Alpha Brand Media, the publisher of Search Engine Journal, started with just one site in 2007. Acquisitions, mergers, and a few sites launched from scratch brought us many more.
It’s not a nice feeling to wake up to 50 emails notifying you that your sites went down overnight.
When I was CTO of ABM, I learned the hard way how to efficiently on-board and manage both small sites and large sites. My hope is that by outlining our best practices, it will help both single- and multi-site owners and webmasters avoid some of the headaches we went through.
A small but important side note is how I think about technology and organization. I like things to be neat and in order. My workspace is always cleared off, free of any paper, exposed cables, or distractions. It’s just a lonely iMac, a wireless keyboard and trackpad. My co-workers point at my desk and ask jokingly “does anyone live here?”
I like to think about ABM’s technology the same way: clean and in order. We may never reach perfection, whatever that state is, but the team always strives for it.
One registrar to rule them all
Starting at the very bottom of the stack and working your way up: your registrar is where your domains live. Thanks to acquisitions, ABM has had at least 10 different registrars until we decided to consolidate everything at Moniker. They gave us a good discount and their interface was simple and uncluttered, a distinct contrast to the “upsell hell” of some well-known competitors.
It seemed like a simple and fast project but some of our domain transfers ended up taking months. We had missing or inaccessible email accounts listed in the contact info, and when we updated them this triggered a 60 day waiting period before the registrar would allow the transferring of the domain(s).
Tip: When you are about to move a domain, don’t make any changes to the domain’s email/contact info listed with the registrar. Take care of the move first, and once it’s finalized then fix the contact info. This little tip would have saved us months of waiting on a handful of our domains.
Next up on the stack is DNS. For our smaller sites or parked/redirect domains we just use the built-in hosting from Moniker.
For our larger sites we chose DNSMadeEasy as our enterprise DNS solution. Again, a simple clean interface and a functional dashboard make it easy to manage a large number of sites.
Hosting will make or break you
Next up is hosting. We’ve used a bunch of different providers. We ended up consolidating on dedicated servers from ServerBeach. It’s a pretty bare bones setup with managed support for the hardware and network only.
We pack the servers with RAM and 4 CPUs running WHM (cPanel) to make it easy to manage multiple sites and to keep each site separate (in terms of the UNIX user). Each server has 4 drives with two RAID 0 partitions: one for the live data and one for local backups. This makes it much easier if we ever need to move a site or rebalance the load across servers.
Servers generally run at 50% capacity to allow for spikes and in the worst case, failover. We put the servers in physically separate data centers (Austin, Wash DC, LA, etc) in case of local catastrophe. We don’t run in a master/master or with any fancy replication. Each site is live on a single server.
In a follow-up post I will go into detail about how we configure apache/suphp/php/apc/memcache/mysql for optimal performance .
Managed Services gives you peace of mind
The ace in the hole for operations and keeping things running smoothly is managed services from rackaid.com. Jeff and his team kick major butt. They keep an eye on things and 24/7 take care of any outages either by making the fix/restart themselves or for hardware or network issues filing a ticket on our behalf with ServerBeach. They also do periodic security patches and keep the software all up-to-date.
We used to handle this aspect ourselves, but found it increasingly harder to keep up as our sites grew. Plus it’s not a nice feeling to wake up to 50 emails notifying you that your sites went down overnight.
Time-saving and optimization apps
Many of our sites are now running with Google PageSpeed Service. It gives us some caching, lots of on-the-fly optimizations and it’s free.
We use rsync.net to geo-redundant copy the nightly cPanel backups off the servers. This way if we totally lose a server or data center we could restore from rsync to a live server. A switch of DNS would have us back in business.
For internal collaboration and for any of our sites that need email, we use Google Apps. Yeah yeah it used to be free… but it’s still worth it at $50/user/yr. Hard to beat if you rely on email for critical communications. Our employees find it easy to use as most are Gmailers anyway.
Finally, for WordPress itself, we use managewp.com which makes running 100’s of WordPress sites as easy as running one. It has a super simple dashboard to push plugins or config changes to keep things running smoothly.
Well I think that covers it. What do you use for your hosting/tech stack? See anything in ours you’d improve on?
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