We’ve discussed website maintenance many times in this blog before. We’ve discussed why you need help with the ongoing maintenance of your website and why websites break down. We’ve even talked about how much maintenance will cost – and how to best plan.
With all of that said we never did, however, discuss the core pillars of a maintenance strategy. Whether you utilize a team of web developers or a system such as Wix or Squarespace, these elements must all be addressed to keep your website running smoothly and efficiently.
So, in no particular order, these areas require extra special focus on an ongoing basis.
Software Management & Updates
Regular updates to software packages are the cornerstone of a maintenance strategy. In fact, without updating software, it’s almost assured that you will run into instability later. Updates happen for three reasons. First, due to bug fixes. Secondly, due to security issues, and thirdly due to improvements. Frequently, an update may address more than one of those reasons at once. To stay on top of your site’s smooth operation, you need to regularly update not just the software that powers the site but the software that powers the software, such as web servers and scripting languages.
This is complicated stuff. Server software such as PHP, Apache, MySQL, or MongoDB – all require the attention of a system administrator. CMS packages such as Drupal or WordPress also require updates by developers. And those packages often include third-party extensions or plugins, which also need their own updates.
All of these updates circulating around each other introduce interdependencies, making updates even more complicated and time-consuming. As mentioned above, systems such as Wix or Squarespace attempt to do all of this work for you – but those systems don’t allow much in the way of customization. High-end enterprise platforms like WordPress VIP or Acquia for Drupal do some of that work as well – but at a high cost. Everyone in the middle needs to find help or hire a dedicated resource to manage this process… There simply isn’t any way around it.
So, in planning how to maintain your software and website, consider first a strategy towards these updates, how they will happen, who will do them, how they will be tested and ultimately deployed. These are all essential procedures that you need to ensure the regular, ongoing operation of your website.
Monitoring & Response
Knowing that your site is performing, and performing well, is essential for any serious online presence. Furthermore, knowing how to respond to an emergency situation and what procedures are in place is critical. The emergency component of your maintenance strategy needs to involve these two components. You need to monitor to know when things go wrong, and you need to have a response plan in place.
First, what do you monitor and how? Well, this depends on your hosting infrastructure. If you are going it alone with dedicated instances or servers, you’ll need to have a monitoring solution or hire someone offering a 24/7/365 server uptime monitoring service. If, however, you are using a managed service, this will most likely be provided for you. As mentioned above, Acquia or WordPress VIP would definitely help in this regard as their service includes an IaaS component.
A comprehensive monitoring solution would look at a variety of performance metrics – not just uptime or ping. This means database performance, CPU performance, connection monitoring, disk and memory usage, and more. Often, downtime can be predicted and responded to before it becomes a catastrophic issue.
There are other types of monitoring you can conduct, as well. We all presuppose that uptime and performance are the most important thing we can monitor, but there are other things you should be looking at as well. For one, running ongoing security scans to look for malicious invasions or dangerous code injections makes a lot of sense. Running scans to ensure that all tags are performing properly has merits as well. And let’s not forget digital accessibility – there are monitoring solutions for that as well.
With all of that said, however, monitoring is useless without an escalation plan. This means defining who handles identified issues, in what timeframe, and with what ability to decide which actions to take next. Some services, such as our 24/7/365 monitoring, include emergency response within a guaranteed timeframe. Otherwise, some companies put employees on a schedule to watch things off-hours. Either way, you need to know who will actually perform an action when things go down and work toward restoration, or the idea of monitoring is, well… pointless!
One of the biggest confusions with the idea of “website maintenance” is that it also includes the component of continuous improvement, or the application of new features, fixes to functionality, or optimizations. These aren’t really “maintenance” tasks per se, but rather the constant pursuit of optimal performance for the site and the best experience for your users.
These types of tasks are somewhat different from the above. While updates and monitoring are more structured in terms of what they consist of, continuous improvement is more or less a combination of technology and the understanding of business objectives. In my experience, this is where clients are the most dumbfounded in terms of what to do.
It’s easy to draw a line between business operations and technology with the first two components mentioned above. With continuous improvement, however, the line can quickly move in different directions. Clients need to focus on what exactly they require when it comes to continuous improvements. DO they want a partner or resource that will take the lead in suggesting feature improvements, functionality tweaks, or performance recommendations? Or do they instead want a team that takes their orders and performs them?
Either approach is acceptable, but expectations need to be set. A client who expects their web development resource to be more proactive may be disappointed if the agency or developer is under the impression they should be just taking orders. And of course, the same happens in the inverse, where clients are more sure of what they want to do and are disturbed by agencies that “cross boundaries”.
Most good agencies will work with you either way. At the beginning of a relationship, it isn’t bad practice or policy to define what those expectations are so that both parties are clear on who is doing what and what level of interaction and collaboration is to be expected. And once that is set and determined, you can work on the logistics of these changes and how they will be developed, tested and deployed.
While each component is necessary for a comprehensive maintenance and product improvement strategy, typically, they are not something one individual can do well. It takes a well-rounded agency or a combination of other service providers to pull this off in a comprehensive way. What works for you and your company will depend on a few things, such as your overall structure, penchant for risk or mitigation of the same, and what capabilities your team already has in place.