WordPress is far and away the most popular blogging platform for bloggers running their domains. It is free, powerful, stable and well-understood by most in the blogging community.
However, those who do know it also know it can be rather difficult to host at times. A dynamic platform running on PHP, it can crush servers when put under load, especially small shared hosting accounts. WordPress sites are famous for collapsing under a traffic spike.
Because of this, many users have become intimately familiar with WP Super Cache, a caching plugin that reduces server load by serving static pages when possible, rather than dynamic ones. This makes the site both faster and more stable, especially under load.
But now there’s something even better. Something that takes WordPress into the realms of invincible:W3 Total Cache could completely change the game for WordPress users. Not only can it serve static pages, but it can also interact with a CDN, offloading your images and other static files. This makes your site faster and cheaper to host.
To see how it works, we have to take a look under the hood.
How W3 Total Cache Works
Like any WordPress plugin, you simply install the plugin and activate it. If you have an up-to-date version of WordPress, you can do that directly from your admin panel without issue. However, unlike other plugins, this one requires some setup, specifically, you have to adjust the following options/features.
- Page Caching: Like WP Super Cache, W3TC serves static pages in the place of dynamic ones when possible. You need to enable it, choose the method it will use (basic disk is probably fine for most) and then configure what will be cached and how long the copies will last.
- Database Caching: W3 Total Cache also caches database queries for easy and fast recall later, speeding up the site significantly, especially under a heavy targeted load.
- CDN: The most important and unique feature is the ability to use a CDN, including either Amazon S3, Amazon Cloudfrnot or any CDN that accepts FTP uploads. W3TC can host all of your images, including your uploads, your theme files, CSS flies and other static items on the CDN easily to speed up your site and reduce server load.
It’s a lot of power for one plugin but it’s also a lot of work, especially if you want to set up a CDN. You not only have to configure your CDN to work, but upload all of the files you wish to serve to it, a process that the plugin does very well but can be time consuming.
It isn’t a caching plugin for everyone but it may well be for your site.
Limitations of W3 Total Cache
That being said, W3TC is not a perfect plugin, not that any is, and it does have a few limitations to consider beyond its more complicated setup.
First, W3TC is aimed at improving page loading times, not reducing server load. Though it does reduce the load, by some accounts by quite a lot, the processes it runs are not as straight forward as serving cached pages.
However, you can simply turn Minify, gzip compression and other elements off if they do become a problem.
Second, even after you finish the initial setup, it is not exactly “set and forget”. Removing plugins and making other changes will force you to clear your caches. It can be aggravating as you’re doing other work on your site.
Finally, the plugin is definitely not for a novice. Even as a relatively experienced site admin, I found myself going to the manuals and other texts to learn which of the options were right for me. You have to be carefully, especially with a shared hosting account, not to use the wrong settings.
W3TC is not for everyone. If you have a very basic WP setup, don’t make use of a CDN and don’t have a lot of experience, W3TC is probably a bit much. The set-and-forget WP Super Cache will probably give you good results with a fraction of the headache.
However, if you do have the skill or don’t mind learning, W3TC can be an invaluable tool, especially if you have a CDN or a VPS host that will let you install new programs like memcached.
In short, most people might not need the power of W3TC, but those who do will be extremely grateful for it.
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