Reviewing your Infrastructure and Platform

Today’s exciting new technology that you simply must use is tomorrow’s legacy platform that everyone winces when they talk about.

SEO is changing. Remember that? So is software. So is hosting infrastructure. The change is constant, relentless, and needs to be managed.

One of the things I hate most about the web development industry is the number of web developers who don’t explain to their clients the need to maintain a website’s software infrastructure after it’s been implemented. There are far too many providers who simply install the latest version of “CMS X”, configure it, apply a theme, and then walk away. Project complete. Job done.

And well it might be, but the job will be undone in a few weeks by the next security update or system patch that “CMS X” or one of the plugins are going to need.

This is why it is absolutely crucial that you have a support contract with whoever builds your website for you. 

Your support should include:

  1. Updates to the underlying server software – operating system, web server, database, etc.
  2. Updates to the CMS software.
  3. Updates to any plugins.
  4. Updates to any themes.
  5. Updates to any bespoke code that breaks down as a consequence of upgrades to 1, 2, 3, or 4 above.
  6. Any queries.

It’s reasonable to expect that your provider will want to be paid both for providing this support and for any work over and above what is agreed – you should note that changes to the website are not covered in the list above.

Backups! 

If you lose your site then you lose your rankings, as search engines quickly remove sites that won’t load and there’s nothing worse for a customer than clicking a link that goes to a dead or broken website. 

Make sure you have access to a recent backup of your website and make sure you download these backups and store them securely somewhere that you have access to.

If the worst happens and either your current web host or your website provider goes out of business, it could take weeks or even months to replicate all of the data in your website with a new provider.

My web developer says my site is Open Source, so I don’t have to worry

They’re lying; just because your website is open source, doesn’t mean you don’t need backups or that you shouldn’t have access to them.

Nightmare scenario part 1: the jigsaw puzzle of death

Your website is made of CMS “X” extended by a bunch of additional components –  plugins, themes, third-party plugins – all of which have been picked by your developer and all of which have their own particular version number. In addition to this, your developer may have written some code of their own, a bespoke theme (or tweaks to a bought-in design), changes to a plugin etc.

The way your website works is a product of that particular combination of components. Precisely that combination. 

So, if your developer is planning on rebuilding your website in the event of a problem simply by downloading the same components – they haven’t thought things through. What if the components or the CMS have changed? What if they aren’t available anymore? And what about all those little tweaks and changes, probably undocumented, that the web developer made to get everything just so?

You’d have more chance of recreating George’s Marvellous Medicine that you would have of recreating your website this way.

I’m a huge Open Source advocate, but just because something is Open Source does not mean it does not need to be maintained and properly looked after.

Nightmare scenario part 2: the empty CMS

While we’re on this topic, let’s also not forget that your data and content is not open source – that’s all sitting in the database, underneath the CMS. It belongs to you and data is more valuable than gold.

So, if by some miracle your no-backups developer managers to reconstruct your website like CSI Miami at a crime scene, no backups still means that your data – blog posts, pages, products, even customers – it’s all gone.

If you take nothing else away from this book, take this:

Your business does not “have” data, your business is the data.

My provider says that they are “Software as a Service”

This one is slightly more difficult. In this environment, you don’t “own” the code for your website at all, all you have is a license to use a service for a specified amount of time.

Don’t get me wrong – there are lots of great “Software as a Service” website platforms out there (I founded one of them!) and there are big advantages to working with a “Software as a Service” provider. It’s simply a matter of understanding what you have and what you don’t have.

If you are using a “Software as a Service” platform, here are the things you should ensure you will be able to access:

  1. Access to all of your data – every page, post, customer, order, contact form submission… everything.
  2. Access to all of your files – images, videos, logos, PDF attachments etc.

Make sure you understand how you can access this information. Ideally, you want to be able to download this information in bulk, not one item at a time, and you want to be able to download it in a format that will be easy to import to another system.

Never underestimate the power of the humble CSV file. It’s the “spare gun in the ankle holster” of file formats. You might sneer at it, but one day it’s going to save your digital backside.

CSV (Comma Separated Value) files are your friend – every spreadsheet application in the world can read them, every database can import them, and they are pretty much “human readable” if you want to open them in a text editor/word processor.

You should also make sure that your data is going to be somewhere safe if your “Software as a Service” provider goes to the wall. Often, when this happens (and it does happen often) the company gives customers a small window of opportunity to grab their data before the service shuts down for good.

Be prepared.

What you need to do, today

Every business needs to:

  1. Ensure you have access to full data and file backups.
  2. If you’re working with an open source platform, ensure you can also access code backups.
  3. If you’re working with a proprietary platform or Software as a Service platform, ensure you have an agreement in place to gain access to source code in the event that the provider goes out of business.
  4. Ensure you have documentation on how to restore backups to a fully working state.
  5. Ensure you have tested the process in the documentation.

Brief notes on software “escrow”

When it comes to source code, providers who don’t want to give you access to the code in the normal run of business may talk about a software “escrow” arrangement.

In effect, this means lodging a copy of the software with a trusted third party who will ensure it is released to you if the vendor is no longer able to provide the service and, for whatever reason, is not able to facilitate the transfer of the code themselves.

A perfectly good arrangement, just make sure you’re working with a reliable escrow provider and that there is a documented and audited process in place for the software vendor to update the copy of the software that the escrow company is holding.

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