February 28, 2008

Open source makes a healthy site for healthy eaters

Author: Tina Gasperson

TheDailyPlate.com (TDP) is a free, online eating journal with a lot of features that make it useful for the health conscious. The site is developed completely in PHP on MySQL, Apache, and Linux. LAMP was a natural choice, the founders say, because so many other Internet companies have experienced success with the now-ubiquitous platform.

TDP helps people keep track of their eating habits by providing nutritional information on thousands of different kinds of food, and provides the calories per hour burned by doing various kinds of exercise. Registered users can create a profile that saves the information they have logged and creates formatted reports to track weight loss and gain or body measurements.

Cofounder Lex Friedman says TDP was born out of his partner's "lifelong obsession with healthiness." TDP cofounder Jeremy Rusnak was previously the founder of Case's Ladder, a popular online gaming league that was eventually sold to now-defunct MySpace.com parent company Intermix Media. In college, Rusnak built a spreadsheet to keep track of the results of games he and his friends played online. "It got too hard to keep the document updated, so he built a Web site. Jeremy was the first of us to build any kind of real substantial site," Friedman says. Rusnak used open source tools "because he was a starving student." But Rusnak's subsequent experience with PHP was that "it worked and it was stable."

Rusnak carried that experience with him to Intermix after the acquisition. There, he met Friedman, a product manager, and Joe Perez, a vice president of product strategy and network management. "We were talking about trying to start something on the side." Friedman wanted to lose weight, Perez wanted to gain weight in a healthy way, and both were trying to keep track of their eating but couldn't find the perfect tool. So the three partnered with each other and set out to create a site "whose real goal is to help people," Friedman says.

There was no question that building the perfect tool for tracking a healthy diet required open source. "It was the repeatedly proven success of things like PHP and MySQL," Friedman says. "So many companies have already used it successfully. Some of the biggest sites out there build in PHP, so you don't have to worry about it; it is tested waters. We saw firsthand at MySpace that it was built in ASP and ColdFusion, and they just couldn't even throw enough hardware at it to make the site stable. This is nothing you really encounter at all on the open source side."

That proven reliability is the biggest benefit to TDP, Friedman says. Granted, the cost is a nice perk, but "we have so much experience and affection for open source, we wouldn't use anything else," he says. "If I was hired somewhere and they said, 'We're migrating to .Net,' I would start looking for a new job. You want to work with what you know and love."

Friedman says the major challenge in developing with open source tools is there's "less of a 'here's the support phone number and here's the full-fledged manual.' You overcome that through the community itself," he says. "If we don't know how to do something, you don't have to ask anybody because the answer's already out there on Google."

Launching an Internet business and hiring developers means "you really have to do your homework ahead of time," Friedman says. "There are huge numbers of people who call themselves PHP programmers online, but there are very few you could call experts." Friedman reminds entrepreneurs that when it comes to building a stable Web site, a scalable infrastructure makes a big difference at crunch time, another area in which TDP's founders learned from MySpace's mistakes. "Build that infrastructure so that the site can get really big and you're not scrambling. We're not all experts in MySQL replication or memcached, but we said, 'Let's build it so that it's ready for heavy traffic from the beginning.' And the site has grown exponentially to 300,000 users since it launched in March 2006. You're not going to be able to sustain that if you're not planning for it from the very beginning."


  • Open Source
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