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Why have a test site?

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Why should I have a test site?

 Many wordpress users only have a live site, and do all changes on that site.  For the vast majority of time, this is fine and works well.

But the wordpress forums have posts every day from WordPress administrators who have changed something on their site, and it is not now working.

The WordPress core is very robust, but to make a wordpress site most of us add themes and plugins (incuding bbPress), and these are written by many different people.  We may also make changes ourselves by adding css or adding functions.  WordPress also uses several languages, and bringing all these elements together means that errors can creep in.

So all the following can cause problems:

Whilst the majority of the time this will all be fine, all of these can lead to anything from minor layout issues to at worst the “white screen of death” (known as WSOD) where you website just displays a blank white sheet.

For many this is the first time that they have had a problem, and they are unfamiliar with FTP and PHPmyadmin, and with a live site typically out of action or looking very wrong they feel both panic, frustration, and need urgent help.

Breaking your live site will also happen at the most inconvenient moment – that simple quick plugin update that takes two minutes has just broken you site, and you’re now due to go out to the mother-in-law for dinner in ten minutes, and your other half is yelling at you to get ready.

Having a test site means that you can update WordPress, add or update plugins & themes, and ensure they work before you do this in live. If it breaks your test site, you can take time to work out what is wrong, whilst your live site remains fully functional.

But having a test site lets you do much, much more.  You can test WordPress, theme, and plugin setting changes to see what they do; try styling changes to see what they look like; alter your functions file and add new functions; create a child theme and play with how your site looks and functions; add new .php files and test them before anyone else sees them.

And of course you can do this at your leisure, no more having to try something quickly, then revert your site if you don’t like it.  You can leave a change half done, and come back and tinker with it later.

If all the above has not convinced you that you don’t just want a test site, but absolutely need one, let me add the clincher – backups.

Now you may rely on your host provider to backup your site, and I suspect that all host providers will take at least daily backups of your site.  And if your site goes down because you tried to update a plugin and your site froze they’ll get you back to yesterday’s version – yes?  Well that may be the case, but will your provider do this in a matter of minutes? Will they do it 24 hours a day? Are they even in your time-zone? And is yesterday’s backup good enough?  – yes it may get you to the position you were in before you updated that plugin, but will you have lost that blog entry you spent hours composing, will you lose forum posts, shop orders, comments that your readers have made, settings you have changed, css and function files? –  in fact the myriad of things that may be different on your site today than yesterday.

And ultimately if your host provider goes bankrupt, then not only have you just lost your site, but they’ll be no staff to give you a copy of your site so you can set up elsewhere.

So relying on your host provider for backups is not a good strategy.

So instead you take backups yourself – yes? There are lots of backup products out there, and many are available as plugins.  You can also backup WordPress yourself, and take copies of your database.  Usually for all these methods you’ll save these to your PC, or increasingly commonly nowadays to the “cloud”.  But taking copies is only one half of the solution.  Will the copy work, have you tested it,  do you know how to do a restore? These are not things that you would want to test in live or try for the first time when your site is down.  So how do you know that your backup-buddy (one of the available backup plugins) copy will actually restore if needed ? When I first started with WordPress I used this plugin, but found that one copy I took simply wouldn’t restore – if that had been my critical copy, and my live site was down, I’d then be needing to go even further back. Luckily I had plenty of other backup buddy copies that worked just fine.  Alternately if you take copies of the database, how do you know they’re not corrupt, or as I found were too large to be restored to my database in one go.

Unless you regularly test your backups to see if they work, you neither know if the copies are functional, nor get used to the process of recovery.  Both of these are key requirements, and without the certainty that you can recover, your backups are at best a hope.

So a test site lets you test recover your backups – not every day, but certainly you should test restore say monthly, giving you that happy feeling that you can cope should the worst happen.

So if I’ve now convinced you that you should have a test site, you’ll want to know how to create one.
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