Avoiding monster websites | Office of Information Technology

Avoiding monster websites

Last Updated: 03/13/2014

The web is only a few decades old, but its infrastructure is already more complex than the teachings of all the medieval alchemists combined. It takes a tremendous amount of knowledge (sometimes as arcane as the process of turning lead into gold) to navigate it with confidence. There are no signs of simplification in the future; it is likely to keep getting more and more complicated.

Web professionals have reacted to this situation in a variety of ways. Some have taken the attitude of Boxer, the horse in Orwell's "Animal Farm", who used to pronounce "I will work harder" each time he was faced with increased hardships. Unfortunately, Boxer's model was not sustainable; he finally collapsed from overwork and was taken to the butcher's.

Others counter complexity with more complexity. We need to generate 100 sites overnight? Let's write a script to automate it. HTML5 is too complex to write by hand? Let's use this plugin to generate the code for us. This approach is problematic, too - again, we pay with resources, only this time not with our own effort, but with inefficient code - the higher level the tool, the less efficient it generally is. Inefficient code means needing more and more computing power, ever increasing fleet of hardware, even increasing amounts of energy to run it all. This is yet another approach that is not sustainable long term.

A variation on this second approach is similar to running into credit card debt: solving today's problems by causing greater problems in the future. In this case, a web site administrator creates a patchwork of applications to run the site (a CMS as a basis, some open source software to run the forums, a custom script to talk to a database, Google Forms for surveys, and any number of other tools as they become necessary); but one day one of the components is no longer supported and that piece cannot be removed without the whole structure collapsing, requiring a complete reworking.

Finally, there is a time-honored solution of throwing more money at a problem - making someone else deal with it. These expensive solutions are rarely available to academic institutions; even when they are, outsourcing usually involves losing control of your site, which is really just a variation on the "credit card debt" scenario discussed above - not dealing with the cause of the crisis, but simply delaying it.

Neither of these approaches really work long term. There is luckily a fifth approach - one that involves stopping and reevaluating things, and then simplifying our sites. To many web professionals, this approach is an impossibility, even a transgression. We are trained to move nonstop, to reiterate, to fix things fast, to keep everything running. Some of our Frankenstein web sites can't even be stopped - it takes our full attention to keep these monsters running, preventing their catastrophic collapse. And some of us are just operators - even if we knew how to stop the machine, we don't know enough to fix it, let alone rebuild it with fewer parts.

Do you have a monster web site that is eating your time and spinning out of control? Do you need help stopping the monster and doing optimizations? You can start by asking for a free web consultation - many of our previous consults involved strategy evaluation and site audits, helping you take back the control of your site.