A Portable Web Server on a USB Stick

While doing some recent work on developing a WordPress theme for a friend, I found myself in need of a portable web server; something I could plug into a computer, start up, and continue my development work. Since this was for WordPress I needed PHP and a database. With no sense of whether or not this would be possible. I charged in.

I began by collecting the components.

I chose PostgreSQL simply because it was a 50mb download while MySQL was some 300mb. Also, I’d never used PostgreSQL so, why not? Then I found out WordPress doesn’t support PostgreSQL out of the box, but quickly found PostgreSQL for WordPress.

I avoided installers and took the appropriate ZIP file for my distribution so I could simply unzip it to my thumb drive. I unzipped each in turn into it’s own directory off the root of the thumb drive giving me the following directories:

  • Apache24
  • pgsql
  • php
  • wordpress


First up, getting Apache up and running. This is pretty straightforward except that I would need to use relative paths instead of absolute paths if this was going to be a truly portable solution. I didn’t find much online in the way of what relative paths in httpd.conf would be relative to, so trial-and-error it was. The answer: it depends. Some of the paths are relative to the directory where httpd.exe lives while others are relative to whatever ServerRoot is set to in httpd.conf. ServerRoot itself is relative to httpd.exe’s location and this is typically set to one directory up from the Apache bin directory.

ServerRoot "../"

Next is setting DocumentRoot. I stayed with the default htdocs directory under ServerRoot and the DocumentRoot directive is relative to ServerRoot. However the Directory directive is relative to httpd.exe. Don’t forget this one.

DocumentRoot "htdocs"
<Directory "../htdocs">

And with those changes in place, Apache started right up!


PHP probably presented the biggest challenge as I started to get buried under DLL dependencies because PHP’s directory was not in the PATH environment variable. I could append that path on-the-fly using a batch script, but I wanted to avoid that if possible and, with some jumping through hoops, it is possible. First is what I added to the end of my httpd.conf to get PHP loaded.

LoadFile "../php/libpq.dll"
LoadModule php5_module "../php/php5apache2_4.dll"
<IfModule php5_module>
    PHPIniDir "../php"
    AddHandler php5-script .php
    DirectoryIndex index.php index.htm index.html
    Alias /wp "../wordpress"
    <Directory "../../wordpress">
        AllowOverride All
        Require all granted

Using Apache’s LoadFile directive helps solve any missing DLL errors from PHP when starting up Apache. I’ve included the one DLL I got a missing DLL error for. Should you encounter others make similar use of the LoadFile directory to fix things up. All the relative paths here are relative to DocumentRoot except for the Directory directive as seen previously.

On the PHP side of things I made a copy of the supplied php.ini-development file and renamed it php.ini. I uncommented extension_dir and the two extensions for PostgreSQL.

extension_dir = "ext"

But then I ran into some problems. PHP wasn’t finding those pgsql DLL files. I used Process Monitor to see exactly what paths were being looked at and found there were all relative to httpd.exe. I modified extension_dir to be relative to httpd.exe, but I was still receiving the same DLL errors. I second check of ProcessMonitor confirmed not only was the right path being accessed, but the file was actually being opened. What gives?!

Out of frustration, I eventually created an “ext” directory in the same directory as httpd.exe and copied the DLLs over into that directory and, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of, Apache started up without a problem and PHP was working. If you have any idea why this is and what I can do to make it so I don’t have to create this ext directory, please let me know. For now all I care about is that it worked.

DLL Hell

The first time I booted up Apache with PHP on my portable server I got an error about a missing DLL, msvcr110.dll. This is part of the Visual C++ Redistributable for Visual Studio 2012 which can only be downloaded as an installable, not a ZIP. To get this missing DLL I installed the runtime and then copied the DLL from my C:\Windows\System32 directory over to my Apache24\bin directory.

That fixed the issue, eventually…

Because if you’re mixing 32 and 64 bits then the location of this DLL after install might be different. If you’re running the 64-bit version of Apache and PHP, then you need the 64-bit DLL which, on a 64-bit Windows system, is located in C:\Windows\System32. If you’re running the 32-bit version of Apache and PHP on a 64-bit system, the 32-bit version of this DLL is in C:\Windows\SysWOW64. On 32-bit system it’s in C:\Windows\System32.

Good luck with that one.


I hadn’t worked with PostgreSQL before and had no clue how to create a database let alone start and stop it. I’m still not sure I do, but here’s what I did. First I needed to create a database. I opened up a command prompt and positioned myself inside pgsql directory and ran this command:

bin\initdb.exe --username <username> --pwprompt -A md5 -D data

This creates a data directory where all information and data about your database server will be stored. You could also think of it as initializing a database server instance. <username> will the the username of the superuser for the database. This can be anything you want. I used “postgres”. During the creation process you will be prompted to provide a password for the superuser account. Note: if you do not provide the username PostgreSQL will use the username of the account you’re logged into Windows under.

When the initialization completes you’ll be told exactly how to start the server.

"bin\pg_ctl" -D "data" -l pgsql.log start

This will start PostgreSQL as a background process. To stop it, use the same command, but change “start” to “stop”. With the database up and running, create a user for WordPress. This can also be done from the command line as follows:

bin\createuser.exe -U <superuser> -W -P wordpress

This creates a user called “wordpress”. You will be prompted to enter the password for the account. Don’t forget it.

Next you need to create the database that will store the data for WordPress. Again, from the command line:

bin\createdb.exe -O wordpress -U <superuser> -W wordpress

This creates a database called “wordpress” and assigns the user “wordpress” as the database’s owner.

We’re nearly there. Just one more step to go.


With Apache and PostgreSQL running (start up Apache just by running httpd.exe from the Apache bin directory) it’s time to get WordPress running. In the configuration for Apache I gave above I alised my WordPress directory to “/wp” so open up a browser and go to http://localhost/wp. If you haven’t already installed PosgreSQL for WordPress you should see an error message that PHP is missing the MySQL extensions. No problem!

PostgreSQL for WordPress

You’ll find a readme.txt file inside the PG4WP ZIP file which will walk you through the process. Basically take the pg4wp directory that’s in the ZIP file and copy it into the wp-content directory of your WordPress install. Then make a copy of the db.php file located in the pg4wp directory and place it one level up, inside the wp-content folder. Your folder structure will look something like this:

  • wordpress
    • wp-admin
    • wp-content
      • pg4wp
      • plugins
      • themes
      • db.php
      • index.php
    • wp-includes

With that taken care of, go back to your web browser and go to http://localhost/wp. You’ll now be warned about a missing wp-config.php file. You can try the web interface or just make a copy of the wp-config-sample.php file and name it wp-config.php. You’ll need to then edit your newly created wp-config.php file to define the database name (wordpress), the database user (wordpress), and the password. Save the file and reload http://localhost/wp.

If all goes well you’ll finally see the WordPress install page. You will also (most likely) see a PHP warning message at the top about pg_query having failed. Ignore it. Fill out the form and press that install button. With luck you’ll get a success message. You’ll also get yet more PHP warnings. Again, ignore them, it’s okay. Login to your new, minty-fresh, WordPress site.

Starting and Stopping With Ease

At this point everything is up and running and everything is portable! All that’s really left is to find some way to easily start and stop the server with the click of a button. To do that I use a batch script.

@echo off
pgsql\bin\pg_ctl.exe start -D pgsql\data -l pgsql\pgsql.log
cd Apache24\bin
cd ..\..
pgsql\bin\pg_ctl.exe stop -D pgsql\data

This will open a command prompt window and start PostreSQL first, followed by Apache. The window will remain open while the server is running. When I’m finished bring the command window up and press CTRL-C to tell Apache to shut down. I’m then prompted whether or not I want to terminate the batch job. I say NO which lets the script continue and shut down the PostgreSQL database.

A couple things to note. I found that I needed to be within the Apache24\bin directory before running httpd.exe to get around some missing DLL errors. I also have found that PostgreSQL seems to shut down some times for reasons I don’t know. When this happens I just stop and restart the server and everything is back up and running.


Congratulations, you have a portable web server. Go forth and develop!

Offset Column Chaos

I’m tired of confusing myself trying to write up a description of the layout. Here it is, make of it whatever you will.

Offset Column Chaos (Download)

The primary design idea was two columns where the widths of the columns had a maximum width, but the background color for each column would extend beyond the content to the edges of the viewport while the content, as a whole, remains centered to the viewport.

I took a few different approaches and eventually landed on using media queries to apply different approaches to the same problem depending on the situation with the viewport (are we at max-width yet, or not?) It works. I perhaps made it more complicated than most people really need it to be, but you can pick out the bits you don’t need to keep things simpler.

The CSS is heavily commented with variables and formulas to help keep everything pixel-perfect. It’s a layout like this one that makes me wish CSS had some kind of built-in support for variables. It’d make creating these kinds of layouts a lot easier.

Work is In Progress

I was asked to create a WordPress theme for a friend’s web site. I’ve since created the layout and theme and intend to release a stripped-down version of this layout sometime soon. In preparation for this I dusted off the blog and even found a new template that is more to my liking.

I also started doing what was never intended to be, but has since become an exhaustive write-up about what this new layout does and how it works. This has been a great exercise because it forced me to revisit certain design choices and I’ve discovered new ways to approach certain issues with the mechanics of the layout. I’ve found new solutions to problems whose original fix I wasn’t quite pleased with and also solved some minor bugs that I was initially willing to ignore.

I think I’m at the point where I started, which is cleaning up the CSS, adding comments, and writing about how it all works.

So I’ve got a new layout to give you soon. It’s not terribly complex, it has just two columns, but how those two columns function is something I think will interest others than just myself.