How to fire a webmaster

And not get your website defaced in the process.

Firing people on Wall Street can be particularly cruel. One minute you're an employee, then security guards show up at your desk, escort you out the building and you get your personal effects in cardboard box days later.

Businesses paying someone to run their website, don't have to be that cruel, but the basic risk is the same. One the person in charge of a website knows they are on the outs, there is a chance they may extract revenge by defacing the site. Businesses can protect themselves, by following the procedure described below for firing a webmaster.

The basic idea is simple, mirror the existing website somewhere else, then point the world to the new copy of the website. The old webmaster can remain in charge of the old site at all times. After the world sees the new copy rather than the old one, it matters not what the old webmaster does.

First, though, some background.

A domain is the name of a website. Cnet.com and download.com are domain names. A registrar is a company that registers domain names. Over the years, I have used my fair share of registrars. The only two I continue to use are GoDaddy and DirectNIC. The cost of owning a domain varies, with prices usually ranging from $9/year to $35/year. Ownership of a domain is separate from having a website and/or email for the domain.

Learning the name of the registrar that registered a domain requires just a simple Whois system lookup. Every registrar should offer this on their web site, or you can go to networksolutions.com and click on WHOIS Search at the bottom of the home page.

Steps

Firing a webmaster starts with the hiring of a new one, preferably someone with no relationship to the old webmaster.

Then a new account is opened with a website hosting company, any company, other than the one currently being used for the website. Any webmaster should be able to offer advice on choosing a hosting company. The account at the hosting company should be owned, controlled and paid for by the business owner, not the webmaster.

A ton of technical information is provided to anyone that opens a new website hosting account. Included in this data dump, is the name of (at least) two DNS server computers. Save this, it will be needed later.

The business owner then needs to provide the new webmaster with all the necessary technical information to control the new website at the new hosting company. New website accounts are given a temporary URL (website address) something such as mickeymouse.hostingcompany.com/~user5

Then the new webmaster builds a new website. This new site is not publicly visible. Only someone who knows the temporary URL will be able to see it. Without being told, the old webmaster has no idea anything is going on.

If the website is small and static, the new webmaster can simply create a copy from the public site. If the site is large or has data stored in a database, then it perhaps a backup of the site/database can be obtained by the business owner from the old webmaster. Any webmaster should have a local backup copy of everything. (For information on services that can be used to transfer large files see my three earlier postings starting with Sending big files with SendThisFile ).

When the new site is ready, the business owner simply logs in to the website of the registrar that registered the domain and changes the DNS servers from those used by the old website hosting company to those used by the new company.

The exact procedure for changing the DNS servers associated with a domain varies with each registrar. But, once logged in to the website of the registrar, it should be a simple change.

If the old webmaster knows the userid/password at the registrar, then change the password at the same time the DNS servers are changed.

Once the DNS servers are changed, there is a day or two of unavoidable uncertainty. That is, some people in the world will see the new website quickly, others will continue to see the old website. There is nothing you can do about this.

My experience has been that the changeover takes effect in no more than 12 hours, but the standard warning is to allow two days to be sure.

Changes made to the old website during the transition, are, in effect, lost after the world starts seeing the new one. Should the old webmaster be told not to make any changes during this period? Hard to say.

When everyone sees the new site, change the passwords on the old one. The new webmaster should be given the new passwords so they can look for and copy any files that might be there but are not publicly available.

After a couple weeks, close the account at the old website hosting company.

Preparation

The most important issue in this process is being able to log in to the website of the registrar.

If you are paying for a website, and do not have the userid/password for the registrar that registered the domain name, then it is not your website. Simple as that.

When opening a new website hosting account, the hosting company will likely offer to register the domain too. Don't do it. As the above procedure shows, there is a big benefit to having the domain registered with a company that has no relationship to the hosting company.

I would be suspicious of any webmaster that does not insure the business owner knows the name of the registrar and the userid/password to login to the account there. Web sites may come and go, but hopefully the domain name is forever.


Update. January 10, 2008. A commenter correctly pointed out that I left email out of the equation. Email service is very often provided by the company hosting the website. If that is the case, then during the period while the new new webmaster is re-creating the website, they should also be re-creating the existing email accounts. When people start seeing the new web site, email message will also start being sent to the new email system at the new hosting company. In addition, I suggest creating one new email account (maybe tester@yourdomainname.com) who existence can serve to indicate that responsibility for email has switched. If email is very important to you, then have the old webmaster change any POP or IMAP accounts so they are auto-forwarded before doing anything else.


See a summary of all my Defensive Computing postings.

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About the author

    Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

    He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.

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