How To Prepare Your Business For A Magento Upgrade

For eCommerce retailers, your software platform is the circulatory system for your entire business. Even if you have physical stores, your eCommerce channel feeds lifeblood to all of your retail locations, so ensuring a strong heart is paramount. Over 8 years of working in this industry, I have seen countless retailers rush a Magento upgrade process and run into very real and very expensive issues with their eCommerce platform. Here are some tips you should carefully consider before proceeding with any Magento Upgrade.

  1. Work with a trusted partner who understands your business.

This is not the job for a freelancer who doesn’t return your emails on a regular basis. A Magento upgrade will affect all aspects of your Magento installation. They are very complicated projects. Whoever is performing your upgrade should have deep knowledge of your shipping processes, any site customizations or extensions in play, and how your team uses your site on a day-to-day basis.  An upgrade will impact every department in your business, so work with someone you trust.

If this upgrade goes wrong, you may be left having to rebuild your site from scratch and migrate all of your data to a new Magento installation. These are costly and time consuming projects and they need to be properly planned and executed.

  1. Know exactly what extensions you use.

Many Magento extensions modify or extend the core Magento database table structure. The best extensions do this minimally, but some need to make substantial modifications in order to function properly. Since these extensions are developed by third-party companies, Magento itself has no responsibility for understanding or informing you about how they may affect your database structure during an upgrade. Your trusted developer should give you an exact list of all the extensions you have installed–used or not–on your site. They should also make sure they know how you use them.

  1. Understand your third-party integrations and how they will be affected.

If you’re integrating with a third-party Enterprise Resource Planning tool (ERP) like NetSuite, SAP or Salesforce, your data must flow freely from your storefront to your other systems to keep your business functioning. Most of the time an integration like this uses a pre-built extension, but there are always additional customizations made for specific business use cases. Clearly identify each extension or integration so you can ensure they are tested thoroughly during the upgrade.

  1. Carefully consider why you are upgrading.

Is it for security reasons? Are you having a hard time finding extensions that work for your version of Magento? Do you want some of the latest features?  Whatever it is, have a very clear reason for it. Magento upgrades are not easy and should not be entered into lightly.

  1. Guard your database; it is critical to your business.

Your Magento database is the beating heart of your eCommerce business. Your customer lists, their order history, your attribute schema, and your product data should all be very carefully maintained and guarded. Your business is NOTHING without those key pieces of information. Backup your data and your database in a safe location before your developer does ANY work at all. Your developer and your hosting company can (and should) handle this for you. For any decent developer this is a no-brainer, but it is your responsibility to make sure you ask. A true professional will discuss this process with you beforehand and point it out without you having to ask. Look for that.

  1. Understand that there is NO EASY MAGENTO UPGRADE.

Every Magento installation is different and they all have special customizations that complicate an upgrade. This is especially true if you have been on your current version for more than a few years. Magento has changed dramatically since 2013, so going from version 1.4 to 1.9 is not simple. Technically the developer has to step that database up through each version (1.5, 1.6, 1.7, etc.) in order for it to work properly.

Often, we recommend starting a new store from scratch to ensure the most stable foundation, especially if you are on Magento Community Edition. This means we will recommend a fresh Magento installation, migrating your theme, and migrating all of your data. These projects can take months to complete, so budget time and cash accordingly.

  1. Plan the upgrade project from 35,000 feet.

Think about the upgrade process from a whole-business perspective, not just a development perspective. How has your business grown or changed? Does it make sense for you to invest in the support and features that come bundled with Enterprise Edition, or is Community Edition still appropriate for your size and goals? What time of year are you attempting to do the upgrade? Is it close to your busy season?  What is your backup plan? Due to the nature of a Magento upgrade, you cannot simply “roll back” the changes on your server.  Remember, by upgrading you are making very permanent changes to your database, the heart of your business. Take your time and do it carefully.

  1. Take care of low-hanging fruit while you can.

As I mentioned earlier, many times we recommend simply rebuilding your storefront. If you haven’t upgraded in 4 years, it’s probably time for a refresh anyway. You’ll want to take care of some things that have been on your list for a long time, for example: making your store responsive and mobile friendly; improving your attribute set; cleaning out old products in your database; or updating the layout, look, and feel of your store. If you’re going to rebuild, you may as well take care of some other objectives while you are working in those areas.

  1. Perform your upgrade in a staging environment first.

Believe it or not, some developers attempt to perform upgrades in live production environments! If you use a totally separate development environment with clones of the database and the file structure, you can perform end-to-end process testing BEFORE migrating the production environment to the new version. Often during an upgrade, the front end might render correctly, but the backend functionality (order processing, catalog editing, etc.) can be significantly disrupted. Make sure to test ALL functions before deploying to production–not just checkout. Simulate full order processing, from payment capture to shipping, to ensure that ALL processes required for your site offer a smooth experience and are 100% functional.

Over the years, I have seen many companies hire developers who think that a Magento upgrade is as easy as a WordPress one-click upgrade. It is not. If your developer thinks he can do it in a weekend and hasn’t discussed any of the things above, you are heading for a very unpleasant and expensive surprise.

Of course, we have done many upgrades as our clients grow out of Community Edition and into Enterprise Edition. Feel free to reach out to me if you would like to discuss the scope and details of your next upgrade.
A little bit of planning now will make all of the difference later.

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