What if you could forget about updates, security patches, latency glitches, and bandwidth/disk space issues? Automattic, the company behind WordPress, has provided a hosting service so comprehensive that it even allows installation of third-party plugins and templates.
WordPress (WP) is not only the most popular content management system, but as of August 2017 it powers 28.5% of all of the web (see “Usage Statistics and Market Share of Content Management Systems for Websites“). This is largely because site owners are running a copy of the free software provided at WordPress.org (WP.org) on their own servers.
Hosting your own copy of WP gives you the freedom to add plugins, tweak templates and customize the behavior of the software, but it does have downsides, such as having to deal with lots of updates, security problems, and other issues we’ll discuss in a moment.
WP also offers a hosted version of its software at WordPress.com (WP.com). Developers have tended to avoid this option, mainly because it offers considerably less control over customization, no custom templates and no plugins. But at the same time there are advantages, such as automatic updates, much tighter security, and global distribution. And more recently, WP.com has addressed some of its limitations and started offering a lot more control over the ways in which you can customize the software — even letting you install add-ons and custom themes!
In this article, we’ll look at what you can and can’t do with a WP.com site, and I’ll offer reasons to why you might reconsider WP.com over the self-hosting option.
SaaS stands for Software as a Service. Essentially, the software itself — in this case, WordPress — is the service. And with the software also comes all of the infrastructure that’s needed to run it, and you don’t need to worry about server resources and all of what’s needed to run and manage a WP installation.
WP.com is the official hosting supported by Automattic, the company that handed the WordPress trademark to the WordPress Foundation in 2010. Matt Mullenweg, the creator of WP, is the CEO and founder of Automattic, the company for all things WordPress. This is WP in the cloud.
What you get for using a service like WP.com is the peace of mind that things won’t get broken even if you leave them entirely unattended. But let’s see in detail how switching out from a shared hosting plan to WP.com can simplify things.
Updates and upgrades
When running your own, self-hosted copy of WP, you need to perform regular updates in order to keep your installation safe. The engineering team at WP made the process really smooth, so if you have set certain writing permissions right, this is something that shouldn’t take you more than a minute or two. Still, you’ll need to do that on a somewhat regular basis. A lot of sites get out of date quickly, providing a lot of scope for crackers to get busy.
Then you have the upgrades. Consider these scenarios:
- an update going from, let’s say, version 4.8 to 4.8.1
- an upgrade from 4.7 to 4.8
- a major upgrade going from version 3.9 to 4.0.
The first, “update” type is normally smooth, with just security and performance issues involved.
Upgrades can sometimes be problematic, since new features are introduced.
But major upgrades are almost guaranteed to be a pain, with templates and plugins needing to be rewritten in order to work properly with the upgraded API.
Since WP.com is run by the same folks who maintain the WP.org codebase, all of the updates and upgrades are smoothly synchronized from one to the next.
Load balancing and global distribution
Performance matters today more than ever. With developers under pressure to deliver sites fast, it’s not enough to throw a site on shared hosting and leave it at that. Issues like load balancing, and CDNs to deliver content globally immediately, have become a big consideration when setting up a site.
If your sites have an international audience, you’ll always have the visitors near to the data center accessing your site very fast, but the more you get away from it, the less responsive your sites will become (for example, having a site hosted on the US West Coast, and accessing it from Europe.)
WP.com provides load balancing out of the box. No matter now big your site, no matter how much traffic it has, or how globally distributed your audience is, WP.com can handle all of it, and more. And it also comes with the benefits of what a cloud hosting service is (see “A Comparison of Shared and Cloud Hosting, and How to Choose“), including being part of a network distributed across the globe, which makes your site nearly instantly available, no matter if accessed from Shanghai, Rome, Johannesburg, New York City, or Rio de Janeiro.
Server upgrades and maintenance
And the same goes with the software that WP relies on to run — PHP and MySQL. Every once in a while, your hosting company will go through a major upgrade, with plenty of notification emails, documentation and tutorials on how to make the transition, setting the company’s forums on fire. Again, server upgrades don’t happen often, but when they do it’s a time-consuming process that involves setting things up again, testing, and the risk of getting your sites broken if you failed to do the transition properly.
If you have a couple of WP installations, the maintenance time will add up, and you’ll need to be very methodical to avoid problems in the mid and long run. And the more diverse your clientele, the more servers you’ll need to keep an eye on, and the less you’ll be able to simplify updates.
WP.com engineers maintain all of the infrastructure for you, and even major upgrades (both software and hardware) are handled smoothly. This is the magic of SaaS, where the software itself is the service, and you don’t need to worry about anything else other than just using it.
Because of the best DevOps practices, you won’t ever find out that such major changes happened to the infrastructure. And this won’t affect your site’s uptime, which will be 100% even during major software and hardware upgrades.
A problem of not performing updates in time is that you’ll end up with an insecure WP installation where any script kiddie can take control of your sites, by just scanning vulnerable WP versions on the web.
Also, even if your self-hosted WP instance is up to date, it only takes an unattended vulnerability on the server for a more skilled cracker to take over. And while this doesn’t happen all the time, it’s something many of us have painfully experienced.
Every patch is applied to WP.com as soon as it becomes available to WP.org. Also, because of the globally distributed nature of the cloud, the impact of DDoS attacks is heavily minimized. And even in the event of a zero-day exploit being used on WP.com to compromise its websites, as soon as the attack is detected the engineers will immediately reverse the bogus changes and patch the security hole.
Already on a Dedicated Server or Managed Plan? Think Again!
A dedicated server is the power version of a shared hosting plan, or should I say, it’s a “shared hosting plan” without the “shared” part.
Effectively, you’ll have more “dedicated” resources, such as bandwidth, CPU, RAM memory, disk space. But in essence, you’re still not solving any of the problems described above, so in this sense a dedicated server offers little added value.
And you’ll pay a lot for it! The long-term costs of having a dedicated server can be around $1000/yr. And with just three dedicated servers running a couple of WP sites, you can very easily reach the $500/mo mark.
Turns out that a more cost-effective solution is available, that will not only assign you as much bandwidth, CPU, RAM and space as you can possibly need, but it will also solve all of the above mentioned issues at the same time.
As of August 2017, WP.com offers a 4-tier plan structure. You can see the full details in https://wordpress.com/pricing/, but here’s the big picture:
|3 GB||6 GB||13 GB||Unlimited storage.|
|WordPress.com subdomain||Custom domain||Custom domain||Custom domain|
|Support though forums||E-mail & live chat support||E-mail & live chat support||E-mail & live chat support|
|Ads||No ads||No ads||No ads|
|Unlimited premium themes||Unlimited premium themes|
|CSS customization||CSS customization|
|Run ads via WordAds||Run ads via WordAds|
|Remove WordPress.com branding|
Notice that prices are per month but billed annually.
Third-party plugins and custom themes
Yes, we were getting to this! You’ve been all saying “look, this is all fine, it’s an excellent service but I need plugins and custom templates, and WP.com just doesn’t cut it.” Well, they have heard you, and from August 2017, this is a feature of the Business Plan:
This is a major improvement over what’s been holding back many developers and designers from using WP.com.
There are, however, some limitations. You still can’t alter the WP core, and the service is for plugins officially supported at WP.org. But this change brings a lot of flexibility for a wide array of needs. And let’s face it, if as a developer you need to change the WP core, you’re not familiar enough with the WordPress APIs and can’t write plugins properly.
When to Stick to a Regular Hosting Plan
If you have a modified WP installation (and I already commented on how this isn’t generally a good thing to do), you’ll need a place to run it, so sticking to a regular hosting plan will be a necessity.
Another case for which you’ll need a regular hosting plan is if you have custom or modified plugins that are not in WP.org.
Finally, if you evaluate costs vs features and still don’t want to pay $25 for the ability to use a plugin or upload a custom template, that’s fine, and it’s up to you. After all, just four sites with these features would account for about $100/mo. But consider, however, that you can transfer this cost to your client. Instead of saying “hosting is $5/mo,” you’d say “hosting is $25/mo and it includes custom support, load balance, constant updates, global distribution” … and so on. You get the idea.
The ultimate alternative: managed WordPress.com
WP runs nearly a third of the internet, and it’s no surprise that a whole commercial ecosystem has flourished around it. This includes “managed” solutions: that is, you pay a company to run the software for you.
While many of these companies will see their business model seriously damaged by WP.com’s recently added support for plugins and themes, some still offer competitive prices by allowing you to run several WP sites on a single server, and an edge by allowing you to modify the entire WP installation, while handling everything else for you.
See “Managed WordPress Hosting: The Pros and Cons” for more info.
Updates, upgrades, security, uptime, load balancing, distribution … WP.com solves a number of the problems that can be very hard for you to handle, even when paying for a $150/mo dedicated server. Yes, it has some limitations intrinsic to the SaaS delivery model, like not being able to modify certain aspects of the software, particularly the code. But still, its flexibility covers a wide range of uses.
It’s peace of mind for a few extra dollars, which sometimes you might be able to transfer to your client, and sometimes not. But it’s also, in many cases, a reasonable price to pay for totally forgetting about maintaining a site ever again.