The perils of being a webmaster

If you enjoy watching paint dry, read on …

Those of you who avidly watch the website for new content will have been just a little disconcerted when you found that the site was offline for around 48 hours recently. You didn’t notice? Ah well, there’s another illusion shattered.

The old website

First, a little background. Our website was created by Julie Crawley in 1995 on an Exeter University server as a ‘hard-coded’ HTML site; it later moved with her to Oxford University. In 2003 Chris Banks redesigned the website using the Dreamweaver and Xara screen layout software; hosting was by this time on a free British Library public account. Julie having moved on from Oxford, Chris looked after the website until I took it on in 2004 as Webteam Convenor. Without access to Dreamweaver I needed to revert to hard-coded HTML maintenance while preserving the graphics that Chris had devised. It took me quite a while to rationalize the background code that the software had been so profligate in producing — that’s how to learn one’s HTML ‘on the hoof’. In 2004 the BL hosting option was closed down so from then onward we were generously hosted on an office server in Milan alongside the website. In more recent times that site was moved first to a host in Iceland and then to a California-based company called Dreamhost, and we continued to piggy-back alongside.

Exec has been conscious for several years of the website being in need of an upgrade but despite more than one subcommittee’s endeavours we were not moving forward. In the meantime, having acquired some small experience of it through assisting the webmaster and web editor of the website I proposed that we should use the same open-source Drupal CMS (Content Management System). Even then a first attempt to find developers within the Branch’s price range failed, but a second attempt found White Fuse Media, a London-based company designing customized websites for charities and in due course work started. The big advantage of having a CMS-based website is that Branch officers are now able to create and edit their own pages without needing to ask the webmaster to apply the appropriate coding for them.

With some assistance from the developers I spent a couple of months copying, reformatting and sometimes editing content from the old website, as well as sourcing images — more of these are always welcome — and refining the structure and menus.

We launched the new website without fanfare in mid-September on the developers’ host for which the Branch was paying a six month lease that included maintenance by the developers. That lease was due to come to an end on 30th November. Continuing with the full maintenance regime was ruled out as too costly an option. Although international IAML had been happy to host our small website for many years, the move to Drupal suggested that it would be appropriate for us to set up a separate account for the Branch’s website. A low-cost hosting package with Dreamhost was chosen and the task of moving the website now loomed large.

The domain (i.e. the name) had been with its original London-based company ever since the first website launched but with shortening renewal periods. Email accounts for some officers were for a year or two set up with the same company until a cheaper forwarding alternative was found.

The move to Dreamhost provided an opportunity to rationalize and move our domain hosting, email and website all to the same host covered by just one (smaller) subscription. During November the domain was transferred without any serious problems and email forwarding was transferred, now with an additional option of unlimited fully functional maiboxes. The email move caused some limited disruption to service.

As the end of November approached content on the website was frozen and I requested a copy of the database and software from the developers, then proceeded to install it in the Dreamhost account. All appeared to have gone well: the website was fully visible and fuctional until … I received an invoice from White Fuse for the forthcoming month. Oops, someone had failed to cancel the account at their end. That was completed later the same day and suddenly our website went offline. Up to that point I had been assuming that the site was now operating off Dreamhost while it was in fact still running on White Fuse’s host. Panic stations — this saga is an illustration of the maxim ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’, which instantly became full public knowledge. Support requests to the new host were not getting us anywhere fast with the eight hour time difference as well as queuing of support requests and dealing with different people. To my eternal gratitude the webmaster with his much deeper knowledge of Drupal, databases and hosting came to the rescue and managed to rebuild things in working order, ending a nail-biting weekend.

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If you have stuck with this to the end, there are alas no actual prizes but you do get a commendation for patience in the face of adversity.