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Scaling WordPress for High-Traffic Websites: How Does It Work

Scaling WordPress

WordPress is the biggest blogging and CMS platform in the world! Everyone that opts to use WP as their web platform knows about its advantages and online potential. You know that WP is so flexible and convenient for blogging that one day, you’ll write such a good article and “break the internet” within days.

Your WordPress website needs to be capable to receive a big surge of traffic at any given time. Scaling for high traffic requires configuration and optimization across the entire CMS. Luckily, that doesn’t have to be hard after you read this article.

Understanding High Traffic

To understand why scalability is vital for your WordPress website, you need to be aware of how a surge of high traffic can make your website slower.

Under a moderate traffic stream, most WP websites should function normally. But, a sudden big amount of traffic can push the server resources to the limits. This overloading of servers is known as “bottlenecking” traffic. It will make your website slow, underperforming and will push away your visitors as a result.

When it comes to avoiding server overloading, less is more. What this means is serving users’ requests with a minimal set of resources and a smaller effort to render and show the users the information that they came for.

You need to ensure that you have an excellent web caching system because when the cached versions of your content are already available, there’s no need for them to be loaded again when the users want to open your link. Also, you need to know how to deal with your databases. Look at the details of your hosting plan and reconsider what the options are for serving higher amounts of traffic.

How Scalable Is WordPress?

From a simple blogging platform, WordPress transformed into the biggest CMS available today. Automattic maintains a massively distributed server infrastructure to cope with tens of millions of websites hosted on the platform. But, to cope with millions of views per month/year, you’re going to need more than that.

Your WordPress website can scale to unlimited heights! A simple page with a proper theme and the right plugins, if configured properly, it can serve millions of views per month without problems. But, most of the websites that manage to get that amount of traffic include more complex integrations and systems, and for that, they also need a demanding hosting package.

The most important areas that you need to pay attention to when you scale your WP website for high traffic are:

  • Database load
  • Coping with a large volume of concurrent users
  • Storing data efficiently
  • Dealing with multiple HTTP requests
  • Implementing caching layers
  • Media assets
  • Top notch coding architecture

The more your page grows in functionality and traffic, the more you’ll have to optimize and scale for. But that’s the beauty of this CMS, you can optimize and stretch it even past the 100M mark, with the right configuration and technical knowledge, of course.

Hardware Limitations

Just like every other web application, WordPress can only handle traffic as well as the hardware can. The two main reasons that can stop the functionality of your website due to a high amount of traffic are:

  • Processor Limits
  • Network Limits

Processor Limits

Big amounts of traffic mean big demands for servers too. You need to make sure that your website is supported by a server that has enough power to meet those demands.

MySQL/MariaDB

WP depends heavily on MySQL or MariaDB to store the data and show it to your web visitors. Every WP requests on one of those create an additional load for servers. That’s why WordPress is constantly optimized to reduce the number of database requests that are required for a given operation.

However, with the plugin usage, the database demands and usage in order to run the site are also increased. When the surge of high traffic occurs, the simultaneous database connections will cause excessive pressure on the server. This results with an incomplete connection and the following message on the user’s browser:

MySQL/MariaDB connections can be enhanced by either configuring their settings or providing more memory and processing power to the given server. Additionally, using query caching and proper indexing can help to improve MySQL/MariaDB performance. There is not a unified formula for this, because every website is different.

Web Service

WordPress is a web server neutral application. This means that it can be run on different platforms. The most powerful platforms for running WP are Apache or Nginx, running on Linux, but, any server that supports PHP and MySQL or MariaDB is good enough too.

You need to ensure that you have the latest web hosting features and stable version of these platforms in order to create a robust environment for your WordPress site.

The method for running PHP (WP code interpreting language) can also have an effect on the server performance. In CGI mode, the server creates a new instance of the PHP program for every PHP file that a visitor requests. In the shared module mode (or ISAPI), each PHP request is handled by a single library instance.

Network Limits

Your hosting provider in most of the cases connects your server with their internal network with the help of an Ethernet adapter. Adapters, in most of the cases, work at fixed maximum speeds (10Mb/s, 100Mb/s, or 1Gb/s). Your server cannot transfer files faster than the speed at which this network connection is able to transmit.

Your server is probably connected to various devices in your network provider’s establishment. These devices can add their limitations too on the speeds that your server can reach. They are in place because your network provider has to fraction out its limited bandwidth to many servers at its location, and all of the bandwidth must be shared.

There are network providers that allow you to exceed data temporarily, in cases when demand for your site content is especially high. Their hardware should be configured to know when this needs to be done. But, be prepared to pay extra for that option. You need to contact your service provider to check if that option is available to you or not.

Mistakes of Businesses That Want to Scale WP Websites

While business owners may mistakenly see WordPress as a software, experienced developers know that WordPress is a powerful framework that is able to solve complex business problems.

WordPress, as a core CMS platform, includes a good number of features available by default to different audiences. Professional WordPress developers working on high-scale solutions carefully investigate the existing code base and tap into the hosting infrastructure in order to identify areas for improvement.

You can learn about some of the most common mistakes of businesses that want to scale their WP websites in our CEO and Chief WordPress Architect, Mario Peshev’s article:

25+ Business Scaling Mistakes Running a Large WordPress Website

Getting the Right Hosting Plan

In lots of cases, to scale your website successfully, as they said in the movie, “Jaws” – You’ll need a bigger boat!

There are thousands of web hosting options to choose from today, but the best ones must meet the following requirements:

  • PHP version 7.2 or greater.
  • MySQL version 5.6 or greater OR MariaDB version 10.0 or greater.
  • HTTPS support

There are 4 different types of web hosting services that you can have for your WordPress website:

  • Shared Hosting – A web hosting in which the service provider serves pages for multiple websites, each having its own Internet domain name, from a single Web server. It is the cheaper option for businesses to have a web presence, but in most of the cases, not sufficient for sites with high traffic.
  • VPS Hosting – A Virtual Private Server. A VPS hosting environment mimics a dedicated server within a shared hosting environment. It is technically both shared hosting and dedicated hosting.
  • Dedicated Hosting – A hosting configuration in which a server is devoted to a single website. This is in contrast to shared hosting, in which a server acts as a host to multiple websites.
  • Managed WP Hosting – Managed WordPress hosting is a concierge service where all technical aspects of running WordPress is managed by the host. This includes security, speed, WordPress updates, daily backups, website uptime, and scalability.

The upgrades of your hosting plans, if you have trouble handling the high amounts of traffic, can be simple. Depending on the hosting package, try the following:

  • Shared hosting problems > Give upgrading to Virtual Dedicated Hosting a go.
  • Virtual Dedicated Hosting > Try upgrading to Dedicated Hosting.
  • Dedicated Hosting > Upgrade to a higher-powered dedicated server.
  • High-Powered Dedicated Hosting > Have a talk with your hosting provider about multiple Load Balanced Servers.

Using a Caching Plugin

When visitors open your WP site, their browsers store different components of the pages, including content and scripts. A big portion of this content remains static or is uniform across the site and doesn’t need to be requested repeatedly in order to display. This is called caching. The caching of these types of content significantly reduces the number of HTTP requests between servers and browsers.

If you want to handle a high amount of traffic and scale, you need to do everything that you can to reduce HTTP requests. There are a number of ways to reduce HTTP requests, some of them are technical and lots of them come in the form of solutions such as WP Rocket. Bottom line, reducing HTTP requests is all about minimizing and only hosting on your site what you absolutely need.

Adding a CDN

A CDN is a collection of servers that are spread around the world and used to speed up the content delivery for local visitors that are closest to a given server.

Opting for CDN is excellent if your blog/website hosts content or media with an increased traffic. If your content doesn’t change frequently, it can be successfully cached without becoming outdated. As a result, this decreases page load times to give users the content they want as fast as possible.

If you start to think about CDN networks, you have to know that they’re not all equal. You should choose the one that fits the best for your WordPress website and your business model. Here’s a list of the most well-known CDN providers today:

Using Security Plugin

Adding an additional layer of security to your WP page with a plugin can help you scale for a surge of high traffic. A security plugin will protect your website from every type of threat, hacking, SQL injection, malware, spam etc. The best WordPress security plugins all have built-in scanning and monitoring functions, two-factor authentication, blacklisting etc. The following plugins have those options and are regularly updated to make sure that your webpage can deal with the latest security threats:

Remember one thing – you don’t have to download each of these plugins. Even though plugins do automated checks and protections, you’re still not 100% safe just by installing a security plugin on your WordPress website. Try with one plugin and see if it works for your page. If you’re not satisfied with the performance, you can always download and activate another one.

Of course, if you have the budget, the best option is to go for the premium version of any of the security plugins above, due to the advanced security features.

Following the WordPress Security Checklist

Besides using a security plugin, there are other things that you can do to enhance the safety of your WordPress website. Ensuring that you follow the main WordPress security principles is crucial if you want your page to handle and scale for traffic.

  • Keep Your WP Updated: You need to have the latest WordPress version and don’t worry about plugins that are not yet compatible. It’s better to have a secure webpage with the latest WP version than having a non-secure page with a functional plugin. That’s why it’s always smart to update your website as soon as you notice that a new version is available.
  • Update Your Plugins: As soon as a problem occurs as a result of a bad plugin configuration after it’s being reported, the developers sort it out and update the version of the plugin. After that, it is mandatory to have the latest version of the plugin if you want to protect your WP site from hackers.
  • Delete Unused Plugins: In lots of cases, web owners install their plugins to try them out, deactivate them and leave them there inactive. That makes the webpage unprotected and prone to hacker attacks. When you spot an inactive plugin, delete it immediately! You should also delete any plugins that are active but, they’re not put in use at all.
  • Keep Your Theme Updated: Fresh updates and bug fixes are constantly released for WordPress themes that need to be implemented to reduce the risk of security threats. Also, you need to always make sure that your WP theme is compatible with the latest WP version.
  • Install Licensed Plugins/Themes: Those “free” plugins and themes come with a price – giving hackers the opportunity to explore “open doors” and use your website for criminal reasons. You should never trust developers if they stole a script, plugin or resource and placed that on torrent for everyone. If you want to use only original and licensed versions of themes and plugins, your best bet is to use WordPress.org or the official pages of the company that developed that theme/plugin. Original versions can be found on Envato and other related marketplaces.
  • Run Your WP site on the Latest PHP Version: If you don’t use the latest PHP version, your page will remain an open target for hacker attacks. While updating themes and plugins is really simple, the refurbishment of PHP depends on your hosting provider. A reliable and good hosting service must make the latest PHP installation accessible for your WordPress website.
  • Use a Strong Admin Password: Hackers know how most people that use passwords think – they use something easier because they tend to forget complex passwords. As a WP admin, using an easy password like “12345678” means that your WordPress page is already doomed for hacking by brute-forcing your login page.

  • Allow Two-Factor Authentication: When you log in WP, besides the regular password, you can allow the opportunity for a time-based token that needs to be entered from the user. Because of the fact that this token expires in a minute, even if a hacker or someone that knows your password will not be able to completely log in without entering the required token.
  • Verify File Permissions: The WordPress core and PHP both use permissions that are applicable to folders and files. For your WP page to work properly, the web server needs to write these files accurately. You shouldn’t allow any access to the public Internet to write these files. As a rule of thumb, you should set your permissions as 644 for your files, 755 for folders, and your wp-config.php file should have a 400 permission.
  • Use Firewall Plugin: A Firewall or Web Application Firewall (WAF) acts as a protection from the incoming web traffic. It monitors your web traffic and blocks the security threats away from your WordPress website. Besides improving security, a firewall plugin can improve your website speed as well.

The more of the security measurements above are implemented in your page, the better. Rather be safe and worry about traffic later than not being safe at all and not being able to serve a big surge of traffic.

Host-Only the Content That You Need

Everyone knows that visual content is essential if you want to have an appealing website that attracts visitors and keeps them longer on your pages. But, if you have HQ visuals that load too slow, you may lose the visitor’s attention in a matter of seconds.

To keep your website fast and do yourself and users a favor, you need to compress your web images using TinyPNG, ImageResize, or similar tools and keep the video hosting to a minimum. You don’t have to upload entire videos on your WordPress page when you can provide a faster experience by embedding a YouTube or Vimeo link.

Fixing Broken Links Matters

Even though fixing broken is related more to SEO benefits and rankings in SERPs, you can’t ignore the possibility that a broken link can ruin the entire experience for the users. When your WordPress site receives a huge amount of traffic, you don’t want the visitors to encounter any obstructions/404 pages. That’s why you need to make sure that every link in your pages works properly and guides the users to the desired page.

Wrapping Up

Like we stated at the beginning of this article, WordPress is a limitless CMS when it comes to functionality and traffic scalability.

Serving high amounts of traffic for your WordPress website should not scare you at all. It is the natural thing to do after you develop your online presence and create content that will be opened and shared by your target audience.

In fact, you should look forward to receiving hundreds of thousands of views and impressions and scale your WordPress site to higher growth in the process.

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