Hosting vs Development Services

One of the struggles we have within our company is drawing the line between our hosting services and our web site development services. This most often comes up when we come across sites we built 5-6 years ago and suddenly the technology behind them no longer works. For example, we built sites using our own custom systems. Granted they were based in open source technology like PHP and MySQL and they worked back then. But both PHP and MySQL have advanced. And server systems have advanced. But the original scripts have not kept up with those advances.

So, when a customer calls and says “My site is broken”, we have to make a decision. Do we fix the current site to comply with server systems, or do we draw the line and say we can no longer support those scripts (that we built) and the client will have to upgrade? It’s not a clear cut decision, but it’s one that eventually has to lean toward the latter. Most often, though, we band aid sites to keep them lumbering along until the organization can find the resources to bring their enterprise into the 21st century. Given that we started our hosting service because of all the bad practices we ran in to with large commercial hosts, I tend to bend over backwards to accommodate our clients.

I like to keep our hosting services available because we do a good job customizing our servers to make things run fast and smooth for the majority of our clients. And many of our development clients appreciate dealing with a single vendor for both hosting and site development. But sometimes I wonder if the hosting side is more of a drain on our small company and we should take advantage of all the great cloud services out there and let them deal with the hardware and underlying hosting software while we focus on delivering great web sites.

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How to Migrate Your Site to a Different Host

Nearly every week we get requests from organizations that want to move their web site to our service. For most people this is a mysterious process and we end up answering the same questions over and over. This post is an attempt to explain the process of site migration, not to our hosting necessarily, but from any system to any other.

Why move?

There are many reasons why you might wish to move your site from one hosting service to another. The primary reasons for moving are cost and level of service. Many hosts do a wonderful job on the front end luring you in with low prices and/or extraordinary claims such as 100% up time or unlimited bandwidth. But once they have you, sometimes service drops off and support requests go unanswered. These companies can get away with this because for many site owners moving from one host to another can be a confusing process so they are willing stay with an unsatisfactory hosting company rather than take on the task of migrating a site. The problem, of course, is finding a reliable host to begin with.  That’s subject for another post altogether.

The Steps Involved

Let’s say you have found another hosting company you believe you would like to work with. While for most sites moving hosts is not a difficult process, there are several steps involved. These steps should be taken in the following order to minimize any disruption of service:

  1. Confirm the new service supports your web site’s needs. For example, if your site is managed using Cold Fusion scripts or ASP or PHP, be sure your new host supports these services.
  2. If your site uses one or more databases be sure you understand the process for migrating your database. This can complicate the issue as an Access database will typically have a different structure than a SQL database. You should check with your web developer about this as he/she will probably need to support this migration if databases are involved.If you are simply moving a MySQL database to another MySQL database, then the process is pretty simple if you can use a tool like PHPMyadmin. With this web based interface to a MySQL database you can simply export all your data from your original host and then, once you have set up the database on your new host, import it. Many hosts now have this pre-installed as part of your hosting control panel.
  3. Gather information about your hosting account regarding what needs to be migrated besides standard web site files and databases. For example email accounts (including usernames and passwords), mailing lists, etc.
  4. Be sure you have full access to all files and data on your current host. This means File Transport Protocal (FTP) access and any database access if necessary. Download all files and data.
  5. Be sure you have control over your domain name and can access the account where your domain name is registered. If you’re not sure what this means you might want to review this previous post on domain name registration basics.
  6. Create the hosting account on the new host server. You should receive new hosting account access information once your account is created. Don’t lose this! In our case we send out a ton of information in our welcome email. You may not need it all, but most will come in handy when you have a question about the service.
  7. Upload your files to your new hosting account. If necessary create any databases and import any data to the new databases.
  8. If you have scripts that connect to databases these will have to be reconfigured to match the new databases access information.
  9. Once everything is uploaded and imported test your site at the new location to be sure everything works properly. You new host should give you a web address where you can test your site before your domain name gets transferred.
  10. Create any domain name based email accounts at your new hosting service. If you don’t have a record of the passwords from the original accounts you will need to make sure your mail clients (Outlook, Outlook Express, Mail, Thunderbird, etc.) are updated to match the new passwords. Hosting companies often have different requirements regarding how email is accessed. Be sure you understand how to configure your mail client or you will get frustrated once your domain name is transferred to the new host.
  11. Login to your domain name registrar account and change the Domain Name Servers (DNS) to point to the new hosting service. This transition can happen very quickly in most cases, but can also take 24-48 hours to propagate throughout the Internet. Because of this potential lag time it’s possible some people who send you email may have their messages routed to the old host while others will have their messages routed to your new host. It’s best to time the DNS switch when email traffic would be the lightest. You might also be able to retrieve any latent messages from your old host by accessing their webmail system. This depends on how their webmail is set up. You might want to check in to that before you start the migration process if missing even one email would be of concern.
  12. Wait until you are satisfied you have all data from the old host and only then cancel that hosting account.

If you are not clear about any of these steps, be sure and consult with your webmaster and/or new hosting service provider for assistance. For our part we often help small sites move at no cost. If your site is database driven, has an ecommerce component or other more complex issues are involved, the migration can become more complicated. While these steps may seem complicated, they are really not for an experienced host or web developer. Don’t let them discourage you from moving to a system that offers better service, support or value.

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Hosting Woes

The other day we had a couple servers made inaccessible for over 9 hours. It was a disaster. The servers themselves were fine, but the data center where they live had a power outage. From what little information I have gathered, the power outage caused networking and router failures, so that even when power was restored either through back up or primary source repair, the server bank where we had a couple servers remained off line.

To compound matters the company that supplies these servers were not reachable by phone (constant busy signal) so I couldn’t even communicate with them to learn what had happened and get an ETA on return of service that I  could pass on to my customers who called and emailed me throughout the day and evening. Needless to say, I lost a lot of sleep that night. I have still to get a full accounting or reassurance from the server provider that they have things under control. I have been with them for years and have had very good service, excellent response time if a server does go down, and generally good conmmunication. But this incident has caused me to rethink the who relationship. Moving servers is a real PITA. But I have done it several times in the past due to poor service so I am considering doing it again. In any service business, communication is vital. When that breaks down, trust is lost.

In order to improve communication with our own clients, I am working on a couple things. The first is a new blog hosted at WordPress.com where I can post information about our hosting service.  Even if all our servers go dark the blog will not. Of course there is no guarantee WordPress.com won’t go down. Anything can happen.

Update: I have heard from the owner of my supplier at the data center. It seems some of the communication failure was on my end. My Gmail account coincidental to this incident decided to send all their messages to me to the spam folder. What? And Gmail is supposed to be so reliable. Although their own mail server was down for quite a while as well. Anyway, here is some of what he said:

As you are aware there was a major power outage yesterday at the data center we are located in. Even though our data center has a back-up battery system and back-up generators, there was apparently a failed capacitor bank that prevented either the batteries or the generators from helping. We will be learning more about what happened tomorrow when the data center owners provide us with an RFO or Reason For Outage document.

I am assured they are taking steps to this won’t happen again.

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Local Sites Down

Gosh Dell’ Arte had a nice looking web site. Unfortunately, just as their annual Mad River Festival kicks off, the site keeps going down. Maybe by the time you click the link it will be back up. I hope so.

And now the Eureka Reporter site is down.

Is it the strange a wonderful weather we’re having? Nah. I think they’re both running on Windows boxes. Not the same one. But could it be that platform is just not very stable? Could be.

Update: Both sites are back up. Dell’ Arte has been up and down for the last couple days. I hope they have the issues straightened out.

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