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And We’re Live!

This weekend, I migrated this site from Nexcess (on a reseller account that I own) to WP Engine. First, I still love Nexcess. They have served—and continue to serve—me extremely well. I’ve been with Nexcess since 2006 with zero problems, issues or complaints. I’m maintaining my account with them. They’re still hosting everything not at www.brandonkraft.com for me and are still hosting my client sites. I’ll write a review of my great experience with Nexcess later—this isn’t a comparison, except the speed test.

photocredit: flickr/brunogirin

WP Engine made me an offer to try them out and I’ve heard too many good things to not explore an Austin company dedicated to hosting sites built upon the same content management system that I primarily work with now.

Touchy-Feely Stuff

I made the switch to WordPress in late 2010 from Moveable Type. I should have made the switch years before, but hindsight is 20/20. A major reason for the move is the WordPress community. It is huge! MT’s community seemed to dwindle down to just a handful. With the WordPress community, if you need peer support, a plugin to do something, a theme that looks somewhat like you already want it, there’s a very high chance someone out there has already experienced the same need and either wrote about how to fix it, or wrote a plugin to automagically do it.

WP Engine is neck-deep in the WordPress community. I’ve read on their blog that they’re going to WordCamps (little conferences across the country/world for WordPress folks, mostly, in that community) across the map. They fully sponsored WordUp Austin, an advanced-level WordPress developer gathering. They are building a dashboard for people, like me, who either own or administer multiple WordPress installs to allow easy access to all of them.

Giving back to the community is a strong selling point to me. No web developer would be in business if they weren’t standing on the shoulders of those who went before them and freely offered their work to the public. If all those before us sold everything under licenses or kept proprietary within a company, the web would be much more sad.

Features

This isn’t fully inclusive. Check out their website to see more about what they offer. They offer managed WordPress hosting. Daily backups are automatically created, in addition to being able to set “restore points” (think Mac’s Time Machine or Window’s System Restore) so you can very quickly “undo” a massive change that goes all to hell, which shouldn’t happen with their staging server.

For my non-geeky friends that made it this far (bless you), when you make changes to your website, it is always recommended to try those changes out on a second version of your website that isn’t facing the public. Before, for me, it would mean either transferring my blog to a WordPress install running off my home computer for design changes or another install on my server for technical changes. While a good idea, the work of setting that up always seemed worse than the glitches that might occur or the damage if my site was offline for 20 minutes to fix something. Client sites are different, but for me and my blog, 20 minutes isn’t the end of the world.

WP Engine, though, allows me to create a second “staging” version of my website with one click that is an exact replica of my site. I can throw anything at the staging site. If I like it, I can merge the edits back or if I screw it all up, one click to recreate the staged version.

Awesome.

What makes WP Engine different than a traditional non-WP-engineered hosting provider is how they’ve built their internal network to support WordPress. The old server had the static files (images, etc), the database containing the content and the WordPress software that puts everything together all on one single machine. If I had a traffic spike, that one machine is taking the entire impact. One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about WordPress from those not using it is, if you get too popular, your website will buckle under the pressure.

WP Engine has their clients covered. Without diving too much into the geeky stuff, they’re distributed the various aspects of your WordPress site over multiple servers with the ability to easily add more to assist if your website gets popular. If you’re ever went to a site off of Lifehacker, Drudge, TechCrunch, etc and it failed to load, they’re on a hosting provider that didn’t allow them to scale up to meet a quick, seemingly random, and massive increase in traffic.

Included with all services, they offer a content distribution network (CDN). I had one setup on Nexcess that I built using Amazon’s CDN CloudFront system, but had to pay extra for the usage. Avoiding the geeky stuff again, a CDN put the static, unchanging parts of your website on servers throughout the world. Since images are typically changed very rarely and are some of the largest files related to your website, it helps speed quite a bit if a visitor from Europe can get the images from a server in England instead of waiting for the image to cross the pond from Texas.

Their customer service, so far, appears to be top-notch. I have yet to have any critical issues, so I haven’t tested them in a crunch. When activating the CDN when I was ready to go live, they noticed an issue. They opened a ticket and had an engineer working on it before I realized the issue existed.

When grilling them about hosting my site, I spoke with Trafton, their developer champion, on the phone, for nearly an hour throwing every question I thought of his way. He was happy to share their philosophical approaches, their technical approaches, their upcoming and secret features and more.

Whatever, I don’t care… just tell me about site performance

First, with managed hosting, they strive to take care of you. I had a script on my server that was outdated. It was for a plugin I’m not currently using, so I hadn’t reviewed it for a security concern announced to the WP community. Their servers automatically found and patched the defected script. While that action didn’t speed up the site, it make it harder for a hacker to break in and either screw up or take down my site.

Speed.

WP Engine is really excited about speed. I mean, their name is Engine, which produces speed. I ran every variation of speed test possible, mostly through webpagetest.org, looking at total load time. In 48 of 50 tests, WP Engine was faster. In the two that were slowed, it appeared to be due to offsite objects (an ad, a script being pulled from Google, etc) that were being delivered slower than the other tests.

I geeked out with my old social stats textbook to crunch some of the data while running three variations of the test: previous host without a caching plugin, previous host with a caching plugin and WP Engine, which doesn’t allow caching plugins since they handle it themselves already. For the sake of comparison, I used only one connection speed for the summary results, which are typical across the board.

  • Without a caching plugin on the previous server, my site is downright slow, by my standards. Approximately, 7s for complete load on the first visit.
  • With W3 Total Cache on the previous server, my site is significantly faster at approximately 4.90s for a complete load on the first visit.
  • With WP Engine, the site is slightly faster at approximately 4.5s for a complete load on the first visit.

Without question, either use W3 Total Cache or host with WP Engine. But check out the comparison on the return visit. This test assumes a user has visited your website, fully quit their browser, opened their browser and visited your website. It is meant to simulate a return visit after a prolonged absence.

  • W3 Total Cache actually took longer, approximately 4.95s for a complete load.
  • WP Engine served it up at an incredible 1.8s for a complete load.

Without WP Engine, my returning visitors, whom I love so dearly, would have waited 275% longer for my site to load.

The Negative

The only major negative, which is positive too, I’ve found is that they only handle WordPress. If you have other apps running on your site—a Gallery photo sharing site or your e-mail still hosted on your server—they cannot be your only host provider. On the positive, it means they direct all of their energy toward making WP awesome. On the negative, you might not be ready to cut the cord on your previous host.

Summary

If your web presence is built on WordPress, WP Engine is a fantastic hosting provider. They have absolutely defined the niche of the market they wish to dominate and their driven to give you the absolute best hosting experience for your WordPress-powered site. While not the least expensive provider on the market (plans start at $29/mo), they will deliver results that will far, far outmatch anything the screwball host providers can give you.

I strongly recommend checking WP Engine out for your needs. Tell Trafton I said hello.

Update: Their feature list keeps increasing. Now included in all plans is Git deployments and “LargeFS”, their connector to Amazon S3 allowing them, on the backend and seamlessly, shuffle media to S3 so you aren’t tied down to their storage limits or having to manage that yourself. Cool stuff.

By Brandon Kraft

My life is an open-source book.

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