Keeping your website lights on

January 28, 2023

A website is no good to you if it is unreliable or not online. Just like anything, websites can break and become unresponsive, non-functioning or just not available. I'm sure you all remember the times when the likes of FaceBook or Twitter have been down. Here at Web X Design Studio, we take great strides to ensure your website is always available, or, if problems do occur, we fix them before you even notice. This article will talk about how we offer extremely reliable websites and how we monitor and fix if anything does go wrong.

Why do websites break?

The first thing to understand is why a website may break and have problems. Your website may be online for months and years without problems, and then bang, it's down. A bit like your car driving fine every day and then an engine component blows.

Hardware Failures

All websites need to run on a physical server, that's a computer, but larger and more powerful than what you have at home. Most servers have redundant components, so in the event of one component failing, the other one will take over. That is, if one disk drive fails, there's a duplicated copy of the contents on another drive.

But, irrespective of how much redundancy there is built in, if the power supply to the server is interrupted (for example) then the server, and hence your website goes offline.

Network Failures

You're likely reading this blog from your home, your place of work, or perhaps on your mobile phone. The server hosting the blog is in a data centre in London. There are multiple pieces of "string" between your device and the server. Like with the server, networks have many redundant connections, but if there is a major network interruption, then while the server may be online, the path from your device to it may be blocked. Who hasn't heard of workmen inadvertently cutting through cables?

Software Issues

Your website is built using many different software components, from the operating system on the server to the web server software and through to the plugins that make up your website.

Believe it or not, all software has bugs. While software engineers go to great lengths to squash as many bugs as they can, there is no way they can test all scenarios and bugs do exist. Some may appear when following a specific sequence of events, and some may only appear after a period of time. All bugs, when hit, have the potential to cause your website to stop functioning.

Software Updates

You are all familiar with software updates, whether that's the operating system or app on your computer or the applications on your phone. You'll update these over time, and generally, everything is good. Now and then, an update goes out that perhaps hasn't been tested will all the other applications you have, and it causes a compatibility issue and something breaks.

The technology stack used for websites needs to be regularly maintained and updated as well. Updates will bring new capabilities, bug fixes, security fixes and compatibility with the latest versions of other software. However, just like all apps on your phone cannot be tested together (what's the likelihood that someone has exactly the same phone setup as you do?) it's unlikely that a plugin developer for web server software can test compatibility with all other web server software, or simulate all the different scenarios that a user may use the software for.

Maintenance Time

Just like your car needing to go through regular servicing and maintenance, the same goes for the hardware and software that your website runs on. While most maintenance can be achieved without any interruption, there will be times when maintenance will cause some downtime. Perhaps the website needs to be moved from one data centre to another to take advantage of better resources. The good news here is that this is typically known in advance and can be scheduled during quiet periods.

Security Hack

We've all heard of nefarious users of the internet hacking into websites. Sometimes this is to highlight security holes, so they get fixed - "good hacking", but we've all heard of data being stolen and services being unavailable due to "bad hacking".

Keeping your website running and available

Here at Web X Design Studio, we'll not just deliver you a great-looking and functioning website or online store, we do a lot of work in the background to ensure it's as available as it possibly can be. It's almost impossible to have a site available 100% of the time and any company offering that, IMO, is likely being disingenuous, particularly if the hosting costs are relatively low.

We'll discuss how we achieve very high availability of all of our websites next.

Good, modern hosting

As you saw above, your website needs to live on one or more physical servers. Here at Web X Design Studio, we use Stablepoint for our hosting. You've likely not heard of them as they do not spend big money on big adverts. Instead, they spend their money on providing rock-solid servers and hosting. If you do know anything about the hosting industry, you'll know that these guys are good.

All hosting with them is backed by a 99.9% uptime guarantee. What that means is that in a 31-day month, no server should be offline for more than 44 minutes. In reality, as you'll see shortly, our websites are online pretty much all the time!

Using the right software

We use WordPress for our websites and WooCommerce for our online stores. WordPress powers more than 40% of all websites on the internet and WooCommerce is the most popular eCommerce solution for WordPress. The more popular the software is, the more it is being used which means that any bugs that might exist are already likely to have been caught.

Keeping your website secure

I can't write too much about the security tools and procedures we use, but suffice to say, we take security extremely seriously. If we were to advertise how we secured everything, that potentially gives any hackers a headstart if they did want to try to attack our sites.

Software Updates

We use a centralised portal to monitor all our websites which informs us when new software updates are available. The updates bring new features, but often bug fixes, security fixes and greater compatibility. We'll typically update software relatively soon after the updates come out and then check for issues. In our view, it's better to update sooner rather than later. Once security vulnerabilities have been found and announced into the wild, hackers will go out of their way to try to exploit them.

Pro-Active Monitoring

Now you know that problems do exist, we at Web X Design Studio don't want you to worry about them or even to know that they have occurred. In this section, we'll highlight all the monitoring and remediation methods we use to keep your website lights on.

Uptime monitoring

Every website we host has uptime monitoring configured which tests for the site being online every one minute. Tests are performed from multiple locations around the UK (or from locations close to where the majority of your customers will be). The test not only looks for whether the site is online or not, but will also test to make sure the right content is being displayed by checking for specific keywords being displayed on the page. A further test will ensure that the website is responding in a timely manner.

If two tests in a row fail, we'll be notified by both email and WhatsApp. Here's our availability stats from the last 5 months:

Almost 100% website availability

What that means is that during the last 5 months, across all the sites we host, they have all been online apart for just 2 minutes. That's a pretty impressive stat!

Page Display

Just because a website is online doesn't necessarily mean it is functioning correctly. A software component may have failed causing issues. Or in a worst-case scenario, the site may be hacked and be displaying damaging content to our customers' brand. Therefore every day, we have software which takes a picture of the most important pages of a website and compares them with the previous day's picture. If there is a difference of more than 5%, we get notified and will go and investigate.

As an example, below are screenshots from The Woodland Pig Co. shop page. The left most capture is from January 13th 2023 and the middle capture is from January 14th 2023:

The Woodland Pig Co.
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Sometime between these two captures, the shop owner added a new product highlighted in the red box. This caused all other products to shift right or down in the ordering, causing a big difference between the two captures.

While this is clearly a false positive, it highlights the page difference monitorign in action. If something had gone very wrong with the display of the page, this is the type of alert we receive and will immediately respont to.

Transactional Testing

Just because a website is online and looks OK doesn't mean that it is functioning correctly. What I mean by that is anything transactional, like submitting a message via the site contact form, or purchasing a product from the online shop, may still not be working. Again, there may be some software issues causing issues; perhaps the email-sending component has issues or the shops basket mechanism isn't working. For these type of use cases, we'll run real tests that send a message, purchase a product etc.

What you can see in this video is a fully automated test which fills in a contact form and sends a message through the Web X Design Studio website and then goes to certain pages to check for specific keywords on them. I will say, we particularly like this type of testing:

Problem Resolution

If a problem is detected, there are numerous means to resolve them, too many to list here. The main takeaway is that we will know about them and will resolve them, likely before you are aware if you notice at all.

Offsite Backups

The "nuclear" resolution is to restore a site back to a previously known working state. While we never really want to do this, we need the capability to do it if we need to. To facilitate this, we take a full backup of your website once a day and store it at a location which is far away from the data centre that hosts your web server.

Why is this important? If anything happened to the server, such as the data centre burning down (it has happened), we still need access to the backup data to recover the website to another location. If the backup is stored in the exact same location as the server, and if a fire occurs, you've not only lost the website you've lost all means to restore it as well. Your site is then going to be down for days if not weeks while it is rebuilt.

If we had to use the "nuclear" option to restore a website and restore it to a different data centre, we could likely have the site back up and running within one to two hours.

Conclusion

Websites can go offline or break for numerous reasons. What you need is a setup which minimises the chances of failure in the first place. Then, if an issue does occur, to be aware of the issue and have it resolved quickly.

Here at Web X Design Studio we use a leading technology stack to keep our websites online in the first place and have numerous proactive monitoring systems in place to alert us if anything does fail. Being technology "nerds", we'll get everything back up and running quickly if the worst does happen. Choosing a website development agency is not just about having a great site built for you. You also need to ensure it's in safe hands for the day-to-day operations you need from the site.

You don't have to have your website built by us to have it hosted and managed with us. If you're interested in bringing your WordPress website to us, do reach out. Don't take chances with your online presence, have it hosted and managed by those that know.

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