A quick update…

Right, you’ve got your shiny new website. It’s there, it’s pretty, people are starting to find it and like it. Job done, right?

Well, yes, the first part is done and it is a big part. It’s all the design work and decisions about what you want your website to look like, what kind of things you want it to say and how you’re going to use it. But the best websites are living things. They get updated, you add new content and you keep it fresh for your customers and fans. So you’ll be updating your site, writing new posts, adding new images, managing products (if it’s an online shop) and doing all that good stuff that only you can do.

Behind the scenes though, there’s another layer of updates going on and that’s where your friendly neighbourhood web designer and developer (i.e. us) come in. As the following diagram shows, your cool website is actually built upon a carefully constructed stack of technology that keeps the whole thing ticking.

Block diagram showing software underlying a website

Host platform

Right at the bottom, there’s the operating system running on the server hardware that hosts your website. Above that there is the web server software, which is what makes it act as a web server in the first place. Then, alongside that, there is usually a database system that holds your content. All of these are usually maintained and updated by your hosting company or by our hosting partner if we are providing your hosting.

Content Management

Above that, we have the content management system that looks after your website content and provides all the nice screen layouts and bells and whistles that your website uses to do its thing. It is possible to build websites without using a content management system, but for anything other than very small and simple sites, using a content management system makes the job much easier. For one thing, it simplifies managing and updating the content on the website. It also usually provides all kinds of tools and other goodies that help in building the kind of beautiful and dynamic websites that people expect to see.

One of the biggest and best known content management systems is WordPress. Although we don’t exlusively use WordPress for everything, the majority of the sites that we build do use it. The core WordPress software is then supplemented with two important additions:

  • Themes. These control the layout and look and feel of the site, colours, menu positions, etc; and
  • Plugins. These are extra bits of software that provide additional features and tools the website can use.

And, as you’ve probably already worked out, all of these bits of software and technological gadgets need to be updated on a regular basis as bugs are fixed or new features added.

The Update Process

These are the updates that we carry out as part of our care plan packages. One of my weekly tasks is to examine the latest sets of updates to WordPress, its themes and its plugins and identify any that are relevant to any of our websites. Since there are a number of standard plugins that we deploy to almost all sites (e.g. anti-spam software, search engine optimisation tools, email management tools) a quiet week might only see me needing to update a handful of things. However, with other sites such as online shops needing a much larger and more sophisticated range of additional plugins, a busy week might see me needing to update a few dozen different packages installed across multiple different websites.

To do this, I work through a check-list:

  1. Work out which updates are most important and need to be installed must urgently. For example, anything that represents a security risk or could potentially cause a major site failure goes to the top of the list.
  2. Ensure that the sites that need updates are running correctly and are ready to be updated. This includes checking that any system or software configuration that a particular update requires is done in advance. It also involves making sure we have suitable backups if anything were to go wrong during the update process.
  3. For each site that needs updates, install them in controlled stages. Some small updates may be able to be installed at the same time as one another and I may use software automation to allow me to do those in batches. However other updates may need to be installed separately or done in a specific order so I will handle those individually.
  4. Once updates are installed, check that sites are still running correctly and that the updates haven’t broken anything or caused any issues with the site content or layout. It’s actually pretty rare for an update to cause problems like this – most of the companies and developers producing this stuff are pretty good at it – but it is still a possibility. If something does go awry, I have to don my really big technical hat and either undo the update or fix the problem manually.

Once that’s done, I can sit down with a well-earned cup of tea and a biccie. Until next week anyway.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what the various “updates” parts of our care plans consist of, now you know.

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