DesktopServer Review

If you do any kind of development on WordPress, you probably are using localhost to develop on your local machine. It’s noticeably faster than working with a live server, especially while working in the Admin screens of WordPress. For this reason, many people will be familiar with the oh so fun process of setting up local sites and moving sites to live servers. Well in this post I’m going to cover a product that makes local development a much more productive and efficient experience.

The process of setting up a local site for development and moving changes up to an online server is a tedious, painful, needlessly time consuming process. Just setting up a fresh WordPress site on your amp stack is annoying as it involves having to create a database manually, making changes to some configuration files, updating the hosts file and then running the WordPress installation. I was pleased to find a tool that automates all these tasks and it happened to be a tool that is perfect for WordPress development.

Enter DesktopServer

DesktopServer is a brilliant piece of software that is essentially a regular server stack that you will be used to if you have used WAMP, LAMP, XAMPP, MAMP or Uniserver. It actually is packaged with XAMPP Lite, the lite version of XAMPP. The real magic however comes from the logic they’ve included to work with XAMPP Lite. It comes with some powerful automation tools that make it very easy to create, import and export sites and do development on WordPress sites using popular tools.

Turning 10 minutes into less than a 1 minute

Setting up a locally hosted WordPress site in a snapSetting up a locally hosted WordPress site in a snapNow manually setting up a local site on your own machine isn’t terribly difficult once you know all the different steps, but it is a pain. If you’re used to something like Cpanel, which makes installing WordPress really easy, it feels even more annoying to have to manually create a database, configure a virtual host, adjust your hosts file and run through the installer. It can take a good 5-10 minutes if you know exactly what you are doing.

With DesktopServer you can painlessly create a new local site through a simple UI in a matter of seconds. It does all the configuration for you. That in itself is worth jumping for joy, but that’s only a start.

Quickly installing a preconfigured WordPress setup

DesktopServer uses a blueprint model for creating WordPress installations. In that blueprint you can preconfigure WordPress to install with certain plugins and themes. You can even auto-import settings. This is just awesome stuff and saves so much time having to install sets of plugins manually.

Quick Deploy a local site to a live server

A recently improved feature in DesktopServer Premium called quick deploy lets you upload a WordPress site complete with files and database directly to any server that supports Filesystem Direct (supported by many hosts). The resulting magic is facilitated through a plugin that you install on the destination site (you need to have WordPress pre-installed, a fresh install is fine). This is a really nice feature that cuts out a bunch of steps you would otherwise have to perform.

Migrating or moving a site is not a fun task and can be quite challenging. This built in solution let’s you do things at the push of a button while taking advantage of DesktopServer’s automatic scrubbing, so you don’t need to worry about fixing URLs after moving a site online.
Mobile Development options

Another great feature provided by DesktopServer solves the tricky issue of testing local sites on mobile devices. Through Lan sharing (which makes use of the computers IP address on the network), you can make a local site accessible on your mobile phones and tablets. The only caveat here seems to be that you can only share a single site at a time. While I haven’t given it a test turn yet, it also looks like you can make a site available to the web so that people outside your network can view your development site. This feature also uses an IP address which viewers will have to know to access the site. (Side note: I’ve previously covered some other ways to share local sites)

My concerns, squashed

I had a number of concerns prior to trying DesktopServer Premium and I figured I’d write it up in Q&A form.

I want to run a local site that has an extension other than .dev, is that possible?

No problem as it turns out. As you’re really running XAMPP lite, you can manage your own virtual host mappings as you see fit along side any .dev site DesktopServer creates. Setting up non .dev sites can be done manually like you would normally on any AMP setup. I use pagekite to host a private site straight from my computer and I was able to do so without any conflicts. Perfect! The only downer is that DesktopServer only manages and installs .dev sites through its GUI as far as I can tell.

Will it mess with my custom hosts file?

Got a hosts file that you’ve customized with a certain configuration? You won’t have to worry about DesktopServer overwriting anything. It’s smart enough to manage it’s own additions within the file without touching any pre-existing mappings in the file.

Does it automatically adjust hardcoded site urls when migrating?

One of the beautiful things about DesktopServer is that you don’t have to run any kind of find and replace scripts  when you move a site to a different domain. It will do it for you and it even will search your php, css and js files so you’re covered all around.

Minor Niggles

My first month of using DesktopServer was largely positive, I did note a few minor things I’d love to see work their way into an upcoming release.

Live Deploy Progress Indicator

This is what happened when my hosting server failed during quick deploy. My Starcraft honed APM came in good hand closing all these alert boxes.
This is what happened when my hosting server failed during quick deploy. My Starcraft honed APM came in good hand closing all these alert boxes.

The live deploy feature is missing an informative progress indicator. As deploying can take a long time and it is co-dependent on whatever hosting you are using, it would be great to know what it is actually doing or where it is slowing down. Deploying to a live site can be unnerving experience. In my tests I did notice things do take quite long to transfer, but this is very much dependent on the hosting provider and the server’s upload speeds. If you happen to run into a problem during the transfer process, you might have a bit of a problem on your hands.

During one of my tests my (shared) hosting happened to crash, which left me with an incomplete install and a white screen. Of course, no matter what method you use, any migration process won’t fare well under those conditions, but it’s useful to have some kind of indication in case the connection does go wrong. If you’re uploading up a large site, it’s even more important.

One PHP version

DesktopServer ships with the most common PHP/Mysql configuration seen in the wild. If you want to test different versions of PHP, you’re out of luck as DesktopServer doesn’t let you do this out of the box. That would be a fantastic feature to add in the future.

Unmentioned goodness

DesktopServer plays very nicely with a host of other common developers tools, such as Dreamweaver, Xdebug, Coda 2, PHP Storm and popular backup utilities such as Backup Buddy, Duplicator and Infinite WP. So far I have only tested Duplicator, a fantastic free backup plugin and that worked very smoothly indeed.

It’s also worth noting that DesktopServer is not just for WordPress stuff. You can use DesktopServer to create non-WordPress sites for all your other site development and testing purposes

Bottom Line

If you are building WordPress themes/plugins or developing entire sites or applications on WordPress, this software should be part of your tool kit. It’s amazing to me how long this product has been around and I hadn’t really discovered it until recently. More people should be spreading the word.

* Note *
This review was written after using DesktopServer version 3.5 for about a month (I managed to get a review copy). I wasn’t paid to do this review and I do not have any financial ties to Virtuosoft, the company behind of DesktopServer.

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