Server Migration: A Complete Step-by-Step Guide

Discover the essential steps you need to take to ensure your next server migration is a success!

As your websites and applications grow, you’ll reach an inevitable crossroads where you’ll need to undertake a server migration. The following step-by-step guide will have your team well-prepared for the entire process – from migration day and beyond.

What is a Server Migration?

Server migration is the term used to describe copying or moving critical data from one server to another, as well as configuring that target server to replace the first. In the context of web hosting, server migrations might revolve around setting up web server and database software, copying over websites and their configurations, or changing DNS parameters to direct visitors to the new target server.

What Does Migrating Hosts Mean?

When IT professionals discuss migrating hosts, they’re referring to the action of migrating data from one server to another. The process typically involves one or two servers, depending upon the host server’s configuration.

If a host server is partitioned into several virtual servers or containers, the source host and the destination host will exist within the same machine. This means they will only require one server. On the other hand, if data is being migrated to a destination host on an entirely different physical machine, the host migration would take place across two separate servers.

How Long Does a Server Migration Take?

A typical server migration can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours. This is because the time spent migrating servers will depend heavily on the amount of data transferred. Servers only have a certain amount of bandwidth to accommodate tasks like these. As you increase the number of files and applications being migrated, the process will take up more of the server’s bandwidth – ultimately taking longer to complete.

Why Should I Consider a Server Migration?

Several possible scenarios might make a server migration necessary. Organizations may migrate to:

  1. Take advantage of new technology or better services, or ensure that the operating system (OS) and the hardware the new technology relies on stay up to date.
  2. Move to the cloud for increased flexibility or scalability.
  3. To economize and consolidate hosting – reducing CapEx.
  4. Replace aging infrastructure at the end of its lifecycle.
  5. To expand and distribute hosting to help reduce load at a single point and achieve high availability.

Migrating servers can be a tricky process and should be handled with the utmost care. You could sink hours of time, effort, and money into a migration, only to find yourself on the wrong server solution, which could result in significant downtime and profit loss. 

It takes considerable planning and forethought to migrate data from one server to another without any major hiccups. After all, on-average downtime can cost an enterprise $686,000 an hour, so a successful server migration is crucial to the health of your organization.

How Do I Plan for a Server Migration?

Even though server migrations are quite common, the most experienced IT professionals get nervous when it’s time to initiate the server migration steps. With so many moving parts, it is very easy – and very common – for migrations to cause at least a little anxiety.

Alleviate some of that tension by planning ahead for the migration. Instructing your team to start thinking about data migrations early is critical for ensuring smooth, fast migrations that deliver the intended benefits without causing headaches along the way.

While a server migration checklist is important to have, moving to a new environment is a complex procedure. Even deciding what belongs on the list requires careful consideration. A clean data migration plan requires extensive system exploration and preparation by the company’s IT personnel, but even after the most diligent preparation, surprises are possible. The steps that need the attention of your IT teams or consume a large amount of bandwidth should be carefully scheduled.

Organizations that do not leave a long enough lead time for their migration project often find that they experience business disruptions or unexpected costs, even if they do everything else right.”

A complete and accurate picture of your existing infrastructure – including all data, hardware, software, and network components – is necessary for successful data migration. Before the migration even begins, your IT staff should conduct a complete documentation of your infrastructure. This will serve as your “blueprint” to properly construct your new environment and avoid missing any crucial details or files when the migration is performed.

This roadmap of your organization’s IT infrastructure also informs the rest of the planning process. Performing a thorough discovery can also have the added benefit of uncovering potential future problems, like forgotten web applications running an unsupported scripting language or broken URL links. Preparation takes many forms beyond the initial exploration phase, including scheduling, communicating with staff, and technical measures such as updating the LAMP stack if necessary, along with code and plugins.

5 Step Server Migration Plan

As we mentioned, a complete and successful server migration consists of several steps. Those numerous steps necessary when migrating servers tend to fall into one of five primary categories that make up the overarching migration process.

Understanding how these broader server migration steps fit together and what is included in each is critical to developing your exact strategy in the future.

1. Preparing Your New Server

In the simplest terms, think of a server migration as moving from one home to another. If you want to bring all of your possessions with you, your new home needs to have enough space, right? And, if you are used to having a double sink vanity in your bathroom, for example, you may want the same features in your new home.

Migrating servers is very similar. All of the data associated with your website and applications needs to fit properly on your new server. Consequently,it’s important to ensure that your new server is appropriately sized and configured for any incoming data and digital assets. It’s also important to make sure that mission-critical services and packages that your sites depend on are installed and available in the new environment.

Key Questions to Consider During Server Preparation

  • What is your organization’s planned growth over the next five years, and what infrastructure changes will this require?
  • Are all the right parties involved or informed of the planned server migration? Think about site editors, administrators, developers, visitors or end-users, and your hosting provider(s).

TIP: Build in approximately 20% extra storage space when migrating. During the migration, you’ll need a little extra room to unpack and install the data that’s being migrated, and you will want some room to accommodate future growth as well.

2. Assess Data Fidelity

The process of making sure all data is accounted for before the migration (and properly installed after) is of critical importance. Losing even a tiny fraction of your data in transition, such as one CSS file or connection string, can impact the performance of your entire site or application.

We recommend spending some time before the migration taking note of what parts of your site are critical and what parts interact with or engage with other services. For example, plugins and themes that affect multiple pages should be checked both before and after migration to ensure identical functionality.

Key Questions to Consider During Data Fidelity

  • What is the quality of your data in your old server? Are there a lot of static files or dynamic databases?
  • Do you have a data governance plan in place to ensure measurement, tracking, and better decision-making during the migration process?
TIP: Make an external backup of your entire website before migration. That way, you can rest easy knowing that you have a copy safely stored in the event of a problem.

3. Data Transfer

Data transfer is typically the most time-consuming part of the migration. Once you have prepared your new server and properly secured all data, you’re finally ready to start the transfer.

The bandwidth available between your old server and the new server (or between your old hosting provider and your new hosting provider) essentially serves as the conduit for the migration. The more bandwidth you have, the faster the data can be migrated, and the less downtime you’ll need to perform the server migration.

Key Questions to Consider During Data Transfer

  • Are all parties on the same page regarding when data transfer will occur?
  • Is there a clear POC at your old hosting provider and your new hosting provider?
  • Are there any major initiatives or high-traffic events planned during or around the planned migration timelines?

TIP: Let anyone with access to the site know when the migration is going to happen and how long it is expected to take. Putting a “freeze” on any websites or applications will better ensure that no new content or data is lost during the migration.

4. Testing (QA/QC)

Once you’ve actually migrated the data from one server to another, it’s time for testing. Checking for full functionality and complete data transfer may be time-consuming and cumbersome, but that is time well spent to prevent discovering an issue at a much later date.

Since testing is usually one of the server migration steps where surprises are most likely, the time spent during this phase can vary significantly. Organizations often find that leaving an adequate amount of time to fully complete the testing process is much easier if planned well in advance.

Conducting rigorous testing is how organizations identify unanticipated issues, evaluate the effectiveness of their issue resolution strategies, and confirm the details of how running internal systems in the new environment will look.

Finally, documenting how you will perform testing post-migration is as important as any of the other steps on the server migration checklist. Accurate testing and analysis ensure quality assurance, quality control, and guarantee process improvement from one migration to the next.

Key Questions to Consider During Testing

  • Have you verified appropriate request responses for APIs between applications and servers?
  • In multi-server setups, are public and private traffic moving along the appropriate networks?
  • Are your site(s) or application(s) performing as expected?

TIP: Reference your previous site and server during the testing process to see if anything looks off or incomplete. So long as the prior server was functional, it can provide a good roadmap for what your website should look like in its early life on the new server. Sometimes, server migrations present excellent opportunities for uncovering existing site issues!

5. Changing DNS and “Going Live”

Now that you’ve migrated all of your data, applications, and websites to your new server and performed sufficient testing, it’s time to switch your DNS. This switch is essential as it directs traffic from the old server to the new infrastructure.

Pointing your server at a new DNS is actually a relatively simple process. The steps are straightforward, but doing them incorrectly may affect your site’s performance. We advise that you make your DNS switch during off-peak usage hours. The middle of the night, weekends, or holidays typically work best.

Key Questions to Consider When Switching DNS

  • Have you double-checked there are no business-critical events in the next 72 hours following “go live?”
  • Are all parties clear on their duties for the “go live” event?
  • Do you have a backup, reversion, or correction plan in case something goes wrong?
TIP: Know who your DNS provider is for all involved domains and make them aware of both the upcoming migration as well as the date and time you will be changing the DNS. In the event of an issue with the change, your DNS provider will already be advised that a migration is in progress and will be better prepared to jump in and help.

Keep the Old Server Active as Short-Term Protection

Are you wondering what to do with your previous server now that it’s not in use? Our recommendation is to leave the old server active for at least a week or two as a point of reference and fallback option in the event an unknown problem rears its head. Leaving your old server running for a transition period offers excellent protection against the most unforeseen issues.

What Should You Avoid During Server Migrations?

Avoid the following during server migrations:

  • Avoid scheduling a move immediately before a critical period for your business, such as Black Friday for an online retailer, to prevent a situation where a problem needs to be fixed in an unrealistic timeframe – turning it into a major disruption.
  • Migrations should generally be performed during off-hours or times when a minimal amount of business is expected. This reduces the chances of disruption, allows the IT team to focus solely on the migration, and prevents the legacy environment from being overwhelmed or the network from becoming saturated.
  • Avoid starting a migration until the exploration period is complete. An incomplete exploration is one of the main sources of preventable problems in migration projects of all kinds. It can be a lengthy process, but the time invested upfront will save you and your team countless headaches in the long run.
  • Notify staff outside of the migration team about the migration. This includes migration timelines, the changes expected to occur, and responsibilities, if any, that may be included as part of the project. You may need to distribute documentation to inform your staff or have a window of time in which IT personnel can assist end users with the initial set-up process.

How Can a Service Provider Help With Server Migrations?

Most service providers can address a significant pain point for their potential customers by offering to help with migrations. However, not all hosts have the combination of customer migration skills and motivation to follow through in a way that makes the experience as smooth as possible.

The requirements for migrations are significantly different depending on what is being migrated and the environments involved. Things can get quite complicated depending on the size of your organization and infrastructure.

As we previously wrote about migrating data between cPanel servers, service compatibility is the real magic of migrations. The magic spells, in this case, are the configurations and combinations of versions which will work together.”

In the discovery and documentation portion of the process, your web hosts’ migration veterans can work with your internal IT administrators to make sure that all relevant information is identified from the beginning. Now, your provider knows exactly what to look for. Your hosting provider can also help estimate how long some of the steps will take, including the final move.

Important details about how a particular environment runs, such as ensuring quorum is established in a server cluster, may be obvious to migration experts but not so clear to in-house IT staff during a major operation. After helping organizations through many migrations, service providers can anticipate some of the questions IT teams are likely to be asked by non-IT staff. A service provider’s experience from migrating countless customers is just a fraction of the benefits organizations can experience by partnering with an expert.

Crafting a new environment to suit your business’s needs is challenging. Even once you’ve completed a thorough discovery, guidance from professionals who have detailed knowledge of all the components of the prospective new environment can be invaluable. Likewise, the experience of experts familiar with storage and networking, your operating system, and the particular systems involved in both sides of the migration can all be valuable resources during the data migration process.

A service provider with extensive experience walking customers through various migrations can be an invaluable asset. From exploration and creating a project plan through testing and execution, there are numerous potentially expensive pitfalls that organizations can avoid with the right help.

A Better Understanding of Server Migration Steps

Server migrations are simple to understand but often complex to execute. The overarching concepts that make up a successful migration mean anyone can do them. The details of each step on the server migration checklist, while often numerous, are not necessarily complex. One of the best things you can do to ensure a successful and complete server migration is to engage experts who know the path and can guide you on the journey.

Here at Liquid Web, our Most Helpful Humans in Hosting™ perform thousands of migrations every year and understand what roadblocks and pitfalls to avoid. If you are considering migrating to a new server, get in touch now. 

We would be happy to discuss what goes into a successful dedicated server migration and help architect the right infrastructure for your needs. Migrating to a new server is a big decision and a process best undertaken with a trusted partner by your side.


What is a server migration service?


Why is a server migration needed?


How do I plan a server migration?