You’ve heard all those buzzwords, right? “Managed WordPress Hosting can save you thousands per year!” or “Speed up your site 3000 times with Managed hosting!” It sounds awesome, but when you look at it, it’s more crazy terms you’ve never heard of, like Varnish and Memcached, and it’s just another mystical black box to you! You just want your site to be fast, and by fast you mean “It doesn’t annoy me to watch my page load.”
How slow is slow?
TTFB (Time to First Byte) is a measurement of how quick your website responds at all when contacted. Think of it as “How long until the phone I’m calling rings at all…” PageSpeed reporting gives you these scores about how ‘fast’ your site is. While both of these are important, they aren’t giving you the whole picture. There are sites with a light speed level TTL and a super awesome Pagespeed score, but when you visit them, they’re still slow! The converse is also true.
So when you start looking at ‘how slow is my site?’ you have to consider the subjectivity of speed. If you have an analytic tool on your site (Google for example) you can see how many people are coming to your site and how many are leaving. But what about those people who aren’t waiting for the page to load? They may not be caught by Google, so you have to also compare that to your server’s logs. It’s a lot of work, and can be crazy cryptic, so most people use that benchmark of “If I’m not logged in to my site, how fast is it?”
As a webhost, I hate to say this, but if the site feels slow to you, it’s slow. But the slowness may be something fixable with managed hosting and it’s different caching tools. Before you can make that jump, you should know…
What kind of site are you?
Part of why speed is subjective has to do with how your site was built, what kind of audience you have, and how much traffic you get. A site of plain HTML with 100,000 hits a day will be much faster than the same site built on WordPress (or any CMS for that matter). A site where everyone logs in and leaves comments will be slower than a static news reporting site, even if they’re built on the same CMS tool. Before you consider a managed host, take stock of what your site does, and also what you want it to do. If you want to be the place to talk about Game of Thrones, you know your site may be popular and have a lot more traffic than your other site about Perception.
The other reason you should know what kind of site you are is because of caching. If your site caches content, then it’s going to show visitors ‘static’ content. That means it won’t have to have PHP reload a page, it won’t call the database, and generally it’ll just load that simple HTML that’s super fast! But if you have a lot of people leaving comments on your site, then that static HTML page gets rebuilt over and over, and that can slow things down. That’s why, sometimes, a WordPress site gets slower when they install a caching plugin!
Managed hosts often find ways around this, by using a magical product called Varnish, which acts as a proxy. Recently someone told me it was a triage nurse, which I thought was a great analogy. Varnish is in front of your server, like a doorman, checks to see if what you’re doing needs a new version of the page or not, and before it ever touches your server will load a page. It’s fast. It’s blindingly fast. And if someone leaves a comment, it deletes it’s stored page and makes a new one without having to have your PHP and database stuff load over and over. There’s also memcached which does this for the database (storing things in memory – like a redial button), making things speedier.
Starting to look nice? Don’t forget to ask…
What kind of admin are you?
You didn’t know you were an admin? Surprise! You are! If you’re running your own website, you’re one of the elite super awesome admins! If you’re the kind of person who looks at the command line and hisses like a cat faced with water, you’re still an admin, but you may be one who will benefit from managed hosting. A dirty little secret of webhosting is that if you have a VPS (virtual private server – traditionally the next level up from shared hosting), you’re expected to be the server admin. Yikes!
Not so with a managed host! Managed WordPress hosts will give you a hopped up server that’s faster and better than the piddly shared one, but won’t give you access to administer or manage it. See? Managed hosting just made sense, didn’t it? That comes with a cost, though. If you’re the kind of person who wants to install their own server features, you’ll be pretty annoyed at managed hosting.
The other thing managed hosts do is upgrade WordPress for you. That will save you from the terror of most security vulnerabilities out there, which is always awesome.
Great so … managed WordPress Hosting?
If you’re on shared and you’re feeling those pains of slowness and limitations, take a look at managed WordPress hosting. It’s a great intermediary step, and most hosts who offer it can upgrade or downgrade you without you having to sort out the whole moving WordPress stuff.
Mika Epstein works for DreamHost, a “wacky fun” web hosting company based in California, where she devotes her time to attacking WordPress code, reviewing plugins, saving the planet, and working on DreamHost’s very own managed WordPress solution: DreamPress.