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How to avoid downtime with website migration

Moving your website and email to a new provider can be a tricky task – if done incorrectly you can end up with no email, no website and days of frustration trying to talk techie down the phone to call centres babbling about IP addresses and DNS Servers.   However if planned correctly, there are ways of minimising or even eliminating downtime.

To understand the migration process requires some ground knowledge of the various elements that make up how the internet works.  The following are key technical terms:

  • Server – a computer which hosts emails, websites or DNS information
  • Domain Name – the address of your website i.e. teamvalleyweb.co.uk
  • Domain Name Registrar – the company whom hold your domain name i.e. 123-reg, Fasthosts
  • Nameserver – 2 or 3 servers which hold information about your domain name – which server it points to
  • DNS – the “telephone book” of the internet, the system which holds the IP Addresses of website hosting, email and other services on request when querying a domain name.  Without DNS, web browsers wouldn’t know that the machine with the IP address hosts the teamvalleyweb.co.uk website
  • IP Address – a numerical reference given to a specific network address, usually assigned to a server.  Usually in the format 111.2222.333.444
  • A Record – an entry in DNS which gives details on a specific IP Address associated with a service
  • MX Record – similar to A Records, but specific to email hosting

So that’s the technical babble out of the way; let us talk you through the various scenarios

Migration of a static website

This is very simple to do – upload a copy of the website to the new server, and change the A record on the domain name to your new server’s IP Address via your Domain Name Registrar.  Nameservers usually update in 2 hours, but it can be up to 48 hours.

Migration of a dynamic website

If you have a dynamic website, then you have no choice but to encounter a little downtime.   These few steps should help to minimise this downtime to about 2 hours:

  1. Upload a copy of the site to your new hosting company
  2. Put up a “Website undergoing maintenance”-type holding page on your live server
  3. Transfer across any files and database tables that have changes since step 1 to your new website hosting (but not the holding page)
  4. Update the A record to point to your new website server

Migration of email accounts

If you have POP or IMAP email, it doesn’t really matter.  Although IMAP is more involved as there are more files left on the server, the process should be followed regardless to ensure you don’t lose any email:

  1. Set up all email accounts and forwarding on the new server
  2. Using a client should as Outlook or Thunderbird, gain access to all accounts, both old and new, on both servers.  Use the old server IP address as the mail server name, instead of the domain name or reference
  3. Move emails from each old account to each new account – taking care to also copy any subfolders and sent items
  4. Update the MX records for the domain via the Domain Name Registrar
  5. After 24 hours, re-open Outlook/Thunderbird and move across any emails received by the old server to the new server

Testing websites before migration

Here’s a simple tip to enable you to test a website in situ on it’s new website hosing: edit your windows host file (usually C:\Windows\System32\drivers\etc\hosts) with:

111.222.333.444     new.domainname.com

With 111.222.333.444 being the IP address of your new server.  Don’t forget to delete this line once you have tested.

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