Website Management and Hosting
I originally wrote this article as a four-part series back in 2012. So much has changed in the last decade. For one, server stability was a much bigger issue back then.
Today web technologies have benefited from many advances that have led to more stable environments. Though security threats have only grown, security services have become much more commonplace and more affordable.
Managed website server hosting has also plummeted in cost. We pay tens of dollars today for what we used to pay over a thousand for.
Managing a Website
Because FatLab is a website management company, I am sometimes 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 website.
What Website Management Typically Includes
The complexity of managing a website is often determined by how the website was built, what language, types of servers 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. Whereas a content management system (CMS) will require more attention and a custom application potentially even more.
Security is a primary objective of managing any Website. CMSs such as WordPress let us know within the administrative area when plugins, modules, and the core CMS need to be updated. Keeping software up to date is definitely step one.
Additionally, it is important that the server the website is hosted on is regularly patched, runs a server-based firewall and the host has taken steps to ward off DDoS attacks.
Finally, a website should utilize a Web Application Firewall (WAF), which is a real-time firewall that monitors traffic for malicious intent and immediately blocks it before it hits the server.
Disaster Preparedness & Recovery
Beyond security, it is important to ensure that you protect yourself against unplanned disasters. Servers crash, data becomes corrupt and people make mistakes.
Having a backup plan is essential. You should ensure that you have multiple backups (daily, weekly and monthly) and that they a stored on different systems. Also, be sure to check your backups on a regular basis. Nothing is worse than 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.
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 manager 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 will is determined by your marketing strategy, your business type, and your audience.
Blogs are a great way to keep a site fresh with new content but don’t forget to post and show off your offline efforts such as newsletters and marketing pieces.
Managing a Web Server
Thanks to modern cloud services and server management tools, most business owners today don’t have to deal with managing a web server at all.
This is certainly different from when I first started working in web development (way) back in the late 1990s.
Even as a web management agency, we outsource our server management to an infrastructure partner that provides everything from the actual servers to 24/7 engineers/system administrators to maintain those. Today it is easy to take advantage of different features provided by data centers all over the world.
Regardless of the more modern ease of management, the underlying complexity remains so I thought I would leave this information in place as a simple primer.
The Web Server Environment
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 server environments include:
- 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.
- Web servers (both hardware and software)
Despite the fact we typically refer to the computer that runs a website as a ‘server’, these computers typically have multiple servers or ‘serverware’ installed on them.
One of the most common configurations to run popular content management systems (CMS) such as WordPress, including the Apache Web server and the MySQL database servers.
Firewalls typically exist on multiple levels:
Web Server Management
The Job of the Website Hosting Company
In a typical website management scenario, this is the job of the website management company and/or web host. This 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 host’s documentation on.
Managed Web Server Services
Today most companies are taking advantage of various cloud hosting services and virtualization. Dedicated hardware servers are almost a thing of the past for website owners, though complex applications can still require more complex dedicated environments.
Most of these server and web hosts are “managed” in the sense that the hosting company takes responsibility for the infrastructure and the website owner must only worry about their website and related services.
Unmanaged Web Servers do Still Exist
However, this is not always the case. Companies like Digital Ocean, Linode, and Vultr still offer barebones virtual servers. These can be had for only a few dollars a month, but beyond the network and hardware are completely unmanaged. It is up to the server administrator to install, configure and secure their own environment and support is very limited.
Business owners who are not in the field of web server management should stay away from these and entrust their sites to more managed hosting plans and services.