Here’s a secret among web developers.

Always have a staging server.

Actually, it’s not a secret. It’s just such an ordinary part of a professional web developer’s world that it goes without saying. And since it’s not said very often, it sometimes takes a while for website beginners to learn about.

So I’m telling you now. Get yourself a staging server.

OK, you say. But what’s a staging server?

A staging server (in layman’s terms) is a website where you can test new stuff before you put it on your live website. That’s it. Not complicated. The only requirement is that your staging server is set up in a way that is exactly like the live site.

Whenever you need to make a website change — like:

  • trying out a new theme for your blog,
  • or installing a new plug-in,
  • or you’re going from just a blog and adding e-commerce
  • or tweaking the style sheets

Any time you need to make a change to the way the website works, you try it out on the staging server first. You make sure everything works fine on your staging server first. Then, if you install that great new theme and everything disappears, you haven’t inadvertently torpedoed your live website. You’re free to tinker without losing your visitors and without putting up one of those annoying “Our site is in maintenance mode, please check back later” notices.

Think about it. If the whole site breaks when you install that plug-in, your maintenance mode page may not even show up.

Once you’ve tested it all out and made sure everything is working correctly, then you copy it over to your live site.

Say you get a notice that your site software — maybe a theme, maybe a plugin, maybe the the core software — has been updated and it’s a major update. Maybe it’ll all work on your site. But with any major update, it may not. There may be a bug someone didn’t catch. There may be something on your site that wasn’t tested with the update. You just don’t know. Do you really want to try it live with everyone looking?

No reputable act does their rehearsals live for all the world to see. Even in improv, a lot of rehearsal and practice goes into it somewhere on a practice stage where things can go terribly wrong without having to refund all the tickets for the tour.

Your live website is the tour, the main event, the show everyone came to see. Your staging server is where you practice. Where you work out the kinks. Where you hit all the off-notes, where the big image in the site header all of a sudden appears half-way off the screen and the fonts all of a sudden are only 8 pixels high.

Do yourself a favor. Even if you’re “just an armature blogger”, but especially if you’re wanting to get into serious web development. Get yourself a staging server.

Next up: How to Get a Staging Server

Photo Credit: Matt McGee