Avoiding CMS Disaster: Scaling WordPress for High Traffic

Yikes! We’re getting 100 times more requests than normal! Why is it happening? Where did it come from? Is our website up for the challenge and capable of scaling to meet the demand?

Everyone knows having a performant website is a business imperative, especially during peak traffic periods in the wake of major marketing campaigns or breaking news. But in a modern enterprise ecosystem, many other factors, some random and unpredictable, can also cause traffic spikes. Think everything from celebrity endorsements, inflammatory posts, and major events like U.S. Election Night, to deep technical issues like bad deployments of decoupled front ends or mundane bot indexing.

Some events are welcome, driving influxes of new customers and eyeballs. Others can be disastrous for your organization, tarnishing your brand and weakening customer trust. In every case, your engineering team needs to do everything in their power to respond quickly, efficiently, and agilely to keep your site and applications up and humming—and your reputation intact. 

In the second of our Avoiding CMS Disaster series, we explore four approaches to scaling a WordPress website to handle those high traffic tidal waves. 

1. Horizontal and vertical scaling

When you’re thinking of scaling your operations as a response to the traffic, you’ve got two choices: going horizontal or vertical. Each approach has plus points and downsides.

Horizontal scaling

Horizontal scaling is creating more instances of your site or application to cope with traffic spikes. All that is required is adding additional hardware. The goal is to serve more traffic by distributing the load before it reaches your properties. 

Key benefits:

  • Hardware decisions are significantly easier vs. vertical scaling.
  • Eliminates the need to analyze system specifics.
  • More servers offers better resilience to traffic.
  • Distributing your data across multiple nodes means there is no longer a single point of failure.

What to watch out for:

  • Adds significant complexity to your infrastructure setup.
  • Increased maintenance and operation costs—one server is much easier to maintain than multiple.

Vertical scaling

Vertical scaling is increasing the server resources allocated to the instance(s) you already have to meet demand. This aims to increase your application’s ability to handle more requests by providing more processing power. 

Key benefits:

  • Easier to decide hardware options, less expensive to implement—upgrading an existing setup is generally cheaper than preparing an entirely new one.
  • Less complex configuration vs. horizontal—no load balancer needed to distribute traffic or requirement to synchronize data.

What to watch out for:

  • Harder to decide which parts of server infrastructure need to be upgraded or if software needs to be moved to an entirely different server.
  • Higher chance of downtime—your application has a single point of failure.
  • Limitations to the amount of computing power you can add to a single server.

The WordPress VIP answer: 

On WordPress VIP, your application becomes distributed by default. We employ a worldwide network of engineers and points of presence to safeguard your application, using dynamic auto scaling and our content delivery network (CDN) to regulate the traffic that hits your application or site. All this ensures you stay up and serving content even when demand is spiking.

2. Calling in a third-party CDN

Services like Cloudfront, Cloudflare, and Akamai aim to put a point of presence local to the requester to serve pages. This allows fast response with less network communication, eliminating the need for your application to process the request at all. 

The goal is to reduce load, spreading requests evenly to other nodes of the CDN. Some of these services also promise to prevent malicious requests; however, these services are often pricey. 

Third party CDNs do provide some protection for your application. But do you have enough time or budget to engage them as traffic ramps up and your application is hitting its limits?

The WordPress VIP answer: 

What if there was a CDN that simply worked for you right out of the box? That’s what WordPress VIP’s CDN accomplishes. We serve your application as close to the request as possible through our global points of presence, reducing load times and protecting your application from the negative impact of increased traffic.

Still want to use your CDN of choice? No problem. We have experience with all major CDN providers and can assist with connecting to them.

3. Going on the counterattack against attack patterns 

How and when do you recognise that your properties are under attack?

Unfortunately, modern attacks—by bots, malware, or malicious, state-sanctioned activity—are more sophisticated, able to tunnel through VPNs or co-opt penetration testing tools to do damage. Worse, attack patterns can’t always be mitigated immediately. Even when diagnosed, they can be hard to block.

In the end, they can leave your engineers frustrated and tired, like they’re playing an endless game of virtual whack-a-mole. 

“We wanted to use WordPress, and the fact WordPress VIP was the only WordPress option with FedRAMP authorization to operate (ATO) made it a strong option for us as a government agency.”

Kristen Loflin, Public Relations Manager, Marine Corps Marathon Organization

The WordPress VIP answer: 

WordPress VIP’s expertise, infrastructure, and distributed team can proactively control and diagnose attack patterns. With built-in monitoring tools and 24/7 technical support on your side, WordPress VIP helps safeguard your site and application during attacks.

4. Preparing for known traffic by partnering with experts in CMS at scale 

What if spikes are expected? Do you ask your engineers to work within budget (and existing resources) to ensure your site and applications remain online? Or do you plan for best- and worst-case scenarios by partnering with experts at scaling sites?

Even the best laid plans and traffic estimations don’t always cover the real numbers being served. Consider WordPress VIP customer FiveThirtyEight, “devoted to rigorous analysis of politics, polling, public affairs, sports, science and culture,” who shattered their traffic records on the 2020 US Election Night. 

Before their site launch, dedicated engineering teams from both WordPress VIP and FiveThirtyEight partnered with 10up (a WordPress VIP development agency) to diligently optimize site performance, including cache efficiency, in anticipation of extraordinary traffic. 

All the preplanning paid off. During Election Week, WordPress VIP helped FiveThirtyEight serve an astonishing 1.3 billion page views, hitting a peak of 132,000 requests per second with server response time staying flat at 144 milliseconds under the load.

The WordPress VIP answer: 

Mitigating the downside of known traffic spikes is vital for modern businesses going all in on their digital transformation. During these spikes, WordPress VIP automatically scales your application to meet demand, ensuring a smooth experience for your users. Another safeguard is optional code review by our expert engineers, available as part of our Application Support and higher tiers. 

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In conclusion

Whether it’s known or unknown traffic hitting your site and application, preparation and mitigation measures are mission-critical for any organization hoping to harden its properties, user experience, and reputation. From horizontal and vertical scaling to calling in CDNs, today’s businesses have a range of options to scale WordPress for high traffic while freeing up their engineering teams from on-call whack-a-mole duties. 

Learn more about WordPress VIP here

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