Sustainability Issues of Web Sites
 
Sustainability is one of the toughest challenges facing web site designers, managers, and programmers today. In many ways, one must try to look into the future (Who will be using this site? Who will be maintaining it? How might the technology change?) while using the tools and the knowledge that one posseses today.  

The basic tenants of good design for sustainability fall roughly into three categories: Maintenance, Future of the Site, and Design Features. While it is relatively easy to outline issues that shouldbe addressed when creating an electronic document, implementation is considerably more difficult. Probably the two most important factors that are essential to creating a sustainable document or site are: 

1.) A considerable amount of time should be spent on the planning phase of development. 
2.) The design and maintenance teams should be committed to the continual improvement and upgrade of their site when appropriate (some documents might be for archival purposes and would not necessarily need upgrading). 

Aside from those two guiding principles, I list some other issues for consideration in designing for sustainability. 
 
 

    MAINTENANCE
    For sustainability, maintenance should be as simplified as possible. This can be accomplished by keeping the following in mind during the planning phase of development. 

  • What skills are necessary to maintain it? Try to integrate features which do not demand a high-skill level for those who are periferally involved in its maintenance, for example, employees who may be supplying content shouldn't necessarily have to know HTML to make a contribution to the site. Make use of things such as databases or spreadsheets that can be easily updated, and which can be accesseed by users through a web interface. 
  • Assigning responsibility for content: Make sure all involved with the document have a clear understanding of what they are responsible for.
  • Integration into existing workflows: Study existing workflows and incorporate new responsibilites in a way which are consistent with them.
  • Backups of documents: Be prepared in case of a disaster or accident by regularly backing up files.
  • Organization of documents: Again, take the time to plan an intuitive and well designed organizational structure to facilitate maintenance.
  • Make use of things like server-side includes: This has the benefit of being both a consistent design feature and simplifying maitenance.

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    FUTURE OF THE SITE: This is where the ability to see into the future (or at least making an educated attempt) is important. 

  • Align your abilities with your goals: Do not strive to build an all-encompassing news source if you do not posses the "man-power" or the skills to keep it up. Shoot for something attainable that you can do well and maintain.
  • Assessing needs of the document/site. Will this document need updating? Upgrading? 
  • Finding ways to make use of new developments in technology. Those responsible for the document/site should keep abreast of new technologies and standards and make use of them. Subscribe to listserves, read periodicals, and check out the latest standards of the W3 consortium.
  • Documentation: The development and changes made to the document/site should be documented in such a way that at least two individuals would be capable of carrying on the existing site when the primary or initial designer is absent or leaves. 
  • Knowing when to let a site die: if a site or document no longer has value, remove it from the web! Do not let floundering sites take up disk space or lure unsuspecting users to your outdated site via a search engine. Determine when a site is past its prime, and then kill it!
  • Equipment and Scalable design: Try to anticipate the future needs of your document/site and plan accordingly.
  • Portability: This is a key element in making sure that your web site is persistant. In other words, if you need to move your site to another server, will your users be able to find it again? This is a growing problem for web site administrators, and I am in the process of trying to identify some of the issues/areas where portability comes into play. So far, I have identified the following:

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    Using Uniform Resource Names (URNs) rather than Uniform Resource Locators (URLs): This would give the site an absolute name by which it can be found, rather than an "address" which is relative to the server where it resides. 
    For further info on URN, check out the Infinia Project's description and see what the Internet Engineering Task Force is doing to establish a URN system.

    Interoperability of Web Servers: Various Web servers have specific features which may not exist on others. One must be particularly careful when using server-specific features which are not transferable to others. 

    CGI scripts: 

    Authentication Issues

    Using Relative links/Server side includes:
     

    DESIGN FEATURES 
     

  • Scalable design: Build the site with the expectation that it will grow, and design an interface which can accomodate additional information.
  • Make use of things like server-side includes: This has the benefit of being both a consistent design feature and simplifying maitenance.
  • Using databases for dynamic information: This has the benefit of ease of maintenance and currency. Information retrieved via a web interface from a database can provide the user with access to the most current information. 
Pamela Prescott 
April 16, 1998 

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