Gracefully upgrading a website

26 Mar

From time to time all web masters get the urge (or the order from on high) to re-vamp their site. For websites that do not include e-commerce business or transaction processing, this SHOULD be a fairly painless procedure.

Unless you are also running a personal web server, it makes sense to discuss your plans with your web hosting provider. At the very least, you will be ensuring they don’t have plans of their own that clash with yours.

Suggested outline procedure:

  • 1 Create your plan.
    • Walk it through in a “dry run” – it’s very useful to do this with another webmaster.
    • Identify milestones with details of how you will recover from potential failures
  • 2 Issue advance warning of your plans, and updates if needed, using every communication tool at your disposal
  • 3 Create a subdomain for your new system and restrict access to developers only.
  • 4 Build, upgrade, or upload your site using the subdomain. 
  • 5 Test the entire site on the subdomain – use scripts to speed this step if there is a lot of testing required
  • 6 Test making and restoring from a backup.
    • Note how long it takes to complete steps 6 and 7: this is your “downtime estimate”.
  • 7 If your site uses APIs, commenting, imports, feeds, etc, test methods for temporarily freezing access to those functions
  • 8 When you’re sure everything is okay:
    • Freeze all updates to the live site (if you can’t do this, your downtime clock just started ticking)
    • Make a backup of the live site database
    • Upload the database to the subdomain
    • Run a final batch of tests on the subdomain
  • 9 If all tests are positive:
    • Temporarily redirect visitors to the new subdomain, keeping interaction frozen, or at least choose the quietest time of the day/night/week.
    • Make a complete back up of the new system from the subdomain
    • Replace the old site with the new build using the tested system backup from the subdomain
    • Test the new build on the main domain
  • 10 If all tests are positive, remove the temporary redirect and restore access/unfreeze interactive functionality

General advice

Document every step you take in detail, especially file names and locations, whatever changes you make, tests and results. Check your backups, don’t leave it to chance.

You can add extra insurance by creating a complete copy of the old site on a second subdomain, which you can bring into service with a temporary redirect if the plan fails and you run out of time, or if you need to put the project on hold part-way through.

If, having consulted this check list, you do not feel confident about managing your web site upgrade – save yourself the headaches and hire a professional.

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