The University has a more accessible, robust and reliable WordPress platform now that ITS has finished a massive effort of cleaning up and moving the decade-old WordPress system to the cloud.
This was no ordinary migration. It was not a “lift and shift,” said Kim Vassiliadis, Manager of Digital Services & User Experience with ITS Digital Services.
Her team, with help from others within the ITS organization, worked for several years evaluating, planning and preparing the migration of University’s WordPress platform to Pantheon, a cloud hosting provider.
The move off of ITS servers provided an opportunity re-architect the current WordPress multi-network environment. The migration enabled Vassiliadis’ team to refactor and optimize legacy code while addressing accessibility requirements and improving security (Single Sign-On, Transport Layer Security, Secure Sockets Layer) across all of their networks. Team members were also able to introduce advanced web ops workflows to increase productivity. Finally, it was chance to weave in a cultural and technical shift for an important campus service.
Project spanned several years
Over three summers, Digital Services whittled down the number of Web.dot websites to about 4,000 from more than 20,000 sites. In March, Digital Services completed the entire migration, which included all self-service webdot websites, enterprise-hosted departmental and school sites and the Medical School — roughly 6,000 sites in all.
Carolina’s WordPress service is 12 years old. During that time, web development has changed as have WordPress plugins and themes, and digital accessibility has become a priority. Campus community members were still using a mix of themes and plugins from across those years. At one point, campus members were using 80 different themes. The various eras of code didn’t always play well together. If one failed, all could fail.
Users — especially students for classes — created sites, and many never deleted those sites. Thousands of websites with the unc.edu URL had outdated information and were abandoned. Many had copyright and accessibility problems. Imagine an attic that you piled stuff into for a dozen years without ever purging, and all that clutter was causing the attic floor to sag. Web.dot.unc — the self-service environment — alone had more than 20,000 sites.
Addressed digital accessibility
Before moving the University’s WordPress system to the cloud, Digital Services knew it was critical to clean house. It wasn’t going to move the old junk into the attic of the new house. This was an opportunity, Vassiliadis said, to rethink offerings, address digital accessibility and branding, modernize the University’s WordPress environments, offer a robust platform and own the service. With WordPress in the cloud, Digital Services could also free up resources of the ITS teams within Middleware Services and Linux Administration and Database Administration.
As we mentioned, over three summers Digital Services pared down the number of Web.dot websites to about 4,000. Digital Services deactivated sites that weren’t claimed — a housekeeping process that Digital Services will now continue annually. The University’s WordPress networks are not an archive, Vassiliadis said.
“Now we’re going to be in a continuous purge cycle,” she said.
In the first phase of migrating to the cloud, Digital Services moved UNC.edu, which is a single website and was the easiest to move, in Spring 2020. Next, in Summer 2020, Digital Services launched the Tarheels.live network, which is Digital Services’ self-service network. As a new network, Tarheels.live is a clean state with modern and more accessible themes and plugins.
Over Winter break, Digital Services migrated the Sites network and then the Web.dot network. Then in March, the team migrated the Medical School to its own network.
Before, the Med School WordPress environment lived within the larger Sites network. With roughly 400 websites on an already large network, it was hard to keep things separate and there was always a concern about a single point of failure.
Created smaller networks
Part of the issue was that over the decade these networks had grown large and were shared by disparate entities with dissimilar needs. With the move to Pantheon, Digital Services created smaller networks with less co-mingling.
Speaking of testing, the method for testing was less than ideal. The production environment and the development environment were totally separate, with no easy way to sync them. With WordPress in the cloud, the Digital Services team can easily spin up a mirror of the production environment and do all the testing there. In Pantheon, Digital Services has several testing environments. With those, the team can ensure that everything looks good and works well before putting it into production.
Gained testing environments
When Digital Services gained the new testing environments, Adam Lenz, lead developer, was able to clone the production multisite and start deactivating plugins to find the root cause. Within a half hour, he identified a troublesome piece of code within a popular plugin that was slowing down hundreds of websites. With the old system, this method of troubleshooting would not have been possible.
Thanks to the move to Pantheon and the creation of a cloned environment, Lenz “was able to figure out a root cause for something that been in place for years, but we never had an easy way to check,” Vassiliadis said. “To me, that was a really good use case of why this is so awesome. We have this solid place to really dig in and do testing and find root causes to things that previously we had no way of checking.”
Having these testing environments, she said, “is probably one of the biggest wins for us.”
Pantheon provides support
Another big win is the support Pantheon is providing. Digital Services will have regular calls with a Pantheon representative to ensure the University is set up for success in the cloud-based WordPress.
For sure, these improvements from moving WordPress to the cloud also benefit customers. They gain faster and easier troubleshooting, improved performance and reliability, environments tuned for audiences and purposes, and new modern and accessible themes and plugins that Digital Services can offer as it continues to shed the old stuff.
Multiple ITS units helped
In addition to Digital Services, teams across the ITS organization made these changes possible.
Think about all those websites built on the University WordPress platform. Each of domain names had an IP address that indicated the site lived on campus servers. With the migration, they all needed to point to Pantheon.
“Hundreds of those domains needed to all of a sudden automatically point to Pantheon at a particular moment in time,” Vassiliadis said.
ITS Communication Technologies’ Will Whitaker walked Digital Services through that complex process.
Now, consider how you and every other user gains access to the backend of a WordPress site. That entire process for authenticating people had to change when WordPress moved to the cloud. Each site had to be set up with Single Sign-On. ITS’ Identity Management team worked closely with Digital Services to help with that effort.
Meanwhile, team members from the Digital Accessibility Office, a unit within ITS, provided their expertise, including by reviewing the accessibility of themes and plugins.
Also, staff members within Middleware Services and Linux Administration and Database Administration “were super supportive and helpful throughout the process,” Vassiliadis said. They kept the old campus-based WordPress platform running for a short while after the move to the cloud so Digital Services could use the dual environments in conjunction for troubleshooting.
Among the various ITS groups and individuals helping Digital Services with the move to the cloud was Matthew Mauzy, who served as project manager over the multiple years of the project.