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10/04/2008

Perils of Production: Moving Content Between Staging and Production

A well known children's television web site recently went live with a new service for kids. As part of the login account creation process, a parent or guardian needs to fill out a basic sign up form (which only required an email address and a password). An email verification gets sent to the email address on record and, once verified by clicking the embedded link in the message, the account creation process setup is complete. This is all a fairly standard practice. All kinds of sites have been doing this for years but when my wife started the sign up process, she kept getting a basic authentication sign-on message box when trying to complete the verification process and nothing she tried would work to sign in. She would try multiple types of email accounts and browsers over the course of the next few days to no avail and wound up walking away extremely frustrated.

After thinking about this off and on for a day or so, if finally occurred to me that maybe the problem wasn't with the site but with the link that was embedded in the verification email. Guessing that the site that was embedded in the email verification was a staging site, I simply copied and pasted the URL in the browser and swapped the hostname with the regular site address and everything worked great. Had the embedded URL been obvious like "staging.testsite.com", it probably would have occurred to me sooner but the site name wasn't that obvious. Now my wife thinks I'm a hero and my youngest kids get to think for another few days that their Dad can do anything.

Sending out the wrong email address in a link to customers and potential users though is not a unique problem. I've seen it happen many times over the years with several companies that I've worked for and it got me thinking that the process of moving something between environments is not really something that I've seen automated well--some manual intervention is always required and it is this manual intervention that has the most room for error. One can certainly mitigate errors by using relative URLs as much as possible everywhere but in customer communications and when switching between secured and unsecured modes on your sites, absolute URLs become a necessity.

I'm very interested in hearing what other folks have done when it comes to moving content between environments and making sure that all the URLs and hostnames stored in application configuration files point to the right places.

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