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WordPress: Too many variables?

This blog runs on the Typepad hosted service (the smartest decision in 2004, IMHO) but I’ve become a fanboy of WordPress and quite fond of this project over time.

Like any ‘relationship’ one enters into — be it a friendship, love or even a partnership — nothing is perfect and not without ups-n-downs, but I’m seeing this lack of perfection in WordPress and other open source projects and wondering how the sheer number of variables with plugins and such can continue.

My other blog, Minnov8, runs on WordPress. One of my fellow geeks on the team is a WordPress junkie and knows the platform incredibly well. Since I was out of the country the last week and half, he graciously agreed to upgrade our 2.5.1 installation to the new 2.6.

I was really keen on this upgrade since the image uploader for posting in the admin area of WordPress didn’t work and many, many people were experiencing this issue. Since I had to FTP the images for posts in to our WordPress content directory and then hardcode a URL link to the image in each post, my fellow contributors were sending me their content and I was uploading and posting. What a pain!

Checking the Minnov8 blog Wednesday evening at about 9pm (in my highly jetlagged state of mind), I discovered that the 2.6-driven site — which had been working for 24 hours without a hitch — was no longer displaying the theme! I put up a “closed for maintenance” page and invested three hours trying to get it back online but to no avail.

My colleague and I both invested about four more hours each the next day (yesterday) trolling the WordPress forums and trying out fixes proposed there, deleting database tables, going through each PHP file with a finetoothed comb, turning off all plugins (and double-checking which were ‘version 2.6 compliant’), and rechecking the clean-coded theme we’re using to ensure that wasn’t the problem.

I finally got so frustrated that I wholesale deleted the entire WordPress installation and re-uploaded the entire WordPress software along with my saved content files and database backups.

It got restored and is now working…but neither of us has a clue why and it might as well be magic.

There’s a pretty big gap between someone who uses a hosted service like Typepad and WordPress.com, and those of us who choose our own hosts and install the software ourselves. The amount of “gotchas” in the latter is such that often a person needs to be highly technical or experienced in order to rely upon installed, open source software and the supposed ‘support’ that comes from a discussion forum most open source projects deliver, but the upside of the installed software (vs. the more run-of-the-mill looking hosted stuff) is too great to choose the former.

With an ecosystem of developers creating plugins, themes and other extensions for WordPress (and the same holds true for other projects like Joomla and Drupal), one needs to approach an open source install or upgrade with the same attention to detail a programmer and developer would with exhaustive testing before going in to production. Unfortunately, most users don’t have the time, the wherewithall or the desire to do so.

If guys like us can’t get stuff like this to work without hours of futzing and tweaking, imagine someone with half our combined skills doing so AND having a site offline that they’re using for a mission-critical site for their organization or business.