Chapter and verse, the struggle to help a friend or relative through a technology crisis

If you are technically gifted with modern software or computers and have relatives, odds are high that you’ve fielded a few tech support calls.  I am blessed with several very technical relatives, but unfortunately that means that when some calls come out for support, the problems are doozies.

My Brother-in-Law writes eloquently for an excellent blog.  Technology is something he understands on a need-to-know basis, and he’s had a need to know here and there.  Tweaking html and php, reading traffic logs and handling site admin on WordPress are skills I’d fair say are probably held by 1% or less of the American population.  I call being in the top 99th percentile fairly good.  His problem, as they often do, came from his ISP, but his problem was a layered one.

Problem one, was his WordPress blog had not been updated in several versions.  If you’ve been here since the beginning, and by here, I mean through the development of WordPress, this beast currently at 2.9.2 has been through a lot of iterations.  The database structure has taken some fairly radical and useful changes, all of which I was not intimately familiar with.  If you fall behind on updates, you might be vulnerable to the deadly admin password bug, which allowed simple kits to hack your admin password.  You might have been having trouble with acres of spam as you couldn’t install and use some of the more efficient plugins.  These issues all come together though to make the upgrade process significantly harder than a windows update or even a simple upgrade of your Linux distro.  It’s brain surgery on the heart and soul of a blog that dates from 2004, with thousands of posts and hundreds of thousands of comments.  The patient suffered on the table.

The second problem, as they often do, came from his honest and honorable attempt to fix the site.  He asked his host to restore his site.  Now let me tell you, I had asked him to update his site, causing problem one, because he was having problem zero.  His site was so popular it was vulnerable to DOS attacks caused by the connection manager bug.  This next problem was caused not by his request to fix what he had broken, but by the stupidity of his host’s policies, employee hiring practice, and solution resolution system.  Johnny SysAdmin grabbed the only saved DB in this customer’s folder, restored the Database, and then closed the ticket without a how do you do, or the most important requirement, backing up the DB he restored over.  That database backup, executed in early January of this year, was from March of 2008.

Bam…. let that soak in, a popular blog, with limited backups, is written over by a sysadmin who doesn’t bother to back things up.  When I get involved, I’m looking at this DB and the date of the last post is not my first concern.  My first concern is figuring out the differences in the DB schema so I can convert it up to the most modern release of WordPress.  I make a few “extra columns” to get things through, fix some language translation problems, and voila, site is up.  One problem, where’s the last year and 9 months of blogging?

Ouch….  Luckily, thank God for Google cache, google feeds, the way back machine and the ready parsing structure of xml feeds.  A little SQL, Awk, Perl and Bash after a few wrong turns and I’ve got something ready to go in.

Problem 3:   Their SQL database and mine aren’t compatible, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it….

I’m a SQL expert.  That’s not me blowing smoke, but I understand SQL, a relatively simple concept at a very, very deep and concentrated level.  When a database rejects data and I can’t make it clean, something has been messed with, or something is wrong with my connection.  Rather than agonizing about this, we decide to move to a new host.  BnL makes some inquiries, and I get hecka busy with the day job but it’s no huge rush.

Problem 4:  Hosting provider fails to re-up the domain registration.

Those of you in the know just went cold.  Those of you who don’t own domains, may not be aware of the process.  You see, you register domains for yearly increments.  If you lose the registration, these folk/companies called vultures, come out of the wood work, swoop down and register your domain name.  To get the domain name back you need from 200-50,000 dollars in ransom money, depending on the traffic and vulture, or a good attorney and a lot of time.  In this case, we managed to get a grace period after trying without fail to get the host to fix their mistake.

There are some important lessons learned from this encounter, not really by me, but as a sort of teaching parable.

1.  Always back everything up.

2.  Back things up before you do something.

3.  Hosting providers rarely admit wrong doing, even when the truth is demonstrated in their own logs and agreements.

4.  Registrations should be done religiously.

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