How We Updated 700K+ Sites to WordPress 5 and What We Learned in the Process
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Over the last week, we gradually rolled out WordPress 5 through our auto-update system. We took a different approach for this update as this version introduced one of the biggest changes in WordPress so far: the new block-based editor also known as Gutenberg.
Updating hundreds of thousands of active WordPress installations, especially when such an anticipated and, at the same time, feared change is happening, can be a serious challenge. Today, we’re happy to report that less than two weeks after its release, most of our WordPress clients are already using the latest WordPress 5 version. The process has been quite smooth and we wanted to share our insights and encourage more people to make the move to a great block-based editing experience.
Our Gradual Auto-Update Schedule
After the first WordPress 5.0 release, we temporarily switched off our auto-updater so we could carefully test, monitor, and analyze how the new version performed. As soon as we saw that the few thousand manual upgrades, done by the most enthusiastic early adopters we host, resulted only in very isolated issues, we switched to a controlled, batch-by-batch auto-update.
We first switched the auto-updater function on for 10% of our WordPress users, under the supervision of our WordPress dev team who were in constant communication with our customer care and tech support teams. We did hourly reports on how the process was going, the results we were getting, and any repeat issues reported that could potentially affect users on a larger scale.
Again, after the update, we were seeing only isolated issues, so we proceeded to increase the number of servers updated each day until they were all updated.
Our Most Common Support Requests
1. Concerns that the site may break
The top reason people contacted our support team wasn’t for an actual issue, but rather a concern that the update may somehow break their site.
We addressed this issue by sharing our experience from the first phases of our gradual update and the fact that there was no increase in the percentage of website issues with this version than any previous WordPress version rolled-out at scale.
2. Concerns that the new editing experience would be too difficult
The second most common fear was that changing the editing experience would make managing a website harder.
Actually, the WordPress team has addressed this concern in quite an elegant way. All existing posts are converted in a single block called the “classic block”. Editing your posts in this block does not dramatically differ from editing them before the update. As our WP ambassador, Joe Casabona, explains very well in his video, editing your posts in multiple blocks is opt-in. The update itself does not automatically apply multiple blocks structure to your existing posts.
On top of that, we have added the Classic Editor plugin as part of the update process. With our settings, the new block editor is the default while the old classic editor is also provided as an option for each post. This plugin can also be used to convert the WordPress editor back to the old experience while still receiving all the important security and feature benefits of each new WordPress version.
3. Issues with accessing the wp-admin after the update
After the update, we received several complaints that people were getting a blank page when attempting to access their wp-admin. The vast majority of them were solved by clearing the cache for their website and were not related to the new WordPress version in any specific way.
A very small percentage of these cases were due to an incompatibility of the new WordPress version with an installed plugin or theme. Often, the plugin in question was non-critical and could easily be disabled. However, for the few sites that were really not ready for the update, a one-click restore using our auto-update tool was an option to revert the site to its state before the update.
4. Issues with accessing the site itself after the update
We’ve had an insignificant number of such issues reported. This is also due to the fact that our auto-update system checks automatically if the update has not resulted in an error and reverts back to the previous version if such a case is detected. However, the percentage of such “failed” updates was not significantly bigger for WordPress 5 than for any other major version.
As a whole, we can safely say that the mass update we did was smoother than expected. Once again, congrats to the whole WordPress team in charge of this new version for all their hard work on shipping safely one of the most notable releases in WordPress history. As a bonus, here is the lovely release video for the new WordPress version, named after the pioneering Cuban jazz musician Bebo Valdés: