Preparing WordPress for a Large Traffic Spike

The Hallmark Hall of Fame Movie ‘Front of the Class’ premiered this past weekend with an expected 12-15 million viewers.  We have been preparing the website ( for the event. We expected a significant number of visitors to the website in the 24-48 hours after the movie aired, so I did a number of things to ensure that the site would be able to run without incident during this critical time.

  1. Move temporarily to a higher powered server.
  2. The site is normally hosted on an inexpensive shared-hosting plan. I’ve run some shared-hosting servers before and don’t have much faith that they would handle any amount of significant load. They also usually don’t allow you to configure some of the Apache settings that I was planning on using below.

  3. Serve images and other static content from an alternate location.
  4. I set up a domain alias of ‘’ pointed to the same DocumentRoot as the main site. Then I edited the template files to serve most of the background, header, and footer images from that location. For normal usage, serving them from the same server works fine, but this allows the flexibility to move that static content to a separate server if/when it is needed.

    I also copied the entire website to a second server and had it configured so that at any time I could change DNS to point ‘’ to the second server in order to reduce the bandwidth from the primary server

  5. Generate static pages wherever possible.
  6. I used wget to download everything, and then deleted the pages that needed to be parsed through PHP (ie: contact forms, etc). Most of the pages don’t change from visitor to visitor, so this can be done for the home page, all of the blog posts, and any other pages. This significantly reduces the overhead due to database queries and just the overhead of running PHP and including multiple files.

    I then added this to my Apache configuration to tell the web server to use the static content if it exists:

        ## Serve static content for files that exist
        RewriteCond /home/{REQUEST_URI} -f
        RewriteRule (.*) /rendered/$1 [L]
        ## For requests without an extension, wget has saved those files as 'index.html'
        ## so the rewrite rule needs to reflect that:
        RewriteCond /home/{REQUEST_URI} -d
        RewriteRule (.*) /rendered/$1/index.html [L]

    I did some performance tests with ApacheBenchmark, and serving the static content had a dramatic effect on the speed, and the number concurrent users. There is probably a more elegant way to configure mod_cache do a similar thing in a more automated fashion, but this was quick and easy, and I didn’t have to worry about checking the various HTTP headers. In my opinion, this was the single most effective thing to do. By serving static content, Apache also correctly handles many of the HTTP headers that enable effective caching (E-Tags, expires, last-modified, etc).

  7. Installed a PHP Accelerator
  8. I’ve previously written about how easy and effective eAccelerator is to install. There are very few scenarios where this is not effective. Again, ApacheBenchmark tests easily showed a huge increase in the number of concurrent requests when eAccelerator was enabled.

  9. Check Apache settings
  10. On a vanilla CentOS install, Apache has the ServerLimit set to 256. By serving primarily static content, you will likely reduce the amount of memory that each Apache child requires, and have memory for more children. I did some quick math and figured that I could have around 800 children before memory became a concern. I also enabled KeepAlives with a very short (1 second) KeepAliveTimeout so that sequential requests from the same user don’t have to recreate TCP sessions.

    Also, by serving static content, I found that WordPress was handling the 301 redirect from the Non-www version of the site to the correct url. I moved that into Apache with this directive:

       ## Rewrite to the desired domain name
        RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} !^www\.classperformance\.com [NC] OR
        RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} !^static\.classperformance\.com [NC]
        RewriteRule ^/(.*)$1 [L,R=301]
  11. Enable server-side compression
  12. The default Apache install doesn’t compress any content. I configured mod_deflate to compress the static content and thus reduce the bandwidth usage. Compression should easily reduce the bandwidth for HTML and CSS files by one half (even up to one tenth). This not only reduces your bandwidth bill, but since the 100Mbps switch port is potentially a bottleneck, it enables more concurrent users if it approaches anywhere near that limit (and it may have if I hadn’t enabled compression)

  13. Set up some Monitoring
  14. I installed MRTG with some basic graphs. Also, I configured Apache so that I could view the ServerStatus. I also installed iftop to get a real-time view of the bandwidth usage.

With all of these changes, I’m very happy that we had tens of thousands of visitors during and shortly after the show, and everything ran perfectly. I had the static content running on a separate server for the busiest time and combined bandwidth usage peaked at around 90 Mbps shortly after the end of the show.

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