Some time ago, a client got hit hard by a server update. We fixed things up of course, but at the risk of sounding bitter or smug, the entire incident would have been avoided if they had listened to us over two years ago.
To make a somewhat long story short, the server their site was hosted on got an upgrade - an upgrade they were notified about weeks, if not months, in advance about. Unfortunately, the upgrade resulted in their site showing errors. Lots of errors. Worse, they were losing money by the hour.
You see, the software their site runs on had been updated by four major point versions since we had started working with this particular client. To give you an idea, that's essentially going from 1.1 to 1.5. That's a lot of codebase updates! Updates that account for different server configurations and coding language updates (such as PHP versions), not to mention security patches.
Software - which includes websites - is much like a car (or any other major investment) in that it needs continual maintenance. And just like a car, if a website isn't kept up to date, it's going to break down at some point, usually through a server update or a breach in security. And just like a car, it's going to cost a lot more money and stress than it would have if the website were kept up-to-date.
Proper Website Maintenance
So what does website maintenance entail? That's going to vary based on the company you hire, but here are the two most important services that should be included to quickly deal with major website disasters.
1. Regular backups
Through our web hosting service, nightly backups are included in every hosting package. Most reliable web hosts do this. But that's not enough. A good maintenance plan will include making regular backups offsite, whether daily or weekly. This makes it easy to get your site back up and running should something happen (assuming it's not the server that's blown a gasket, so to speak). The key here is to regularly test your backups. What good is a backup if it isn't going to work when you really need it to? Whoever is providing your maintenance plan should be testing the backups once in a while.
2. Software updates
Most websites these days run on some kind of software: blogging platforms, content management systems, e-commerce solutions, etc. And every single one needs to stay updated to ensure it's compatible with current server technology and more importantly, to keep up with security patches. The number one reason we give for justification of a maintenance plan is security. While nothing is truly 100% secure, the last thing you want is to be hacked because your site wasn't kept as up to date as possible.
Breaking the Norm
Unfortunately if you search around for website maintenance plans almost all of them of them focus primarily on one thing: content updates. That is, keeping your site's content up to date and adding new content as needed. Of course that's great and should be included, but the fact that so many web developers skip over backups and software updates is unnerving to me as a web professional. We web developers need to be a lot more proactive! But it should unnerve you, the client, too. You've probably invested thousands in your site – not to mention a lot of hours – why leave things up to chance with a “typical" or cheap maintenance plan?
Not If, When
The next time you're budgeting for your website, be sure to include on-going maintenance needs that include backups and software updates. It won't necessarily be cheap, but you'll be glad you did when disaster strikes. As a colleague of mine says, it's not a matter of if, but when.