Trouble Shooting WordPress Website Update Problems


In the web industry the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is generally considered a reasonable approach to websites and hosting, however sometimes your hand is forced.

At Autus we build, maintain and manage a large number of WordPress websites. WordPress is used as a Content Management System (CMS) for websites operated by less technical users, enabling them to update a website’s content themselves. WordPress currently powers more than 30% of all websites on the internet.

WordPress issues updates quite frequently and recently WordPress released a new version of the WordPress Core (the codebase for WordPress). As part of our website update programme, we began updating all of the websites we manage, to run the latest version of WordPress. Most WordPress updates include a security element so we consider it essential to apply each update as it is released

Usually our updates go according to plan with very few issues, however this turned out not be the case in this instance.

Problem number 1

Our first problem occurred when updating the WordPress Core. Upon completion, a number of websites were presenting us with the dreaded ‘500 error’ message. This error message is incredibly generic and gives you no clues as to what the problem might be.

Problem number 2

WordPress sites commonly use plugins to add extra functionality to WordPress which is not available out of the box. You won’t come across a single WordPress website which doesn’t use plugins to some degree. Plugin authors release updates semi regularly and most release an update when a new version of WordPress is released in order to maintain compatibility. When updating the plugins on a number of sites we were faced with two issues:

  • The plugin refused to update, or
  • The plugin updated but broke the website and we were faced with the dreaded 500 error again.

The solution

When a website is created it is set up on the latest and greatest hosting servers. These servers all run various scripting technologies to help the websites work. As time moves on, server technology moves forward, new sites are hosted on new servers. However, older websites remain on the same server they always have, which in turn runs the same scripting technologies they always have… “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

The solution to our problems related to the scripting available on the servers on which those websites were hosted, primarily a technology called PHP, which WordPress requires. The particular version of WordPress we were updating to had a new minimum requirement for PHP and some of the servers were running an older, incompatible, version. In some instances we could update the version of PHP on the server, however some were too old  and therefore the site had to be moved to a newer server running newer scripting technologies. As soon as the websites were running on a server with a newer version of PHP the 500 errors vanished and the website began working again. Those plugins that refused were also able to update.

So, if you encounter similar problems when updating WordPress or plugins, look to see if your server is running an outdated version of PHP before trouble shooting further.


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