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I am looking to teach myself some web programming, but I am not sure how I can experiment with an actual website. Are there sites that host platforms for these purposes?

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And if you do choose to rent some hosting space, several hosters nowadays offer one domain for free, so you don't necessarily have to pay for that too, to start playing around. –  Yannis Rizos Dec 22 '11 at 15:49
Indeed. There is plenty of free (or very cheap) hosting out there. It's mostly Apache with PHP 5.x installed. –  Ryan Kinal Dec 22 '11 at 16:16

7 Answers 7

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Depending on what your goals are, you may not need to purchase a domain name and hosting.

If you have a Windows, Macintosh, or Linux computer in your possession with some spare disk space and CPU capacity, you can do it all on your own system. I've used Apache and Apache Tomcat on Windows and Mac systems, and if you have a new enough Windows system, you may be able to run IIS as well. This has the benefit of keeping your work private, which is always useful for works in progress.

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this is the best method because it is free and allows you to experiment with different platforms (java, asp.net, ruby, python, etc) with no monetary investment. –  Jetti Dec 22 '11 at 15:04
The problem I've run into with this approach is the "it works on my system" syndrome. I do my initial unit testing locally, of course, but I move things out to a remote test domain (or subdomain) that's as close as I can get to the production deployment server for integration testing. –  jfrankcarr Dec 22 '11 at 15:37
@jfrankcarr: That's not a serious issue. That's always, universally, true. That, indeed, is a given. Learn on one system and deploy on another system requirements some additional, incremental learning. That's normal. Not a problem. –  S.Lott Dec 22 '11 at 16:21
@S.Lott - In my experience, I've found this to be a very serious issue, especially on ASP.NET deployments and in situations where one is using WAMP locally as oppposed to LAMP. I've seen more than one project grind to a halt because nobody could figure out how to successfully deploy it and all the time the managers were saying stuff like it's "not a serious issue" or "that's a non-problem". –  jfrankcarr Dec 22 '11 at 16:41
"project grind to a halt"? What? This was about learning, wasn't it? Folks who deploy without proper learning and experience run into problems where they need to stop deploy and start learning. It's common and standard. It happens all the time. All projects which have schedules based on fantasies and inadequate hands-on experience always grind to a halt. It's not a problem. It's standard bad project management. Nothing to do with learning web technology using a personal computer. –  S.Lott Dec 22 '11 at 18:19

The best host or plattform to experiment with is your own computer. Here you (potentially) have root rights for everything and you can learn how to configure your webserver, install all necessary libraries for languasge support etc.

I would recommend to use XAMPP bundle -- this is a bundle that already has a webserver (Apache), a database (MySQL), and two popular web languages PHP and Perl. XAMPP is the name of the original linux installation, but feel free to take WAMPP for Windows or MAMPP for Mac OS -- they all are most updated version of the same distribution.

But back to your question: as long as you have the bundle installed you can directly open your webpage by typing localhost or in your address line -- these are the typical aliases of your own computer. You can immediately start with web development and the deployment of your project will be very easy, since it is on the same machine.

If you want that your webpage is available from outside then you can easily associate a certain DNS name (this is something like http://yousitename.host.com) with your home PC using Dynamic DNS service: this is mostly free (see here for detailed list of providers and prices) and you don't need to buy or rent any server somewhere.

Should you nonetheless wish to have an independent (from your home computer) webpage, I would suggest to look at the free webhosting offer fist. There are plenty of sites where you can host your page for free. Just google for "free web hosting". Be, however, prepared, that the free service has a very limited space, in most cases is linux-based (no licence costs) and often adds some ad to your webpage (either in form of a pop-up window or requires you to do it).

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For Windows there is also WAMP Server. I've used - and been satisfied with - both. They come with different software bundled, so folks should see which work best for what is wanted. –  GreenMatt Dec 22 '11 at 16:19
Hosting a public website on a home system may violate the terms of your ISP agreement. –  jfrankcarr Dec 22 '11 at 17:46

Just buy a domain to test with (as low as 99 cents for the first year if you buy a .info, otherwise about $8-12 a year) and get inexpensive shared hosting with the features you need (LAMP or Windows). This usually runs between $5-15 a month although if you need something like Sharepoint or cloud services it can cost more.

On shared hosting there are limits to what you can do and the amount of traffic you can process (even though they say "unlimited", this isn't exactly true). I've found them to work just fine though for my own ASP.NET and WordPress/PHP testing.

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Having gone through this exact learning experience myself I have two suggestions for you.

First, if you want to learn on the Linux side of things (PHP and MySQL) use easyPHP. I have worked with a good number of WAMP distributions (for running a simple test web server on your own computer) and easyPHP is by far the simplest setup. Also, download the Netbeans IDE for PHP. It is in my opinion, the best IDE for PHP development.

Now if you want to develop in ASP.NET this is all simplified because you can download Microsoft Visual Studio Web Developer Express which has it's own test server built in and is pretty simple to start learning with, seeing as how there are hundreds of tutorials out there for .NET development beginners.

Whatever you do though, don't waste your money on buying a domain and a hosting service unless you actually are planning on throwing up a live website in the immediate future. Save yourself the time and money.

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I'm with those who recommend using your own computer. I'd modify it a bit though. I'd say use a spare computer. Call it a scratch computer, or a crash-and-burn computer.

It is a great freedom to have a computer where you don't care if you erase the whole disk, where in fact you do that a few times as you "get your house in order."

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Or even a VM. It allows you to avoid cluttering your main box with random services you don't otherwise need. –  Rig Dec 22 '11 at 17:30

The back end technology for websites varies drastically among platform and language. You can custom build your entire application in languages like PHP, use an MVC framework like Ruby on Rails, or use a development stack like ASP.NET or JSP.

Depending on your skill and comfort level (with SQL, HTML, CSS), doing things the (non framework) PHP way will arguably pay off the most, simply because of how much you have to build from the ground up.

If you want to become a professional independent web developer, learning something like Ruby on Rails will pay off more, because after you've learned the technology you can rapidly build websites.

On the flip side- If you want to play with .NET technology, Visual Studio will host ASP.NET webpages on your local machine for debugging purposes. The ASP.NET way of building websites is also fairly different from the PHP or Ruby way.

Whatever you do, learn the basics of JavaScript and explore with jQuery- it'll apply to any website you build.

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"TEST LOCALLY, Host Remotely"

Download something called XAMPP from Apache Friends onto a local Windows box. This download has EVERYTHING you need to begin playing around with web development on your own local box, and it is ALREADY CONFIGURED PROPERLY BY DEFAULT. It's trivial to install, and trivial to begin testing/working on your own website!

Then get a good book on PHP for Web development. Anything on Amazon's top list for PHP would be just fine. Look for a book that matches your programming skill level, and start hacking away at your own "site", without worrying that you'll mess anything up!

After a while, you'll probably get a neat idea for a "real" website, and after you try it out on your own computer you'll want to push it to "the Internet". At that point it's just a question of whether you want to go through a free/add-supported hosting company, or a simple/low-cost hosting company. There are many good ones to chose from!

So I recommend that you install XAMPP from Apache Friends onto a local box, and start programming (today!) in PHP.

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Helpful answer, but the question was not asking for a choice on a web-programming language. –  Isaac Kleinman Dec 23 '11 at 0:14
@IsaacKleinman Strictly speaking, XAMPP includes Perl as well. And it does setup a somewhat full web development stack, which answers the core question: Platform to Learn/Experiment with Web Programming. So it's a valid answer, imho. Overly enthusiastic, with many unbacked claims, but still valid. –  Yannis Rizos Dec 23 '11 at 0:29

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