Step-by-step guide to making your WordPress site fly

Important Note

Based on the Step-by-step: Speed Up Wordpress with Varnish Software article originally written by Federico G. Schwindt and published on Web Designer Magazine - http://www.webdesignermag.co.uk/ as well as on the Varnish Software blog.

Said article was written for OSes using sysvinit and BSD init. Now that systemd is in most Linux distributions, we have written this tutorial’s examples to account for that. Still, it should be generic enough to work for most systems.

In this tutorial, we will go through some of the common steps required to install and configure Varnish and integrate it with WordPress to take your site to the next level. Let’s get started.

This article assumes that you have a running instance of WordPress and that you have administrator rights for said instance, both at the OS and application level. We have tested this using Ubuntu LTS 16.04, Varnish Cache 4.1 and WordPress 4.4.

1. Installing Varnish

In case you have not done so yet, you will need to follow the instructional section on how to Install Varnish before we can continue.

2. Add the plugin

After installing Varnish we need to instruct WordPress to purge the cached content whenever it is modified. There are several plugins to achieve this.

In this tutorial we will use Varnish HTTP Purge Plugin. Go to the WordPress dashboard, click on Plugins Add New and search for the Varnish HTTP purge plugin. Click on ‘Install Now’ and confirm. Finally, activate it.

4. Move Apache’s port

Before we configure Varnish to handle all the web traffic that comes to our WordPress site, we will need to move Apache to a different port. Let’s then change all occurrences of port 80 to 8080 using a text editor as show below.

/etc/apache2/ports.conf

and any files under

/etc/apache2/sites-enabled/

These changes make sure that Apache now uses port 8080 to serve your WordPress site as we will need Varnish to take over the HTTP content serving to all web clients, which normally is done from port 80.

5. Serve from Varnish

In order to get content served from Varnish you will need to make a few changes that are documented thoroughly in the Varnish Tutorial in this wiki. Please make sure you have that covered.

6. Set the backend

Varnish uses the concept of backend or origin server to define where it should retrieve the content from if it’s not persistent in its cache. In this case we will be using the Apache location that we defined in Step 4 as the backend. Edit /etc/varnish/default.vcl with a text editor and ensure the following is present.

backend default {
       .host = “127.0.0.1”;
       .port = “80”;
}

7. Make it effective

Now that all the preparations are complete we are ready to start Varnish and restart Apache. Once this is done, all traffic to our WordPress site will pass through Varnish before it hits the Apache server. Open the command prompt again and run the following as root.

sudo systemctl restart varnish.service

sudo systemctl restart apache2.service

8. Ignore cookies

Ignore cookies by default. Varnish will not cache content for requests including the cookie or header or responses including the Set-Cookie header. WordPress sets many cookies that are safe to ignore during normal browsing so let’s update /etc/varnish/default.vcl and add the following inside vcl_recv to remove them.

#unsetting wordpress cookies

sub vcl_rec{
  ..

  set req.http.cookie = regsuball(req.http.cookie, "wp-settings-\d+=[^;]+(; )?", "");

  set req.http.cookie = regsuball(req.http.cookie, "wp-settings-time-\d+=[^;]+(; )?", "");

  set req.http.cookie = regsuball(req.http.cookie, "wordpress_test_cookie=[^;]+(; )?", "");

  if (req.http.cookie == "") {

  unset req.http.cookie;
  }
}

9. Exclude URLs

In most web applications there are some URLs that shouldn’t be cached no matter what, and WordPress is no exception. We will be excluding any admin or login related pages from hitting the cache. Once again open /etc/varnish/default.vcl and add the following before we remove the cookies from the previous step.

# exclude wordpress url

if (req.url ~ "wp-admin|wp-login") {

return (pass);

}

10. Extend caching

Varnish uses the max-age parameter in the Cache-Control HTTP header to establish how long the content is considered fresh before contacting the backend again. Varnish will use 120 seconds by default if this value is missing or is equal to zero. To extend this period to one hour we could update /etc/varnish/default.vcl.

# extending caching time

sub vcl_backend_response {

  if (beresp.ttl == 120s) {

    set beresp.ttl = 1h;

  }
}

11. Handling purge requests

Whenever existing content in WordPress is updated, Varnish HTTP purge will ask Varnish to remove it from the cache. The next time it’s requested, the most up-to-date version will be retrieved from the backend. But in order to do this we will need to add the following codes at the top of vcl_recv in /etc/varnish/default.vcl.

The first bit of code is to specify which IP addresses can access the config files.

acl internal {
  "192.x.x.x"/24;
  xxx.xxx.xx.xx;
}
# Allowing which address can access cron.php or install.php,
# add the following in acl.

This next one is for when purge requests are handled and how to handle them:

#handling purge requsets

sub vcl_recv{
  ...
  if (req.method == "PURGE") {

    if (req.http.X-Purge-Method == "regex") {

      ban("req.url ~ " + req.url + " && req.http.host ~ " + req.http.host);

    return (synth(200, "Banned."));

  } else {

    return (purge);

  }
  }
}

12. Secure purge

In the previous step we added the necessary code to handle purge requests but we have left it open for anyone to do just that. Let’s add some code to restrict it. Edit /etc/varnish/default.vcl and after the backend add the acl below using your server IP address or hostname. Then modify the code in the previous step to use it.

acl purge {
  "localhost";
  server ip address or hostname;
}

...

if (req.method == "PURGE") {

  if (client.ip !~ purge) {
    return (synth(405));

}

13. Reload the configuration

Before our changes to etc/varnish/default.vcl take effect, Varnish needs to be told to reread its configuration. To avoid any potential downtime, Varnish can be instructed to reload the configuration while it keeps serving requests. Open the command prompt again and type the following as root.

#reload varnish

systemctl reload varnish.service

14. Empty the cache

Chances are that as we worked our way through the configuration, some content found its way into the cache even if it wasn’t supposed to. In this situation we can use the Varnish HTTP purge plugin to empty the cache and then we can start afresh. Go to the WordPress dashboard and click on Purge Varnish at the very top.

15. Examine the traffic

Everything is working; browse some pages, login, logout, pages are loading fast. Or are they? Varnish comes with a set of tools that will help you understand what’s going on behind the scenes and debug any potential problems. To see the requests as they are passing through Varnish, run the following on a command prompt: varnishlog

16. Volume matcher/measure

Varnish is very powerful but can be daunting at first. Luckily for us there are many resources online and Varnish has an active community behind it ready to help. If you are stuck or want to know more you can visit the varnish cache website or search in this wiki for a solution .

17. Go further

If you are interested in Varnish, you can always give Varnish Plus a go. There’s a free trial available. You can capture real-time traffic statistics, create a paywall for premium content, simultaneously work on administration across all Varnish servers, record relationships between web pages for easy content maintenance, detect devices used for browsing, accelerate APIs and more.

Check out the links on our main WordPress page to take your WordPress-Varnish site even further.