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Boost WordPress Performance With W3 Total Cache

By Joe Brockmeier (Send Email)
Posted September 6, 2011


Content is (still) king when it comes to Web publishing, but great content gets you diddly if your audience has to wait around trying to access your site. One way to speed up site access is to beef up your hardware and throw more resources at your site. The smart way, though, is to start with caching to ensure you're wringing the most out of what you already have. For WordPress sites, the most popular caching plugin I've found is W3 Total Cache.

As the name implies, W3 Total Cache is a performance framework used by sites like MediaTemple and Host Gator. It will cache pages from your site, remove unnecessary data from CSS, JavaScript and HTML served, as well as work with content delivery networks (CDNs) like Amazon Cloudfront or CloudFlare.

Installing the plugin is dead simple--if you've used WordPress for any length of time, you can whip W3 Total Cache onto your site in about two minutes. Just log into the Admin Dashboard, go to the Plugins menu and select Add New. On the Add New page, search for W3 Total Cache and go from there. Note that you should be running the most recent release of WordPress--I haven't tried W3 Total Cache on older releases of WordPress. According to the plugin page, it requires WordPress 2.8 or later, and it is compatible (as of this writing) up to 3.2.1.

Once you've installed it, enable the plugin and go to its settings page. You'll see that it offers several types of caching--page caching, database cache, object cache and browser cache. At a minimum, turn on page caching and browser cache.

At the top of the page, you also have controls to empty caches or perform a compatibility check. I'd recommend running the compatibility check first-off, as you may find that you're missing one or more extensions you might need to get the most out of W3 Total Cache. For example, I found that I was missing a few Apache modules that would be used to cache pages (mod_deflate, mod_headers and mod_expires). These were all available on my server (running Ubuntu) but weren't enabled. I used a2enmod to turn on the modules and restarted Apache. All was better after this.

If you use a CDN or want to try to use one, there are two separate settings for CDNs--one for CloudFlare, and one for all others. Note that CloudFlare has a free level of service, but I haven't tried it.

While this won't cure all your ills if you're running a popular site on a site that's being hosted on inadequate hardware, it will help wring more performance out of a setup. This should be your first step in boosting performance before just throwing resources at a slow site.

Do you have any other recommendations? I would love to hear them.

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier has written for Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many other publications. You can reach Zonker at jzb@zonker.net and follow him on Twitter.

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