Killing off PHP

Do you know why Apache processes get stuck and stop responding when serving pages on a WordPress site?

I’ve seen this happen here and on my previous host on a regular basis. I don’t know what happens. It can’t be a PHP script gone into an infinite loop because the normal Apache timeout should kill it. It’s not MySQL as a quick inspection of the process list usually shows it’s empty.

It could be plugins, some of them haven’t been written to the high standards that is expected in WordPress core. It could be some strange interaction between plugins and core code and memory limits and PHP extensions.

Whatever causes it, this will fix it. It’s brutal, it’s crude, but it’ll stop the load average going up on your box and it will ensure that every Apache child process is listening and responding. Add this to the crontab of your nobody or www-data user. Pick whichever user runs the webserver because you want to limit the damage in case something bad happens and the command malfunctions!
*/10 * * * * ps auxw|grep apache2| awk '$10 !~ /0:00/ {print $2":"$10}'|awk -F ':' '$2 !~ 0 {print $1}'|xargs kill -9 2> /dev/null
What this does is it uses the ps, grep, and awk tools to find processes that are using anything more than the minimum CPU time. It is very crude, but it works.

If you use Litespeed, then replace “apache2” with “lsphp”. I have found that this is very necessary as those processes get stuck quite often, especially in low memory situations.

Simple UTW Performance Boost

The Ultimate Tag Warrior plugin for WordPress is a great plugin. It does the job of handling tags rather well. I’ve noticed many hits from Google searches that go to a tag page instead of a category page of the same name so there’s something there that Google likes. I love it! Christine Davis did a super job filling a niche with the “ultimate” tool that anyone could want.
Unfortunately what isn’t so good is what goes on behind the scenes:

  1. UTW ignores your default category when saving your posts. Why ignore the default category when that is probably the subject you care most about? On my photoblog, In my default category is “photos” and I certainly want people to find my images.
  2. UTW does an expensive SQL JOIN when it can’t find any tags for a post. Remember what I said about the default category? If you primarily post to your default category then every time someone sends you a request your server will get bogged down trying to find a non-existant record. It’s really bad when you have several years of posts and thousands of records in there.
  3. If you’re not going to use the fancy AJAX tag search then don’t load the associated Javascript. It saves an extra request on the first page load, and the browser doesn’t have to process the file.

Here is a patch that addresses those issues. It needs to be edited before you use it because you have to add a default tag. Here’s how to install it:

  1. Decide on a useful default tag. For this blog I use “holy-shmoly”. Open your WordPress database with phpmyadmin and look in wp_post2tag (the name may be different depending on your prefix). If you have already used the tag then find it and note down the tag_id of that tag. Otherwise, add your tag and note the new tag_id.
  2. Edit utw-patch.diff and look for the strings DEFAULT_TAG_NAME and DEFAULT_TAG_ID and replace with the name and id you picked out in the last step.
  3. To apply the patch, copy it into your wp-content/plugins/UltimateTagWarrior/ directory and run the following command.

    patch -p0 < utw-patch.diff

  4. If you don’t have access to patch, then open utw-patch.diff in your favourite editor and make as much sense of it as you can. It’s not hard once you have the source files open as well.

I’ve noticed a significant drop in server spikes since I made those changes. It takes a while for the default tag to be populated as it’s done when posts are visited but once it’s finished you should see a marked improvement. Oh, and install WP-Cache 2.0 as well. That’ll help you ride out the occasional digg!

Download the patch: utw-patch.diff for UTW 3.14159 for WordPress 2.0

By request, here are the modified files. Rename .txt to .php and copy them into your plugins/UltimateTagWarrior/ directory, overwrite the originals:

  1. ultimate-tag-warrior-actions-wordpress2.txt
  2. ultimate-tag-warrior-actions.txt
  3. ultimate-tag-warrior-core.txt

Gzip Compression or No?

mod_gzip, zlib.output_compression or whatever way you compress your web pages is a great way of reducing your network traffic costs but comes at the cost of increased CPU usage. Despite what you might think, it can be more expensive to send data over the network, especially to slow clients than compress it first of all and send a smaller burst.

Unfortunately this little server may not be up to the task of gzipping content at an acceptable rate to make it worthwhile. I’ll leave it run for another few hours and check the stats tomorrow.

Five common PHP design patterns

Over at IBM Developer Works there's an interesting article on PHP patterns. If you've never come across patterns before it's a good introduction. Just remember that these methods of solving software problems are most useful when you've got lots of code. Using the MVC pattern to print "Hello World!" is probably a little overkill!

For the curious, the patterns covered are: factory, singleton, observer, chain-of-command and strategy.

Elsewhere on you can find a collection of design patterns. Vlado updated his collection recently and there's now 20 techniques or patterns. He openly admits that, 'not all can be considered "officially" design patterns, but to be honest I don't really care.' (via)

PHP Optimization and Security tips and rant

Andrew van der Stock’s criticism of PHP’s security model. What security? Global request arrays go some way to making applications safer but there are obscure functions and settings which can trip up developers. (via)
PHP Optimization Tricks from Ilia Alshanetsky has one gem I didn’t know about – the ctype extension. It’s somewhat limited but would be faster and less resouce intensive than a regular expression to do simple checks.

While I’m blogging development stuff, here’s mention of a vector drawing library in Javascript!
Yes, newer browsers have SVG support but this will work in older browsers and newer. Cute.

AJAX Instant Messenger

Now, this IM client is very cute and I could certainly learn a thing or two from it. The demo works well, you can drag windows around and type messages. Very nice!
Wouldn’t it be cool if you could IM other users of or any WPMU site? (via)

The Holy Grail of PHP?

What is the Holy Grail? Depends on who you ask. Some may think that it’s the object orientated “Ruby on Rails” but others still use functional coding. There’s room for everyone.
This combination of Smarty, PHP and Ajax is interesting. There are a few links in the comments to other PHP toolkits including PHP on Trax which is based on the same idea as the previously mentioned Rails project.
Must study and try out later.