Do you really know how your site works?

Last night I was decorating my Christmas Tree when a friend notified me my Web site was down with a “database unavailable” error. The next two and a half hours were spent in daze of first panic, turned to frustration and then anger as I worked with my hosting provider to bring the site back up. Since you’re reading this, you know I was successful. But as I returned to my tree at 10:30 p.m., mentally and physically exhausted and completely devoid holiday spirit or merriment I started questioning everything about my site and my philosophy behind operating it and I suspect I'm not the only one in this situation.

Let’s back up a bit and explain how I got here. I'm frugal (let’s don’t say cheap). I don’t mind paying for quality, but I hate paying for anything I can do myself. I run this site for less than $60 a year for hosting costs and a domain with a self-install of WordPress and for years it’s worked. I was able to follow instructions or Google my way through installation, upgrades and any problems in the past so why pay more? But in the pit of my stomach I was always a little uncomfortable. I always got by, but I never really understood how my site worked or if my data was really being backed up and secured. I heard about WordPress sites being hacked and other problems but I just figured if I kept my head down, used good passwords and stayed updated I'd be okay.

A few weeks ago I got a notice from my host, 1and1, they were no longer supporting any version of PHP earlier than 5.4 and notifying me to make a change in my customer Control Panel and test my site. I had until after the first of the year to make the change so I threw it in my task list until I had some time to go through and actually see what this meant. Yesterday morning I dug into it, I made sure WordPress was fully upgraded and compatible, flipped the switch per the instructions, tested my site and all was well. I left the house for the day shortly thereafter and had no idea anything was wrong until 8:30 p.m. when I got notice my site was down. Who knows how long it was actually unavailable.

After about 30 minutes of trying myself to fix the problem I knew I had to call my host’s technical support which is off-shore. Although I have a conceptual understanding of PHP and SQL databases, I have no idea how WordPress actually works or how to troubleshoot a problem. However the more than two hours I spent on the phone with my friend from India trying one failed solution after another did give me the opportunity to explore the underbelly of my site and I knew just enough to know this guy was shooting into the dark. Long story short, after two hours my initial fear of losing my site and all the data grew into frustration and then finally I took a shot in the dark myself and managed to duplicate my old files to a new database, update my Wordpress config file and restore my site. My tech support friend was surprised “Oh, very good ma’am, looks like you didn’t need me after all!”

If I knew more about how WordPress worked I could have foreseen this issue, or at least known how to resolve it, the fix was actually quite simple. The problem is, I don’t and I find myself at the mercy of others when something goes wrong. It seems like my options are either 1) really put the time in and learn how this all works so I can support myself or 2) pay someone to manage everything for me. Part of me would really likes option one. As frustrating as my experience last night was, I did feel like I got to stretch my geek muscles a bit and I learned something. But at this time in my life with all my commitments and projects I'd rather do, I'm thinking option two sounds more realistic. I'm considering switching either to an alternate host that provides a more “all in one” Wordpress experience and will take are of the updates, backup, and security or move to a comprehensive service like SquareSpace.

There are pros and cons to either approach. But my experience last night showed that something has got to give. While it’s very possible I could hobble along for months or years without another issue I'm no longer comfortable with the current state of things. Figuring out a solution has now gotten bumped to the top of my priority list.