5.27.15

When should you upgrade your CMS

BY JON SYU

The CMS is the engine of your website, and like any hard-working piece of engineering, it requires some maintenance to keep going. Every CMS follows a different schedule for when they come out with updates, some of which are important, some of which can be ignored. So when should you upgrade your CMS?

First off, let's differentiate between minor and major version upgrades. A minor update would be something like going from version 4.0 to 4.1, and a major update would be going from 4.0 to 5.0.

Major version upgrades are called as such because they often involve a significant rewrite of the CMS's core programming. As such, a major upgrade is almost guaranteed to require a rewrite of your site's code in order to be made compatible with the new version. Not only are major new features released, but significant parts of the CMS's UI may change as well, requiring you to become familiar with a new interface.

In general, a major version update is not necessary unless you have a really old site that you are redoing at the same time. In our experience, the hassle of making an old site compatible with a new major version of a CMS is fairly significant, so you may as well refresh the entire site if you can.

It is a good idea to do a major version upgrade if there is a very specific feature that you absolutely need in the new version of the CMS. Keep in mind, however, that many features that get included in major version updates are actually possible to acquire in older versions of the CMS - it just requires an installation of a plugin or addon.

In terms of minor version updates, upgrading is usually a good idea. Open-source CMSs like WordPress will release updates far more commonly than proprietary CMSs like Kentico, but that doesn't mean you should just click the update button every time you see it though.

In theory, a minor version update should not break your theme. Unfortunately, it's likely that your site runs on more than just a theme, so there are other considerations to take into account.

  1. Almost all minor version updates will include small code changes to a CMS's core. These changes generally won't affect your site, but it CAN affect any installed plugins. It is up to the developer of those add-ons to make sure their code is up-to-date. Unfortunately, in many open-source CMS platforms, the developer of any given plugin can stop supporting their work at any point. This can cause specific features of your site to suddenly stop working.
  2. Especially on open-source CMSs, your theme may actually be running on top of another framework. This framework works a lot like a large plugin, so you run into the same issue as above. If your theme framework isn't updated at the same time as your CMS, your whole site may break. In some cases, a framework will prevent you from ever successfully upgrading.

While theme files are generally safe - it's not a perfect guarantee. All normal precautions need to be taken when doing a minor version updates, which includes making a backup prior to updating and QA'ing the whole site afterwards. Don't trust the update process just because it's simple.

Jon Syu
written by JON SYU

Jonathan is the senior technology manager at Carbon8, with years of experience working with various nonprofits and businesses in technical, development, and marketing positions. He began his programming career at 12, when he realized that he could create games on his graphic calculator instead of learning math. At Carbon8, he is responsible for all things technical, providing direction to Carbon8's development offerings and overall strategy.

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