"Dreaded Upgrades" in Online Software

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"Dreaded Upgrades" in Online Software

As a fellow webmaster, I probably do not need to explain the possible horrors and implications of upgrading your favorite web software to a newer version. There are plugin updates to worry about, designs and templates that might become unusable, and if you hired a cheap web developer it's always possible they didn't follow the official guidelines for modifying the core system. However, they are not only worth it, but sometimes desperately needed.

One of the most common upgrades for a software like WordPress, XenForo, or another online system to power your community or content, is a security patch. These are smaller upgrades that don't always affect the system as a whole, but they can still bring their own slew of issues if the software is developed by a less organized or negligent development team. For the most part though, upgrading your website to the newest security patch is not what you need to worry about - It's the larger upgrades that can be tedious, especially when they change the way your site functions at its core.

Is Upgrading Possible?

From page routing and permissions to view manipulation, data handling, and more, major updates are frustrating to deal with as a webmaster... even when they are truly necessary. This may not be the case with every site, but there are plenty of times when a development team cannot anticipate every use of their software. For example, the free & popular forum software MyBB has a fairly decent history of clean upgrades and releases. Yet there are sites that have been forced to modify older versions of MyBB to fit their needs instead of upgrading as soon as a new version is released. I can even think of one site in particular that was forced to stay on an older version and then spend weeks modifying the new upgrade version so that their site would still function. Of course, they were an outlier with hundreds of millions of discussions on their site preventing them from using the software as intended, but it's not as uncommon as you may think.

Luckily, most webmasters will find that upgrading their site software is not only possible, but recommended and totally worth it. Even the most complex websites have pulled them off, so be careful with any excuses or hesitations you may have. Upgrades bring in new features, modern development standards, and a lot of benefits that shouldn't be ignored for too long. With some good planning and communication, even a lengthy upgrade taking a few hours or days will not kill your forum community or blog traffic.

Planning Software Updates

Even with more standard plugin or site add-on development, an upgrade can become more and more difficult with each unique feature you use. Perhaps this means site administrators should limit the amount of custom additions they apply to their website, but even smaller communities can face some troubles with updates. The main issue is that private or public development of plugins does not always follow the same timeline of the core software release. Of course the most famous development teams will announce their expected release dates, but that doesn't always ensure that theme designers or plugin creators will upgrade their own code to fit the new system. This leaves webmasters with the complex puzzle of wanting the new core system upgrade, but having to find alternatives to their favorite features - or at the very least wait until they are revamped to work correctly.

One alternative to jumping in to an update is to wait until your site's dependencies (plugins, themes, etc) are updated by their own creators. This may take some time, but there is another benefit besides having everything working from the start... Sometimes software updates don't go entirely as planned. Developers aren't perfect and occasionally releases will go out with unknown bugs or even known issues that the team plans on fixing later. When this affects security, it can be a major concern - as it should. Luckily this does not occur nearly as much in 2019 as it once did, but it's still known to happen. Even major tech websites and systems like Facebook have to constantly patch reported security flaws and other lower-impact bugs. So, while waiting may seem like a nuisance it can often be a good idea to ensure you are updating your software with all the security concerns taken care of. It's not uncommon to see a major update followed by a series of smaller & less intricate fixes over the following weeks.

Whether you wait a while or get started the moment the update is available, you should always have a proper plan in place. Here are some useful tips to make sure you do not disrupt your community, content releases, or website when updating to a new major version.

  1. Back up your entire website, including pages & files, database(s), and any other associated systems required to let your website work flawlessly.
  2. Create a new identical website (or even full on server) to install the new update on. This allows you to see what breaks, while keeping your actual live website on the older version so your community does not notice any changes.
  3. Identify any issues and resolve them prior to pushing the upgrade to your live site.
  4. Find replacements or plugin/add-on updates to work with the new system before you go ahead and update. Install the dependencies soon after and make sure you fully test each feature.
  5. Notify your site members or visitors of the upcoming change, and make sure you announce any planned or potential downtime because of the change.
  6. Rally the troops! If you have any staff, employees, or even friends who can help you with installations, testing, or migrations then get them ready and prepared for the work ahead.

It's Not All About Features

Even if you do not face any of these challenges and your planning period is relatively short and sweet, you may still have hesitations. Perhaps you do not think the new features associated with the upgrade are very notable. Maybe you are just fine running the oldest version of WordPress, or using an outdated and no longer supported forum software. Even if all the security is taken care of and the new features seem meaningless to you, there are still reasons to modernize the core system powering your website.

For one, if you ever do have a major issue, you may be out of luck. Old versions of software are often abandoned by the official developers and sometimes this means they won't even be there to answer your questions. Even if you have no major plans at this moment, your future changes can become extremely problematic when you not only have zero support from the original creators, but can't even find relevant articles online or a community to assist you.

Additionally, there is the whole aspect of code efficiency and speed. Poorly written code can bog down a server when its being visited by a large amount of users. This was part of my example for the MyBB update... The site simply had too many members and visitors to not modify the core system. They had to seriously limit the number of times the software needed to use the database, which made future upgrades an instant site-killer. However, they made the required changes so that they could benefit from the core updates that improved the site overall. Even with a bit of extra work, it was well worth it.

So, keep all of this in mind when you are considering an upgrade for your website. Even if there are some design or coding tweaks needed, or you have to wait for a plugin to be updated to the newest version, you will most likely benefit from the system - even if you're not interested in the features. Worse comes to worst, you can always hire me to handle your installation or upgrade for you. With managed website maintenance at my company Wubur, we ensure all of our clients can stay on top of their online software with little to worry about.

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