Websites can be slow, this is especially true with websites using Wordpress. Plugins must be used to customize the site to satisfactory levels, but such levels of flexibility, that Wordpress is quite good at, allowing incredible transformations of your website, cause performance to plummet. On top of that, Wordpress is written in PHP - an interpreted language. PHP is known to be a bit slower than Python and Ruby, and doesn’t even come close to performances of compiled languages, such as Java or Go, which may be one of the reasons why your website loads in 10 seconds instead of 3.
I do not mean, however, that choosing PHP and Wordpress is wrong. It’s not. It is very easy to get started, use of both PHP and Wordpress is widespread, meaning good support from the community, ability to choose from tons of 3rd party extensions. I mean that as your project grows, certain actions will need to be taken in order to help it grow in a scalable manner. Tens, hundreds or thousands of daily visitors may not necessarily have an impact on loading times and stability of your precious website, but once we get into the realm of tens, hundreds of thousands or even millions of visitors - that’s when you definitely notice the impact - things get veeery sluggish.
The best we can do is simply by being as lazy as possible - avoiding work as much as possible. In Computer Science the most common technique of doing that is caching - doing the computation once (or in our case generating a Wordpress page) and storing results on some storage medium for as long as possible, so that any further requests for the same thing would be simply retrieved from storage instead of having to do the computation again. E.g. Let’s say we want to bake an apple souffle. We don’t know the recipe, so we look it up on the internet, print it out and put it into our recipe book so that if we want to bake an apple souffle again, we wouldn’t need to look for that perfect recipe online for hours again - we simply check our recipe book.
Cloudflare is the service that does pretty much the same thing for your website. Any static resources can be cached for specific durations and if needed optimized (optional, can be configured). It is a paid service, but there is a free plan. Their free plan is great for most websites, but if you want that extra “umph” and more flexibility - I would really recommend looking into their paid plans. People I work with and myself are very happy with it. Though I’m not affiliated with Cloudflare, it’s simply a great and pleasant to use service.
Cloudflare works as an intermediary service between your users and your service (a reverse proxy would be a more technical term). Your domain will have to be redirected to their servers. Once a visitor requests some page or resource, the request will hit Cloudflare’s servers, which in turn will either return a cached resource or fetch the resource from your server and then cache it. So if a resource is cached on Cloudflare’s servers, they will not request your server it, meaning that will save your server some load.
You may ask “OK, I get it, but how can it really help me? What would I need to do?”. Great question! Let’s dive right into it. But before we do that, I just want to note that things I mention below will be intended for Wordpress users, however they would most likely work just as fine for just about any website, just slight modifications may be needed.
Level 1 - Basics
The first step would be signing up for Cloudflare and enabling the service. You can do that here https://www.cloudflare.com/sign-up. The setup process is well described along the way, so you should be fine. Go, register, set it up (that involves changing DNS records of your domain) and come back once you’re done, I’ll wait here.
Once that’s done, go to Cloudflare Settings for your domain.
Settings Overview tab
We’ll want to make sure that Always Online is set to On. It means that if your web server accidentally breaks, Cloudflare will still display the website.
Security Settings tab
I usually recommend setting Security Profile and Basic Protection Level to Medium - a happy medium. It will still challenge users who spam, but a bit less vigorously. This is a setting you’ll need to play around with if you see it not working. If you still see spam - try using a higher setting.
Challenge passage TTL - 30 minutes. Allow users that have shown signs of spam to browse without having to enter more captchas. I don’t recommend to set it as low as possible, as sometimes people may unintentionally spam. Accidents do happen and we don’t want to block their access entirely.
Enable E-mail address obfuscation (to prevent automatic collection of emails by robots while still leaving email addresses readable for humans) and “Browser integrity check” (helps detect spammers by verifying their browser headers)
Performance Settings tab
Performance Profile - Custom. We’ll customize things a bit.
Caching level - Basic. That’s usually enough, depending on your setup you may need to use Aggressive instead if resources use query strings. If you’re not sure - leave it at “Basic”
Minimum expire TTL - 4 hours. This controls how long should the browser cache a resource before having to download it again. Larger values are better for speed, but if you do any changes to the resources, visitors may not be able to see the changes until this time passes. 4 hours is the recommended setting by Cloudflare, so let’s leave it at that. Personally I’ve set it to 5 days, because I know that they change very rarely.
Auto Minify (Web optimization) - enable for JS, CSS and HTML. It minifies the source code, removing unnecessary symbols, whitespace, comments and other “crap” that your visitors will not see.
Rocket Loader™ (Web optimization) - test this out. In my experience it’s been hit or miss - it usually just reduced the performance. At the time of writing this feature is in beta, so things may have changed since. Simply try it out and see it for yourself - disabling the feature in case of problems is just a click away.
Pretty much all of the above things I mentioned above will work for any other website.
Level 2 - Full page caching (optional)
If you can enable full page caching - it gives an awesome boost (reducing the time it takes to download the initial HTML page from around a second to just 100 milliseconds (0.1 seconds).
However, enabling it is tricky. The question is whether this exact method can be used on your website, since you will still want to leave certain pages dynamic. For instance, the admin panel should not be cached, contact pages and
wp-cron.php (more about
wp-cron.php in a bit).
If you’re using Wordpress comments that may be a problem as well. Please note, that I have not tested whether Wordpress comments work when Cloudflare full page cache is enabled, but I have a good reason to believe that they would not work properly (question is whether HTTP POST will get through at all, and then the cached page on Cloudflare’s network would have to be purged somehow). New comments wouldn’t appear quickly for other visitors and may even not work at all. However, if you use external services for comments (e.g. Disqus or Facebook comments), you should be fine.
wp-cron.php and cron jobs on Wordpress in general: I would discourage the use of default wordpress cron jobs. They happen during page load time, slowing page load down, which may result in a timeout. Use a “real” cron job instead (and run
wp-cron.php). We’ll bypass Cloudflare cache for
wp-cron.php with “Page Rules” in a bit, but I still wouldn’t recommend using
wget for running a cron job. It is a wrong tool for the job and is still prone to timeouts. Use
php5 executable instead to avoid limitations.
To enable full page caching, we’ll use Page Rules, so open that. It should be reachable from your dashboard.
We’ll create 2 rules:
- to disable caching of pages of login, admin panel, registration and etc. - all pages that need to stay dynamic. Add a new rule, use rule pattern “*mydomain.com/wp-*” without the quotes (e.g. I would use “*tautvidas.com/wp-*” if I was using Wordpress), set Custom Caching to Bypass Cache and leave other settings default, simply click Add rule
- to enable full page caching of all other pages. Add a new rule with rule pattern “*mydomain.com/*” without the quotes (e.g. “*tautvidas.com/*”), set Custom Caching to Cache Everything and leave other settings default, just click Add rule.
In order for this to work properly, make sure that “*mydomain.com/wp-*” rule is above “*mydomain.com/*” rule.
If you’re doing this for a website that doesn’t use Wordpress, this is where things will be different. You will have to look at your URL structure and act accordingly.
Level 3 - “Scotty, we need more power!”
This level is not achievable with a free acount, you will need at least a Pro account (it’s only 20$ per month and well worth the price).
Let’s get back into Cloudflare Settings page.
Settings Overview tab
SPDY - enable it. It is an experimental networking protocol, made primarily by Google. It is used only when available and usually provides up to 10% improvement in speed over regular HTTP.
Performance Overview tab
Website preloader - enable it. It automatically preloads static resources for quicker browsing experience.
Polish: image optimization - set to Basic. Once enabled, Cloudflare will automatically compress images and remove any unnecessary metadata without degrading image quality. If you can allow for the image quality to be degraded, choose Basic + JPEG for further improvement, which will compress images lossy, degrading image quality, but improving the speed.
Mirage 2 - decide for yourself if it works. It depends on the type of content your website provides. If the main focus is text and images are secondary, you may get away with enabling this. But if images are your primary content - enabling this feature may damage browsing experience. What it does is serve resized images for devices with smaller screens and “lazy load” images only when needed (non visible images will not be loaded).
So far using Cloudflare has been a great experience. It is easy to setup, even easier to control, provides a large performance boost and can be free. One thing that would be nice is more flexible pattern matching for “Page Rules”, as you can do only so much with wildcards.
Check out Cloudflare at https://www.cloudflare.com/index.html or sign up at https://www.cloudflare.com/sign-up. Their slogan is “Give us five minutes and we’ll supercharge your website.” and I think they live up to it. It is a cheap way to speed up your website, considering prices of IT workers’ services.
I want to note that I do not work at Cloudflare, nor am I affiliated with them.
If you need help with getting Cloudflare to work for you, have any questions or comments or you’re simply interested in improving performance of websites - shoot me an email at
tautvidas (at) tautvidas.com or leave a comment below, I’d love to talk.
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