Updating Network Infrastructure for a Youth Sports League

Late in 2018, I was asked to volunteer to help with the “IT” work associated with the Local youth sports league my family and I associate with.  This article is about the need that was first communicated to me and my perception of the need, versus the actual need.  There’s detail of the specific work involved to document processesmigrate the domain name registrar, migrate the hosting and email provider, and some future planned work – updating network infrastructure is a broad term, but big changes were made!

 About Local Youth Athletics

Many of the local schools in our area do not offer elementary or middle school sports – school-supported athletics generally start in high school in our area; this dramatically increases the size and scope of local youth sports leagues in Northwest Florida.

About Our Local Youth Sports League

The local youth sports organization has several thousand members and offers variations of 9+ sports for kids ages 5-15. There are nearly 4000 registered users on the website, which account for tens of thousands of registrations across multiple sport-seasons throughout the course of a single year.

The league is an all-volunteer organization that is run by a volunteer board of directors, which is elected by the league members.  League members are parents, guardians, and community members who pay the annual dues associated with the league (registered members).  The only requirement to become a member to join is to pay the annual dues.

The board appoints individuals that head the operations for each individual sport, they call these people commissioners.  Each commissioner then appoints other people to assist in operation of each sport – for example, head-team-mom, committees overseeing coaching selections, behavior, and so on.  Each sport is an small organization within itself.

Our local population is largely military, which means people are transferring in and out of the area consistently.  This requires clear communication and accounts for some of the confusion and misinformation around the league.

Request For Expert Help

Late in 2018, the league sent an email to all members requesting volunteers to assist with their Information Technology needs.  As a parent and volunteer coach in several sports, I was aware of a few of the IT pitfalls associated with the league, such as:

  • Registration was laborious for parents trying to register their young athletes to play a sport.
  • Paying for registration was difficult since the league offered a “pay online” or “pay-by-check” or “cash” option in the league office.
  • Contacting (the right) people within the league was difficult.
  • Understanding when registration for sports (and other events) was difficult to discern

I responded to the email with my qualifications and interest.  A couple weeks later I was contacted by the board president to meet and discuss.  He pointed out some pain points from a league perspective:

  • Email – many people sent email to an email address listed on the website, admin@.  Everyone on the board had access to this mailbox, and parsing through this to determine actionable items was difficult and not ideal.
  • There were some specific pain points around how payments were accepted and processed (much of this was a manual process).  If the manual process was not completed, members could be blocked from registering in the future because they had an open balance.

The primary job would also include:

  • Website Maintenance
    • Updating/maintaining the part of the website that consumer’s see
    • Setting up registration for all the sports (website admin role)
    • Setting up payments, discounts, and issuing refunds (website admin role)
    • Sending mass emails to subscribers – the ‘back end’ of the website has the ability to send emails to subscribers. We did this periodically to announce “Registration is Open” or “All Fields are Closed this evening due to storms” and the like.
  •  Email 
    • setup and maintenance – Board member’s and commissioner’s cycled through every 2-3 years, so these addresses would need to be updated/maintained/passed-down.
    • Triaging emails sent to our support@ and admin@ accounts.  This could come from our end users or general solicitation emails.
  • Social Media – Improving and maintaining the league’s presence on social media.
  • Assisting Board Members and Commissioners in any IT related issue not specifically outlined above. This could be running reports, sending bulk emails or texts, issuing refunds, adjusting registration dates, and the list goes on and on.

I told the league president that I would accept the opportunity.  He put me in touch with the current and previous IT Directors who gave me access to administrate the website.   From here, I went down the rabbit hole, which led me to discover the slew of issues that needed to be resolved.

Discovering Network Infrastructure Issues

After several weeks, I identified many issues that needed addressed, noted below.

  • Passwords to manage the league website and email (and everything else) was less than ideal. In fact, the same password was used on multiple sites, and many people had access to this information.
  • The domain name registrar and hosting provider provided a few challenges:
    • The original registrar was register.com – however, a less-than-tech-savvy board member responded to some spam mail and transferred the domain to IDNSINC.COM for a less-than-premium price.
    • IDNSINC.com was nearly unresponsive to me – they didn’t offer a portal that I could log into to review or change website settings. This included mail settings, which were misconfigured.  To change settings, I had to email this company, and they often didn’t respond – and, quite frankly, offered poor customer service.
  • Website was confusing to league administrators – the website was “hosted” or “proxied” through Blue Sombrero, a leading provider of websites, registration, and league management tools for youth sports organization.  Blue Sombrero’s offering are robust and met all of the league’s needs – but it hadn’t been properly administered (or had been administered by multiple people, causing additional confusion and issues), resulting in some unusual workflows for users and confusion for board members and sport commissioners who needed access to the information (such as registration, uniform reports, and so on).
    • Website was confusing to end users – for reasons noted above, the website had not been updated often, and contained much outdated, confusing, or misplaced information.
  • The email was insecure, here were the two primary issues I identified:
    • The MX record of the domain was setup correctly, so mail was flowing.  However DKIM and SPF was not configured properly, resulting in some security vulneraby.
    • There were two email groups, board@ and admin@, which forwarded to the personal email addresses of the league board members. Each sport commissioner had an email address (baseball@, for example) which also forwarded to one or more personal email accounts.  Forwarding email is an insecure practice that can result in email getting blocked from your entire domain (meaning you won’t be able to send email at all!).  Forwarding email also lends itself to revealing personal information on our members and loss of mail altogether due to mail routing.
    • Email forwarding confused our customers.  If you were a league member who emailed admin@ with a question about baseball, for example, this went to all the board members.  Someone then had to take the lead to contact the baseball commissioner (usually via forwarding the email to his or her personal email address). The commissioner would then respond from his personal email. The customer would then receive a reply from an unknown email address.
  • The social media accounts of the league were in a state of neglect.
    • Multiple people could post on the social media accounts, but few did with a wide-sweeping intent to inform people about all events. Only some events were posted, and that was sporadic.
    • Personal messages were never responded to
    • Messages to content provided were largely ignored

Plan to Improve Network Infrastructure

After identifying the issues above, I made the plan to attack the issues.

Recruiting Help

Trying to fix and maintain the IT infrastructure of the league would be a large undertaking that already was taking much of my time.  I wanted to be able to create a team of individuals who could assist so that it would remove the bus-factor problem.  I began recruiting like-minded IT people to build a team that would fix some issues and maintain this new infrastructure.  I called this the League IT Committee.  This process took some time to find the right people, and is still a continuous process as we look to grow and develop our team.

After several months of doing things on my own, I was able to recruit four other individuals to join the committee.  The Committee began meeting monthly to triage and discuss solutions to issues.  We kept minutes, defined action items, and followed up on those items at the next meeting.

The IT Committee is currently still in its infancy as of July 2019 – we’re still building our processes and workflows, but the foundation has been laid for a successful future.

Created Initial Documentation

When the job of IT Director was turned over to me, it wasn’t a seamless transition.  I had to dig around for usernames, passwords, access, and how to do many of the things that were required to do.  This is not an accusation or criticism of those who came before me – the duty of the position is large, and all adults have a limited amount of time to donate their time.  I don’t want my successor to have a similar issue, so I began creating some basic documentation.

  • Created an IT Committee Team Standard Operating Procedure document. This document would:
  • Identified IT Committee team members and each team member’s responsibility
  • Identified IT Committee team directives – established basic guidelines and workflows for response time to our internal and external customers.
  • Provided all information that would be required to give to the next IT Director – including registered domain names, hosting accounts, website information, email setup,IT Committee work flow and ticketing system (more on that below), social media accounts and other account types.  Specific URLs and where to access the secure passwords of all the league’s accounts (stored in a password manager).
  • Created documentation for all the league emails and phone numbers
  • Created documentation for User Roles on the league website and the backend infrastructure.

Creating the documentation help me understand the scope and need.  The next step was to execute an action plan.

Putting the Plan into Action

After documenting everything I knew, the next step was to get the IT infrastructure of the league to a place that it needed to be so that it could continue to serve the community at an extremely high level.

Addressed Immediate Security Concerns

The very first thing I did was update all logins and passwords with unique and strong passwords.  I also Increased Security of Website by reducing roles of various users so that everyone wasn’t a SuperAdmin with access to all the things, including financial information.

Setup a New Email Account to Triage Questions from External Stakeholders

Next I changed the primary contact on the website to a new email address that only I could access.  From there, I would forward to whoever needed to respond to the email.  This solved one immediate need of the league until I could come up with a better solution (see “Setup Spiceworks Helpdesk to help the IT Committee triage and respond to issues” below) .

Updated Website Look and Feel

As mentioned, the website look and feel is managed through a Wordpress-like engine called Blue Sombrero.  At this point in time, there was much to do – and migrating away from them, while possibly on my radar, was not a priority.  Instead, I standardized the templates for each sport, updated the content to make it recent and relevant, and updated the website theme (template) to a more modern look and feel.

Since I hadn’t ever worked on anything that used Blue Sombrero, there was a learning curve.  It was simple after I got the basics down, however, this process did take several weeks and many hours as the website contains approximately 30 pages.

Setup Spiceworks Helpdesk to Help the IT Committee Triage and Respond to Issues

During one of our first IT Committee meetings, I raised the problem that capturing all the work required and keeping track of the work was a pain point. I suggested we locate a cheap/low-cost ticketing solution to track these items. One of the committee members was familiar with Spiceworks and gave me and overview.  He stood up an instance to test and see if it would meet our needs.  Quickly, we discovered it to be extremely useful.

At present, the primary email address that external and internal user’s use to contact the league is support@.  We configured any email sent to support@ to generate a ticket and send an automated response. From there, we could triage the item, work on the item – and commenting on the ticket sent an email to the user who submitted the item.  We’re presently using the online version of Spiceworks, as opposed to the on-prem version.  It presently meets all of our needs and I’m happy with this solution right now.

With Spiceworks we can also create tickets for work for internal infrastructure and keep track of tasking and progress, as well as assign the tickets and tasks to various members on the IT Committee.

Domain Name Registrar Migration

We needed to have the ability to login to a portal and manage the records associated with the domains, as well as know and understand when domain expiration may occur to prevent that from lapsing, as well as prevent the domain from possibly being hijacked or stolen by locking the domain transfer.

To achieve this, I migrated the domain name to domain name registrar Directnic.com.  Since I wanted the ease of managing the domain names along with the hosting on the same platform, I researched which providers would give meet the criteria of affordability, hosting service with sufficient storage and   affordable email plans that provided a webportal for users to login and check email.

To migrate our registrar, I contacted current registrar (IDNSINC.COM) and requested a domain authorization code (or EPP code). Once I received the code, I filled out the appropriate form on the domain transfer page. Five Business days later, this was complete.

Migrated Website to a New Hosting Provider

Once the domain transfer was complete, I was able to purchase hosting with the new provider.  I selected a plan (which was discussed at the IT Committee meeting and the League Board meeting) and purchased the three year hosting plan to maximize discount for the league.

Before I started changing hosting providers, I wanted to setup a mechanism that would monitor connectivity (uptime/downtime) of the website.  After consulting some people I know, I decided to go with uptimerobot.com. This is a free service that pings the website every 5 minutes and will email the support team if there is an outage of the site.

In order to get our website to work with our proxy provider Blue Sombrero, I had to setup an A Record that pointed to the IP they had instructed, and created a CNAME record pointing to the URL of their choice.  Within 48 hours, this was complete without a hiccup.  I monitored the global DNS propagation via whatsmydns.net.

Migrating the Email Platform to a New Email Hosting Provider

The email was previously hosted through Zoho Mail.  The first step in the migration was to download all the emails in each inbox and zip the file.  Zoho made this extremely helpful with their export mail feature. After that was complete, I logged into the Directnic hosting console and, using the Address importer, imported all of my 27 of the email addresses via CSV. These were the easy steps.

The next step was a little painful, and I think Directnic needed to have a better solution for importing mail.  To import the actual mail into each inbox, I had to go to the inbox of each mail user and drag/drop the zip file into the webportal client.  This process was made more difficult since there were size limitations on the files, even though they were zipped, a couple of the files were too large.  This process took me a couple days to complete.

Removing Email Forwarding

When I migrated from Zoho Mail to the Directnic mail, I added forwarders so that there was no lapse in service – and quite frankly, I know it would take time to get everyone to setup their new email in their devices or via webmail portal.  So, I had to actually set up mail forwarding in the new portal for a time, before I was able to disable mail forwarding.

Unfortunately, Directnic doesn’t have robust documentation for setting up email, and quite frankly it’s not as easy as GoDaddy or another provider with Office365, for example.  Because of this, I put together documentation for my users to follow, including step-by-step instructions which included screen shots.

After the email migration was complete and I was certain all mail was routing as expected, I sent an email to everyone in the league who had their email setup to forward.  I requested all members to either setup their league email addresses on their devices or provided them with a webportal to access their email, with instructions noted above.  As of July 2019, I’ve migrated about half of the users away from email forwarding and expect to close the book on this in a couple weeks.

Future Planned Work

With the Email and Website migration complete, and documentation established and the IT Committee meeting regularly – we can really start to make some great progress.  We’ve taken some baby steps toward progress.

  • There’s a league calendar we’re trying to get all league events into – this calendar is already integrated to the website and will be a great source of information for league stakeholders.
  • A new IT Committee member is overseeing the social media aspect of the league, utilizing scheduling posts via the calendar (which they also maintain).
  • Early in 2019 I was publishing a league newsletter with a review of the previous month and a preview of the next month. We’re actively recruiting for an individual to publish this newsletter.
  • The committee is going to investigate upgrading the website.
  • We’re working on constructing a sustainable share drive for all league documents. Currently, many documents reside on the Blue Sombrero file structure which is antiquated.

Husband, Dad to 4 boys, #SoftwareTester, #domainInvestor, #WebEntrepreneur, and has-been runner.

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