2022 Update On Website Hosting and Management
I originally wrote this article as a four part series back in 2012. So much has changed in the last 10 years. For one, sever stability was a much bigger issues. Today web technologies have benefited from many advances that have lead to more stable environments. Though security threats have only grown, security services have become much more commonplace and more affordable.
Managed web server hosting has also plummeted in cost. We pay 10’s of dollars today for what we used to pay over a thousand for. Non managed servers still can be had for a few bucks a month but most consumer facing vendors are now offering managed services at least on the server level.
Managing a Website
Because of what FatLab does, I am often asked what it means to ‘manage a Website’. Because this is such a regular topic for us, I figured I would take it a step further and address the various components of how to manage a Web site in a series of posts.
Taking a technical approach to how to manage a website, each section will address one of the critical components that needs attention when managing a web server and a hosted site.
Websites for the most part these days are ‘dynamic’, meaning they allow change and constant activity with ease. Typically administered through a content management system (CMS), a non-technical user can control otherwise sophisticated tools through a Web browser.
However, because of these dynamic features and toolsets we rely on a set of relatively complex tools that the average user rarely ever touches or even thinks about. These include:
- The operating system
- web servers (both hardware and software)
- and more
Managing a website includes being concerned about stability, security and user experience.
The Operating System
Just like a desktop computer, a Web server has a core software system or operating system that allows it to run other software programs. From a common use scenario, web servers come in two flavors: Windows and Linux.
Both operating systems are constantly changing and being updated. As far as managing a website, what we really need to be concerned about is security and stability.
Microsoft releases updates for their servers on a regular basis as do the various Linux distributions. It is of the utmost importance that the operating system be kept up to date for both stability and security.
The Job of the Website Hosting Company
In a typical website management scenario, this is the job of the web host. The web hosting company should make a proactive effort to ensure that the operating system remains up to date. This is especially important when it comes to security patches. In a shared hosting environment this is something you should ask about or check the hosts documentation on.
Managed Server Services
In a dedicated environment (where you have a physical server or virtual server dedicated to just your website(s)), management might include monitoring and updating the operating system. If the dedicated server is hosted by a hosting company, they will typically offer ‘managed services’ which covers keeping the operating system up to date.
Managed services add cost to your hosting plan but provide you access a technical team to help manage your server and keep the operating system up to date.
Web and Database Servers
Despite the fact we typically refer the computer that runs a website as a ‘server’, these computers typically have multiple servers or ‘serverware’ installed on them.
A simple configuration includes a web server and a database server. One of the most common configurations to run popular content management systems (CMS) such as WordPress, include the Apache Web server and the MySQL database servers.
Both of these are open source, the combination of their stability and ease of configuration is what makes them so popular.
Like the operating system, these are designed to to be relatively low maintenance and not something you have to work with on a daily basis when managing a website.
However, just like all aspects of web infrastructure it is incredibly important to keep these servers up to date with the latest security patches and major versions as older versions become depreciated.
Initial Web Server Setup
Another important task of managing the serverware is the initial setup. Both web servers and database servers have many different functions and not all are used in every environment. The default install is typically not production ready and a server administrator will need to turn on and off features as needed as well set security parameters.
It is important that during the setup of the web servers you ensure that certain configuration settings are in place to aid in performance of your web site. For example, both database and web servers can be configured to deliver data in compressed and/or cached formats, for example, which can greatly improve web performance when configured correctly. There are many other configurations that you must consider when deploying a website in a new hosting environment.
Like the operating system, management of the serverware is often the job of the web host provider. On typical shared hosting plans this will be case. However when managing a website on a virtual private server (VPS) or dedicated machine it is important that you understand your responsibility versus the host’s when it comes to keeping the various servers up to date, secure and stable.
Web Servers and Programming Languages
As web servers answer requests for information and ‘serve’ this information in a usable manner, it takes another component to actually decipher what it is the programmer had intended to happen when it is requested.
Servers to Decipher for Your Particular Web Languages
How does a website pull the correct title and text to a particular blog article and know how and where to place it on the page or know what to do with the information collected in a web form? Functions like these are programmed in by the developer who wrote the scripts that run the website and they do so by writing code in a preferred language.
PHP, Ruby, Perl, VB, ColdFusion are all examples of languages that can be used to program a website and there are many more. For each language that is used within a website, the server must know how to run that language – decipher commands written in that language.
Like the last two items I have discussed; operating systems and servers, the installation of any needed webware is typically installed and maintained by the host. When you choose a web hosting provider and hosting plan you will make sure that all appropriate languages are installed on your host server and ready to read and process your code.
Managed Website Hosting Services vs. Self Maintained
Working with a host company makes this aspect of managing a website very easy. However if you are running your own server or have opted for a dedicated or semi-dedicated (VPS) hosting environment you may have to maintain the webware yourself. The default installation is typically not production ready and you will want to look into security best practices as well as customize as needed for your particular application.
Web Server Security
Security is of course incredibly important and if it is not being taken care of for you by your host you need to make sure you keep up to date with all security patches. In addition you will want to make sure you update major versions when needed and as older version become depreciated (no longer supported or patched).
Keeping Up With Web Server Technology
Upgrading your language platforms does come with risks because your software was written on an older version, it may not be fully compatible with a newer version. A test environment should be setup before upgrading any production environment.
Managing Your Website
We finally get to the actual website. Depending on your hosting situation, this very well might be the only part you have to concern yourself with. However it is important, as mentioned earlier, that you review your responsibilities to keeping the operating system, servers and languages up to date – especially from a security perspective.
The complexity in managing a website is often determined by how the website was built, what language or platform it was built on and how the website functions. A static HTML site, for example, doesn’t need a whole lot of care in order for it to remain stable and secure, while a content management system (CMS) will require more attention and a custom application potentially even more.
Beyond content updates, a common thread through these articles, security is a primary objective to managing any Website. CMS’s such as WordPress make this chore fairly easy by letting us know within the administrative area when plugins, modules and the core CMS need to be updated. It is important to check for these alerts and monitor announcements from their parent companies and contributors for patches and updates.
Disaster Preparedness & Recovery
Beyond security it is important to ensure that you protect yourself against unplanned disaster. Servers crash, data becomes corrupt and people make mistakes (even when the warning says ‘Are you sure you want to delete this?’).
Having a backup plan is essential. You should ensure that you have multiple backups (daily, weekly and monthly) and they a stored on different systems. Also be sure to check your backups on a regular basis. Nothing is worse then finding out that your backup system is not working after a disaster.
Usability and Testing
Usability is something that requires regular attention. Even the most simple websites are subject to having usability issues simply because of constantly changing web browsers and computers.
More complex applications tend to show their issues and bugs over the lifespan of the site. Even the most stringent testing program prior to launch will not come up with every single user scenario. Bugs will exist and will need to be squashed as they come to light. Probably one of the most important exercises a website manger can do on a regular basis is to use the site, try things out and ensure everything is working as planned.
We have all been to a website that clearly has not been given any attention in a long time. There is a stale feeling and design aside, it says something about a business when such an important marketing tool is taken for granted. The frequency of updating wil be determined by your marketing strategy, your business type and online audience.
Blogs are a great way to keep a site fresh with new content, but don’t forget to post and show off you offline efforts such as newsletters and marketing pieces.