby on Rails, ASP.NET MVC, and Sinatra.

Laravel is accessible, yet powerful, providing powerful tools needed for large, robust applications. A superb inversion of control container, expressive migration system, and tightly integrated unit testing support give you the tools you need to build any application with which you are tasked.”

A web application framework is a faster, more flexible way of building highly custom (“bespoke“) web-based software projects. It’s a “looser” construct than a CMS, but not as loose as the programming or scripting language in which it is written, which in Laravel’s case is PHP.

Laravel isn’t a CMS, and a CMS isn’t a framework, but:

  1. Drupal sits somewhere in between a CMS and framework by sometimes calling itself a CMF: a content management framework. This is in recognition of the higher-than-average opportunity to more heavily customise it relative to other CMS.
  2. A CMS can – and often is – built using frameworks such as Laravel. For example, two CMS built with Laravel are October and AsgardCms. And the latest version of Drupal – version 8 – has Symfony at its core. Which framework an application is built with is transparent to the end users.
  3. A framework can be built from a framework! Indeed Laravel itself has some Symfony components at its core.

When to use a CMS, and when to use a framework?

When the core of what you want to achieve online is all about the efficient, easy, management of online content (text, graphics, etc.), perhaps by multiple authors, then you should start your project – but not necessarily finish it – with a CMS like Drupal or WordPress. Conversely, where content management is not the core deliverable, then you should consider going down the framework path. But note that this is not a strictly “choose one or the other” scenario. Choosing some blend of both may well be smartest approach. Use a CMS for the content management, and then Laravel or similar for the highly custom components – and integrate the two if relevant. In other words, some projects scream “CMS!”, other projects scream “Framework!”, and there’s lots of grey area in between. Assuming your web developer or web agency is familiar with both, then naturally you should allow yourself to be guided by them. And always get a 2nd or 3rd opinion if unsure.

Why did Itomic choose Laravel?

In the same way we kept an eye on Drupal and WordPress for some years before we jumped on board, so too we’ve been keeping an eye on Laravel. And its time is now, as you can see from the graph below.

Google trends shows the rise in popularity of Laravel
source: Google Trends Jan 2004 – May 2016. Click on graph to see the latest trends.

 

More specifically:

  1. We really enjoy creating amazing online solutions, and Laravel gives us the opportunity to break free of the constraints that Drupal and WordPress necessarily impose.
  2. Laravel is indeed a pleasure to work with. It’s been built by developers, for developers. As the Laravel Philosophy states, happy developers make the best code, and the best code will result in better business outcomes.
  3. Laravel is extremely well supported & documented, including some of the most professional online tutorials for developers we’ve ever seen over at Laracasts.

Will Itomic continue to build and support Drupal & WordPress?

Of course! For the foreseeable future, CMS-driven websites will be the principal online representations of organisations. We see our adoption of Laravel as highly complementary (not competitive) to the business of building and supporting CMS websites.

What has Itomic achieved with Laravel (so far)?

Some examples:

  1. We’ve nearly finished building our own CRM for Itomic. It will allow us to provide an enhanced, more customised service for our valued clients.
  2. We’ve built a system to help manage the distribution of early learning books and resources to new parents in Western Australia.
  3. We’re building a large, flexible product database for a major Australian car parts manufacturer.
  4. We’re putting the finishing touches to a virtual tour management system for a major new hospital.
  5. We’re about to start rebuilding, in Laravel, an aging website directory service that we originally built in Drupal 6. Today, Laravel is the optimal choice.

In summary

One of the most over-used phrases in IT is “we’re excited”. But we really, really are 🙂 . With Laravel we’ve a new-found freedom to innovate for our clients and ourselves.

Want to talk web applications and Laravel? Call us, 24/7, on 1300 ITOMIC, or +61 8 6210 1364 if outside Australia. Or contact us via our website.