WordPress is the most popular content management system in the world, but that doesn’t mean that every WordPress website is scalable or elastic. It doesn’t even mean that a majority of WordPress sites are ready for traffic spikes.
In fact, there is no shortage of WordPress sites that can’t handle their existing peak traffic without slowing down or throwing errors, making it difficult or impossible for visitors to use your website.
That’s right! You may be spending time and money to drive an audience to a website that isn’t even capable of serving those users.
This is particularly troubling for ecommerce businesses that rely on WordPress to work with shopping cart software like BigCommerce or WooCommerce to generate sales and revenue. However, it doesn’t take a survey to know that website owners want their websites to perform reliably for all web visitors.
WordPress as a Large-Scale Website Solution
More than 27 million websites are powered by WordPress — including almost 4,000 of the top 10,000 sites on the internet. Wappalyzer shows WordPress as commanding a full 75% of the Content Management System (CMS) market. The nearest competitors are Drupal and Joomla, each commanding only 4% of the market respectively.
WordPress.org boasts that its open-source software powers 35% of the web, from small blogs to some of the largest, most visited websites in existence.
On the larger end of the spectrum, their portfolio includes websites for publications like RollingStone, Vogue, and websites for organizations like The Walt Disney Company.
Is WordPress Scalable?
There is no question that a WordPress website can scale to meet the needs of high-traffic, large-scale websites. However, that doesn’t mean that every WordPress website is ready to maintain 100% uptime during traffic surges.
Rather than focus on WordPress’s core software as the be-all-end-all of scalability, it’s more important to focus on factors related to your individual website — from themes, plugins and customizations, to sufficiently scalable hosting.
Steps for Scaling WordPress for Growth
WordPress by itself is a flexible platform. If you clear any bottlenecks and give your website the right hosting resources, the sky’s the limit. Here are the most common areas to pay attention to when gearing your WordPress instance to throttle up in traffic.
1. Code best practices.
Your custom code can impact page load and scalability in more than one way. Your code should be “clean” and generally free of errors and unnecessary bloat. Similarly, avoid dependencies on third-party services that won’t scale — anything from a stock ticker to a live chat system that isn’t built to handle large surges in traffic.
In some cases, software like NewRelic may be extremely helpful in finding coding errors and issues that cause problems like hanging processes that eat up your website resources.
2. Vertical scalability.
Sometimes your site simply needs more resources to handle traffic. Hardware resources such as CPU and RAM are crucial to handling traffic spikes. Typically, dedicated servers have enough processing power to handle minor spikes, but may not be optimally configured for sustained traffic bursts.
On public clouds, it’s possible to allocate additional resources to your server by adding more CPU cores and RAM, but this will require downtime as these resources cannot be added while the server is running.
3. Horizontal / elastic architecture.
In many cases, more CPU and RAM alone won’t be enough to meet your needs. The hosting server, whether a dedicated server or cloud account, will bottleneck. Instead, you’ll want to use load-balancing to spread your traffic across multiple web servers.
Much like with vertical scaling, specialty hosts can help you to autoscale “horizontally” by spinning up more web nodes as needed. This is often achieved on public clouds, such as AWS.
Within your WordPress website, a variety of elements need to come together to produce a complete webpage. This includes your theme, scripts, images, and content. A Full Page Caching (FPC) solution saves fully generated web pages so that these elements are already assembled and ready to be transmitted more efficiently to a web visitor’s browser.
It’s also possible to move session and object caching and store data into RAM, which greatly reduces processing time and database calls as well as API hits.
5. Content Delivery Network.
Rather than have all of your hosting resources load from your individual hosting account, you can use a Content Delivery Network (CDN) like Cloudflare to distribute copies of files, like images, across an “edge network” of servers around the globe.
Much like with other caching systems, this cuts down on the resources needed by your hosting environment to serve up your site. Additionally, CDNs can offer a wide range of security, resilience, and speed benefits.
6. Database optimization.
The content in your WordPress website is stored in a database. By making sure that your database is well configured and optimized, you can decrease the chances that the weak link in your scalability chain will relate to your database. You should focus on hardware as well as software by using a database like MySQL or MariaDB with proper sizing and configuration.
7. Search indexing.
WordPress’s built-in site-search feature can be a bottleneck in some situations. As your site scales up, you should consider another option, like ElasticSearch.
As with other popular CMS systems, WordPress security is a moving target. Your web host should be deploying web application firewalling, intrusion detection, and malware scanning solutions for your site. However, it’s important to make sure that these systems are not hurting your scalability.
For instance, if your malware scans are scheduled for peak traffic times, they could be using vital server resources at the worst possible time. A WordPress security audit can help you identify vulnerabilities and risks.
9. Available disk space.
Running out of CPU and RAM resources is temporary during a traffic spike and normally resolves itself, but running out of hard disk space is catastrophic and requires manual intervention. It’s important to have your host alert you if you’re running short on disk space. Without enough space to compile your cache or address other basic server functions, your website can come to a halt.
In the case of operating an ecommerce store using your WordPress site, you may be putting more load on WordPress than you need to. There are many great examples of WordPress + BigCommerce Headless Commerce sites, in which a WordPress is used for its strong CMS capabilities, while BigCommerce provides a hosted ecommerce backend to manage product, customer, order, and other vital data and operations for managing an online store.
11. Server software.
Your web host should analyze your individual website and choose the right software like NGINX or Percona DB. New versions of software like PHP operate more efficiently than old versions, helping your overall scalability, not to mention security. How it’s all configured is equally important. Simply installing software like PHP will not ensure successful scalability. It takes an experienced hand and the right settings to avoid bottlenecking.
12. Hardware performance.
As with all computers, not all hardware is the same — and it’s not just about size. For instance, choosing a host that uses Solid State Drives (SSD) using TLC technology can lead to much better loading speeds and scalability than Spinning Disks or SSDs using QLC. While you may be able to get a cheap hosting solution on aged hardware, it’s best to look beyond cost and focus on getting the right architecture for high performance.
13. Speed optimization.
Generally speaking, the better your WordPress loading speed, the more compressed, “minified” and optimized your site is. Your infrastructure should be able to more elegantly serve more users if it’s not choking on large files and otherwise under-performing code. You should also have a Time to First Byte (TTFB) under 200ms, which is easy to check with a WordPress speed test.
Best Practices for WordPress Scalability
Now that you know what impacts your site, these are the top best-practices that will traditionally have the biggest impact on your WordPress scalability and elasticity.
1. Use the right hosting provider.
You may have noticed that more than half of the steps for scaling WordPress listed above require web hosting optimization. Selecting the right WordPress hosting plan with a provider that specializes in WordPress scalability will greatly increase your chances of being successful. So does having a team that’s engaged in real-time monitoring of your hosting environment.
2. Lightweight WordPress theme.
If your WordPress theme is poorly coded, or chock full of unnecessary features and code, it may be weighing down your site and limiting your ability to handle large amounts of web traffic. Consider cleaning up your theme code, or simply using a theme that’s built to address your page speed and scalability needs.
3. Simplified plugins.
Every plugin adds weight and risk to your store. When it comes to WordPress plugins, less is more. Choose your plugins wisely, and if they’re not truly necessary, be sure to remove them. If you’re operating an ecommerce website, consider adding BigCommerce to your WordPress site, which will offload much of your ecommerce related workload to BigCommerce’s SaaS solution.
4. Load testing.
As they say, “The proof is in the pudding.” You should run a WordPress load test to verify that your site is capable of meeting your specific traffic expectations and goals. Furthermore, you should retest from time to time, such as after making changes and updates to your site, or when you believe you may be approaching a new traffic peak, such as before Black Friday.
Your WordPress website will be as scalable as you make it. In order to scale WordPress, you must adhere to best-practices when it comes to both web development and web hosting, and you’ll need vendors that you can count on.
You should never assume that because there are huge WordPress sites, or because your WordPress site is hosted in a cloud environment, your site can handle anything you throw at it.
Whether you’re using WordPress as a blogging platform or to power a more complex website, you should test, adjust, and make sure that your site is indeed scalable — and rely on teams that you can trust to support you!