Hosting Theory

Apps, Plug-ins and the Law of “Unattended Consequences”

Yes, I said “unattended” consequences. In this article, we’re going to look at the potentially disastrous consequences that can result from installing apps and plug-ins and then forgetting about them — especially if these apps require attention or input from you to make them work.

Let’s start with a specific, real-world example.  A few weeks ago, a ServInt client opened a ticket complaining of slow site performance.  What was specifically frustrating and mysterious for the client was that nothing in the site’s design or its traffic patterns had changed since it was launched.  It used to run fine, and now, without any changes on the client side, it was struggling to run at all.  From the client’s perspective, this was a slam-dunk case of the server being defective.  But was it?

The ticket was passed to one of ServInt’s top escalated support technicians, who dove into the heart of the server, to see what might be going wrong.  What he found was, sadly, not uncommon:  a runaway database had been automatically writing to itself throughout the two or three years that the site had been up, compiling and saving hundreds to thousands of lines of data each day, and never purging itself.  Two-plus years of data collection had resulted in a database with over 26 million entries — each of which were read, over and over, for the purpose of compiling summary reports for the client. The constant writing and reading was bogging down the server to the point where the site was essentially unusable.

But what was being read, and why was it being written?  And why had the client set up their server this way?

Closer inspection revealed the answer:  with the best of intentions, the client had installed a WordPress plugin called “Redirection,” whose purpose was to note on-page 404 errors and either send them to a redirect address chosen by the client, or, failing that, simply log the error so the client could follow up and fix the broken link later.  The plug-in worked great; the client, however, never followed up to fix their site’s 404 errors, so the same errors kept getting logged again, and again, and again, until everything stopped working.

The moral of the story is pretty clear:  plugins and other time-saving apps can really bite you if you don’t pay careful attention to a.) what they are designed to do; and b.) what they expect you to do to make them work.  You’re the brains of your web hosting operation, and it’s up to you to “follow the directions” for all your apps and plugins to make sure they work for you, and not against you.

Photo by [AndreasS]

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