As mentioned in a recent post, I’m hoping to share some lessons that were learned throughout the process of launching a client project. Over the past few years, we’ve been part of several dozen client projects and the big launch date is always an anxiety-filled, yet exciting point for the client and our team. I wanted to provide a quick list of a few the things that our team considers vital before launching that next big project. While most of these things might seem obvious, it’s still good to cover the basics and I hope a few people find it helpful.
Our company has been offering Ruby on Rails hosting for nearly four years and a few years longer with the PHP5 and PostgreSQL world. Given that, we’ve seen customers come to us at the last minute before they launch and wanting to get things setup and deployed right away. Quite often, this is their first experience deploying a Ruby on Rails application and there has historically been a semi-steep learning curve to do this. It’s really encouraged that you get this stuff figured out ahead of time. If you’re lucky, some hosting companies might offer cheaper plans so that you can begin to get things setup a few months or ahead of time and upgrade your plan prior to the big launch. This is how our Rails Boxcar hosting plans work.
We’ve seen a lot of customers avoid engaging with a hosting company more than a week or two before their launch because they want to reduce their monthly expenses, but the reality is that if you end up saving yourself a few hours of work by not scrambling at the last minute to get things setup, the hosting costs will pay for themselves. Several of our customers have learned this the hard way and as a result, this has resulted in extra stress that might have been avoidable if things had been ready earlier on.
The basic process that our team is to get a real deployment environment setup as early in the design and development process as possible. Often times, this will be 4-6 months before launch on larger projects. In our process, we aim to have a staging environment that mirrors our production environment. We tend to use a Boxcar Lite plan for our own client projects and get the deployment process working and automated. When it’s time to launch, we can easily upgrade the Boxcars with more resources to one or more Plus plans.
If you’re in the market for a hosting company, do keep us in mind, but if we can offer any advice, be sure to find out how you can scale upwards to meet your initial 3-6 month growth targets. Don’t worry about planning too far ahead in the future, until you see how traffic picks up and how the application and databases perform, you’ll be spending a lot of time guessing without data. If you’re new to this and aren’t sure, I’d encourage you to speak with a Ruby on Rails deployment specialist.
A few things to consider here:
- Get your Capistrano or Vlad deployment tasks setup early. Make sure everything works and set it up to work with multiple deployment environments. (staging, production, etc.)
- Use the HTTP Basic Authentication, which is available in Ruby on Rails to keep peeping toms (competitors, search crawlers, spammers, etc.. ) out of your project while you’re deploying to your staging environment. We tend to give out a
.htaccess user/pass with this method to the stakeholders so they can access the site whenver they need to.
- Rails documentation on HTTP Basic Authentication: view docs
- Watch a Railscast for using HTTP Basic Authentication: watch screencast
- Get your automated tasks (cron jobs) setup way before launch. Verify that things are working here at the right times
- Extra-credit: Check server time settings to make sure you’re not running big tasks at time periods when heavy traffic is expected
- Make sure your hosting provider has monitoring setup. It’s good to gauge uptime % from launch
- Extra-credit: Setup your own monitoring with Pingdom or similar service to make sure you know when things are down. (You can audit your hosting provider this way!)
There are a handful of really great hosting companies out there for Ruby on Rails. Be sure to do your homework early! This isn’t something you want to do at the last minute.
Reminder: Keep your project releasable at all times.
Search Engines and Analytics
Before the big launch, be sure that you have outlined a consistent pattern for managing the HTML page titles on each page. Getting targeted traffic to your new web application is (usually) vital. Our team has adopted a basic pattern that we use throughout the application. This way we don’t have to go through at the last minute and figure out where titles are and/or aren’t being set.
In a previous post, I shared a basic plugin that our team uses on projects to manage page titles on a view-by-view basis.
Additionally, be sure to take advantage of using descriptive permalink URLs.
Another tip is to setup your application with analytics (google analytics is free!) If there is one thing that I wish we had setup from day one on every project in the past, was a set of conversion goals. So, be sure to get into your analytics account and prepare your application so that you can track these goals from the moment your application is launched. Collecting as much data about your visitor’s usage habits is going to help you in the coming weeks and months as you tune things based off of feedback and this data. Also, after you begin to introduce changes, you can analyze these metrics to verify that you’re improving things and not the opposite.
So, be sure that you are doing the following:
- Have implemented descriptive page titles and urls
- Are ready to track your site visitor’s usage habits from the starting gate
- Conversion goals for obvious things like: sign-ups/registrations, viewing your product tour, contact requests, etc.
When Things Go Wrong / Tracking Exceptions
What happens when things go wrong? We’ve been amazed by how many projects we’ve seen have been in production for months/years and lacking something that seemed so obvious. Exception notifications! All too often, we’ve seen teams totally unaware that things were failing for their customers and not being reported to anybody. The easiest way to track exceptions in the past was to use the exception_notification plugin that the Rails team manages. You can have this plugin send your development team emails with a backtrace and all the goodies that’d normally show up in a 500 error. At a minimum, you should be using something like this.
- Tip: Make sure your hosting environment can send out emails! (otherwise, you’ll never know about these problems…eek!)
However, in the last year, the Rails community has seen two options, Exceptional and Hoptoad introduced for managing exceptions. Our team has only used Exceptional so far, because our good friends at Contrast invited us to be early beta-testers for their new service. We love the Exceptional’s integration with Lighthouse, which is the bug/issue tracking application that we’re currently using. With Exceptional, our team is able to search through and track exceptions in our application and have a good meter on the overall health of our application. This solution works so much than the email-based approach because we can track which exceptions have been opened and sent to Lighthouse and if they’ve been closed by someone already.
I’ve heard great things about Hoptoad as well, but have yet to test it out. Would be interested to read a comparison between the two and am curious if there are other services for this currently.
Non-default 404 and 500 pages
Honestly, this is one of those things that we tend to forget about until the last minute. When you’re launching a new project, you’re bound to have a bug and/or a few broken links not accounted for. What you want to avoid is having your customers end up on an unhelpful page that looks like this:
It doesn’t take too long to put something together that is a bit more helpful for your visitors.
So, do yourself a favor and add a ticket for your designers to design a custom 404 and 500 pages to replace the defaults that are provided by Ruby on Rails in
Hold your client’s hands
If you’re working with startups, do remember that this is quite possibly their first launch. It’s important to remember that they’re going to be going through their own spectrum of feelings and it’s our job to help get them through the process with an eased mind. Show them that you have things covered, that things are ready to go, alert them when things pop up… in a nutshell. Keep them informed about the challenges and do what you can help to manage their stress. If they’ve just contracted you for an extended period of time to help get their big idea designed and developed, remember that this launch is just the beginning of the race for them. They have a big journey ahead of them and you just helped them get their new car engine built. Make sure they know that things are likely to breakdown along the way, need to be refueled (refactor! refactor!), and need service repairs. The worst thing you can do is set the expectation that nothing will go wrong once their application is released into the wild. They need to budget for this early on so that they can pace themselves after launch. (this is a big topic definitely worth of it’s own post)
Just remember that this should be a big celebration for your team and client. Remember to celebrate! (and then follow it with a retrospective)
As mentioned, these are just a handful of things that we have learned to avoid overlooking (through trial and error). I’m hoping to share more thoughts on launching in the near future and would love to hear from all of you on things that you’ve come across. What works? What doesn’t work?
What is on your checklist for launching successful projects?