April 2, 2007

Paranormal portal relies on open source to collect UFO info

Author: Tina Gasperson

The Anomalies Network is a portal for all things paranormal. The site includes mirrors of remote FTP servers, Web archives, and a large discussion forum as part of what Anomalies.net founder Olav Phillips calls a "massive site" that runs on a classic LAMP stack.

Phillips says he has been interested in the paranormal since he was a boy. "When I was seven I lived in Walnut Creek. I was outside playing, and saw a disk in the sky. It was what we now call the 'sportster model.' I don't know if it was extraterrestrial or not, but that started me on a quest." Phillips continued his fascination with UFOs, and in college he combined that passion with a love for technology and started putting together the database that would eventually become Anomalies.net. "I had an incredible number of pages," he says. "It was really large, and I was trying to figure out what to do. Windows machines were incredibly expensive and I couldn't afford it." In college, Phillips discovered Slackware, and started hosting his site on Linux. "I loved it so much, I never went back."

Phillips says Anomalies.net is more than a hobby. He'd love to get to the point where running the site could be a fulltime endeavor. "Colo is expensive, though," he says. So he keeps a day job as an IT manager for Sling Media, the company that sells the Slingbox, an appliance that lets cable subscribers watch television on their computer. "But the Web site encompasses two passions for me," Phillips says. "I get to play with the computer a lot. And I get to have this Web site that helps people understand what they have witnessed. I present the evidence, and say, 'Hey, make up your own mind.' I use open source to leverage that."

Four of Anomalies' five servers run on CentOS. Phillips uses Nutch extensively to help him find more UFO information to mirror and archive, and he uses NucleusCMS to offer free blogging space to his visitors.

Phillips calls open source technology "bulletproof," and says that Linux on his servers has saved him time and money. "I can't afford to drive to the colo and reboot the server," he says. "That's why open source is great. There are so many modules for Apache -- why would I ever use IIS? It crashes. I have Linux boxes up for over a year without a reboot. That's priceless."

But even though Phillips prefers open source technology, he recently selected IBM's proprietary OmniFind search engine, running on a Linux server, to help visitors find the information they need on Anomalies.net. Phillips says he wanted to use Nutch, but it was a little too technical for his purposes. "I really liked it, and for me to administer Nutch would have been fine, but I needed fairly nontechnical people to be able to add sites and make changes. Nutch just doesn't have a mechanism for that."

Phillips says he is working on a PHP-coded feature for the site that integrates UFO sighting data with the Google Maps API. "It's in beta testing right now and coming very soon," he says.

"Open source is a great opportunity because I can hang out on Freshmeat and look for new projects and think, 'How can I leverage that?' If you want to do something exotic, there's a lot of people out there to help you. If I have a weird question, I type it into Google and there are answers. It gets fixed. On rare occasions, I write the guy who wrote the program. The open source community is incredible. If you're not sure how to do something, just ask the guy who wrote it. They're usually really nice people. I just wish I could program so I could contribute."

Phillips encourages others to investigate the potential of open source software. "Get a copy of Fedora or CentOS," he says. "Try it out and see if you like it. Unix works well with some people's minds. If you have questions [about LAMP], get online. There are instructions that will walk you through how to do everything. It's so simple. If you're new to Linux and not sure, ask someone. Hell, ask me. I'll tell you. If I don't know, I'll go look it up and tell you where I found it. It's a community -- that's it's greatest asset."


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