I moved all the websites I have or manage to WebFacton this past weekend. It was, as they say, a non-trivial undertaking. Broken down into categories and in rough order of execution here is how I did the move.
Creating an account with WebFaction is straight-forward and quick. The signup process allows you to choose your account id and my first choice was immediately accepted. I’m used to having to trial-and-error my way through increasingly unlikable user ids to find one that hasn’t already been taken. Getting my first choice was nice. Even though the site warned me that it may take an hour for my account to be activated in truth it was more like 15 minutes.
Four years ago when I signed up with Bluehost I didn’t realize that my user id would be the first 8 characters of the primary (first) domain I hosted there. I ended up canceling my first account, getting my money back, and creating a new account in order to have a marginally acceptable user id. A small thing to be hung up on perhaps, but illustrative of the different approach WebFaction has so far displayed.
Like any nerd I immediately signed in to my new account both through the my.webfaction.com URL and through a command line using secure shell (ssh). I was delighted to discover that WebFaction supports either bash or zsh as your default shell. For nearly a year now I’ve been using zsh anywhere and everywhere I can and one of the first things I setup on the new server was my zsh configuration. This was made easier since WebFaction also includes Git.
I have kept all my configuration files, including my zsh setup in a Git repository for some time now. Being able to clone that setup to my new WebFaction account with a single command made my afternoon last Friday. With my dotfiles repository in place, oh-my-zsh installed, and some ln -s commands issued to link everything together I had my preferred setup on the new remote server.
Unlike many shared-IP hosting providers, WebFaction does not use cPanel as the default set of tools used to manage your account. Instead they have developed their own control panel. It is very easy to use and doesn’t have all the pseudo-spammy extras that every other cPanel installation seems to come with. With just a few minutes exploring I was able to find my way around the WebFaction control panel with ease. Best of all they have excellent documentation.
WebFaction has the concept of an “application”. Each application is really a container for holding resources used to create a site. The application may be static or dynamic. It is easy to pre-install a number of tools including Rails, Django, and WordPress. I created eleven applications: 4 WordPress and the rest static. From the command line I could see that the webapps directory was being populated with new sub-directories named for the applications I was creating. Simple and straight-forward.
With the application container in place I started moving the resources that made up each site from the old Bluehost server to the new WebFaction one. The smaller static sites were done first as they were less complicated - just copy the html, css, and other files. In the case of the WordPress sites I needed to do some setup to the WordPress installation WebFaction did for me. Each of the 4 WordPress sites I moved has its own theme and collection of plugins. Once I had the theme installed (or copied from Bluehost) and the plugins installed and configured, I used the export/import feature in WordPress to move the content.
Applications are mapped to domains through a website. It is possible to map the same application to multiple domains or sub-domains. Initially I mapped all 11 applications to my default WebFaction domain: <userid.webfactional.com>. This allowed me to view the sites without having to initiate the name server change. I just mapped each new application to a new path on my default domain. So for application-x I created a website record that mapped it to userid.webfactional.com/site-x. Once I could see each site through this mapping I was able to address any issues that had cropped up during the move.
##Domains and Name Server Changes
With sites in place the next step was to add the domain to WebFaction. This was a two-step process. I added the domain and created a new website record mapping the appropriate application. Next I went to the Domain Manager on Bluehost to change the name server records. Once the name server change had been initiated all I could do was wait for the new information to propagate through the DNS system. Most of the changes I made resolved within 24 hours.
Like applications and website, mailboxes and email addresses are separate. I created a mailbox for each address we currently have. Next I created an email address that was mapped to that mailbox. It would be possible to have multiple email addresses mapped to the same mailbox.
Two of the email addresses I moved had thousands of emails associated with them. Moving an IMAP-based email account is not the easiest thing in the world. After much trial-and-error, including a €30 purchase of imapsync, I was able to transfer some 22,000 emails through the brute force method of copying them from the Bluehost account to a local email folder on one of our laptops and then copying them from the local email folder to the new WebFaction email account. I believe imapsync would have worked, but I was too tired at the time I was working with it (midnight on a 14-hour day) to figure it out. It’s an industrial strength package with industrial strength options.
Of all the steps I completed getting email moved successfully was the most stressful and most time consuming. See the Afterward below for more on email.
In addition to the four WordPress databases, which were automatically created for me when I created each WordPress application, I needed three more databases for the Mint visit tracking system used on three of our sites. So as to not lose any visits during the move I wanted to have external access granted to these three databases. That way I could point the Bluehost instance of the site to the WebFaction based Mint database. With the WebFaction instance of the site also pointed to the WebFaction Mint database any visit to the site would be tracked no matter when the name server change propagated.
I was able to submit a support ticket to WebFaction requesting the external access and access was granted within minutes.
WebFaction’s support has been outstanding through-out this process. I was able to ask questions before signing up, helping me to plan my steps. And I was able to create a couple of tickets asking for help during my move. Both support processes were easy to use and both provided quick, helpful answers.
With all the sites up and running on WebFaction’s servers and all name server changes propagated I started the domain registration transfer. Bluehost has been our domain registrar but I wanted to completely cut ties with them. Rather than put all my domain eggs in one basket I decided to use NameCheap.com as my registrar. Working with NameCheap has been very good. They have a transfer how-to page for many of the more popular domain registrars, including Bluehost. Following the how-to steps I was able to unlock and transfer all seven domains. While the process can take up to 5 days, all seven of my transfers completed within a few hours.
As a just-in-case measure I compressed and downloaded all the files and directories I had under public_html on Bluehost. I shouldn’t ever need these archives, but it feels good to have them any way. I then deleted any file I created or uploaded to my Bluehost account. The final step will be to cancel the account and initiate a refund for the final six months of my pre-paid account.
I need to investigate some weirdness with how Thunderbird is working with the new mailbox for Sibylle’s email address. She isn’t able to copy messages from her inbox to some, but not all, sub-folders. I am hoping that removing the account and re-adding it will clear up the issue.
The connection between my site and the Mint instance it uses for visit tracking isn’t working reliably at the moment. I’m not sure what the issue is here.
There were two sub-domains on my site that I rarely ever used that I haven’t done anything about yet. One was a personal wiki and the other a Tumblr site. The Tumblr still works, it just isn’t mapped to a sub-domain of zanshin.net any more. I may or may not recreate the personal wiki - I tend to use Evernote for the same purpose now.
If I had to do this all over I would do most of it the same way. I forced myself to make a checklist (a sanitized version of which is below) and used it religiously. As I learned from one task I updated all similar tasks. Having everything written down was critical to keeping my sanity. The original checklist had 97 steps. The final one has over 300.
The biggest thing I would change would be my approach to email. Email is only logically tied to your website. It shares the domain name, but it is a wholly separate resource. If I were re-doing this I would create the new mailboxes first, and start the process of migrating the email first. Then I would tackle the comparatively simple process of setting up the sites and their associated resources.