High-Performance WordPress Basics

Getting started with high-performance WordPress requires understanding the concepts of speed, scale, and elasticity.

What do we mean by WordPress performance anyway?

You cannot separate the definition of “performance” from the overall purpose of the site itself.

If you’re a small business who just needs to post your store’s hours and contact info, a 1-second improvement in load-time may not be all that important to you — especially once you consider the additional cost. Everyone wants a faster more efficient site, but time is not an infinite resource and–unless you are Bill Gates or Warren Buffet–neither is money.

But if you are a search marketer, obsessing over page rank, bounce rates and conversions then 1 second can change your world and will probably be worth every penny you put into it.

As you read this book always keep recommendations in context of your overall purpose.

Dimensions of WordPress Performance

There are three primary consideration when talking about WordPress Performance:  speed, scale and elasticity. This ebook examines all three but will be mostly concerned with speed and scale. Elasticity comes mostly from the server/infrastructure and as such will only be dealt with in the hosting discussion.

Speed is an easily understood concept. How fast does my page load damnit! That’s all you need to know. It’s not quite this simple of course, but for the introductory chapter it’ll suffice.

Scale is a slightly more complicated concept. What do we mean when we ask can my application scale?

Computing power is a limited resource and the performance of your website or application will be impacted by the available and consumption of that resource.

An analogy.

Imagine a bagel shop owner in a small town. They get healthy foot traffic but not enough to afford an employee so they do everything themselves. They take the orders, make the bagels, ring the register. This can totally work so long as the number of people coming in and placing orders isn’t any more than can be served relatively quickly. But as more people come in, orders pile up, wait times increase, and the customer experience is wrecked.

What worked at the scale of one customer every five minutes broke down once there were two.

Of course our intrepid Bagel-ista will inevitably have to hire someone to help her out. But if she waits too long she’ll risk losing business because of the poor customer experience. She might just go ahead and hire early expecting the increasing demand. But what if business grows slower than expected? She’s spending more than she can afford on help she doesn’t need yet.

WordPress Scaling is a Balancing Act

The same goes for websites and application. You could spend thousands of dollars a month on sophisticated Amazon AWS machinations but not have a single customer to support the investment. Likewise you could go super-cheap with BlueHost or DreamHost and end up with a crashed server on the biggest day of your business.

It’s a balancing act. And there is no right equation or server or plugin that can make the decision for you. But you can plan ahead, accepting that those growing pains will happen and putting yourself in a position to scale as rapidly as possible when that time comes.

Strategies For WordPress Performance and Scale

Given the analogy above you can see to competing strategies developing, an aggressive or over-investment strategy and a conservative or under-investment strategies. Both have advantages and disadvantages and either can be used successfully.

Aggressive v. Conservative

The key consideration of the aggressive strategy is a complete intolerance downtime. In the movie “Social Network”, Mark Zuckerburg is memorably quoted saying:

Okay, let me tell you the difference between Facebook and everyone else, we don’t crash EVER! If those servers are down for even a day, our entire reputation is irreversibly destroyed! Users are fickle, Friendster has proved that.

This is a supremely aggressive strategy, but it was probably warranted given that the ONLY market advantage Facebook had was popularity.

I think too often though those with sites/applications very different from Facebook feel they need the same strategy.

Downtime is definitely a problem, especially when it happens at an inopportune time.The advantage to an aggressive strategy is that if done right, a promo video going viral will be no big deal. But you could easily spend thousands per month on a servers you don’t need in the meantime.

A Conservative approach can be just as effective. In most web hosting scenarios, you can upgrade your site to better hardware and be back online in no time. A few minutes, or even a couple hours downtime, while inconvenient can be tolerated if expected and planned for.

We will discuss this more in later chapters but this concept of expanding quickly to accommodate a change in traffic is known as “elasticity”.

In the next chapter we will ask the question “How do I pick a WordPress Host?”