Automatic Updates – Introduction

Automatic Updates Introduction

Part of the vision for WordPress, and automatic updates in general, is to:

  • Allow opt-in to WordPress plugin and theme automatic updates.
  • Allow opt-in to WordPress Core automatic updates.

With WordPress 5.5, opt-in to plugin and theme automatic updates were included in core. However, the implementation was a bit short-sighted and didn’t include opt-in for third-party plugins and themes unless the third-party plugin/theme explicitly stated, “Hey, I have automatic upgrades too.”

With WordPress 5.6, there will be an opt-in for automatic upgrades for WordPress core.

The Current State of Automatic Updates in WordPress

By the time this series is posted, WordPress automatic updates will have landed in Core in a mostly complete feature state with room for iteration.

I’ve been in the auto updates game for a while now. I began my journey with Matthew Sparrow when I began collaborating with him on an auto updates plugin renamed Easy Updates Manager. It went from 10,000 .org installs to over 300,000 as of this writing.

From my perspective and the 300,000 users on Easy Updates Manager, users want a quick and easy way to control automatic updates without relying on a third-party service. Sure, it would be nice to have a SaaS to control updates, and several services are available, but for the most part, users want to control:

  1. Which plugins or themes update and at what time.
  2. Hide updates for certain plugins or themes (a modified .org plugin or theme).
  3. Block updates or delay automatic updates for certain bad actors who release subpar quality releases periodically.
  4. Enable Core automatic updates.
  5. Control translation updates.
  6. The ability to rollback updates that break the site or functionality.
  7. Comprehensive update logs of what occurred.
  8. Control over email notifications.
  9. Add notes to plugins or themes.
  10. And allow third-party plugins/themes to automatically update.

If you’ve read the above list carefully, out-of-the-box, WordPress Core only allows opt-in to plugin, theme, and core updates. For the rest of the functionality, you’ll need a plugin or service that fills your need.

Automatic Updates Reception

With my background of Easy Updates Manager, I’ve been used to the criticisms that automatic updates entail. The majority of the users of the plugin just want to turn automatic updates on and let the site chug along without having to log-in every time an update is released.

Now that automatic updates are on over a 1/3 of the Internet (WordPress has a huge market share), there are varying critiques.

The Benefits

The benefits of automatic updates are obvious. Well, to me at least. You enable automatic updates, and never again have to worry about what version or patch is available. You’re relying on everything working perfectly.

As WordFence puts it:

Rather than having to log in to your WordPress site regularly to perform required plugin and theme updates, your site will run “unattended” updates when updates to installed plugins and themes are made available within the WordPress repository.

WordFence

But things are far from perfect.

The Drawbacks

An update can crash your site, plain and simple. If you manage a site for a client, expect a frantic wake-up-call that the site is down and there’s hardly anyway to track which update broke what.

If the site is down for a while, say over 4 hours, that could be a lot of lost income if you’re running an e-commerce site for example.

Most WordPress maintenance experts advise you to update your sites in a staging environment after a backup has taken place, and then to finally update the plugins in production.

As ThriveWP puts it in regards to updates:

The issue with this new feature is that it’s all or nothing – you either opt to update your plugins and themes automatically, or you don’t. This is an issue for many users because it doesn’t come with the human touch, manual testing & visual regression testing to ensure an update runs well and that nothing breaks on your website. Blindly setting things to auto-update could actually be very damaging to your website and business’s reputation.

The main issue here is that most WordPress users don’t have the knowledge or experience to know when a plugin or theme could be safely set to auto-update or what compatibility issue might arise from this and how to fix it.

ThriveWP

Critical Site Failures

WordPress Core now has a critical failure notification as well as a recovery mode. If your site has a critical error, the admin of the site is notified, and a recovery mode is available to fix any problem plugins or themes.

One plan discussed amongst the Core automatic updates team is to allow rollback of assets that break a site. However, this can be problematic if another plugin relies on the broken one, and will break further if rolled back.

After Update Updates

Some plugin updates include things such as option migrations, database updates, and even new configurations that are required. With automatic updates, a site maintainer will now only rarely log into the back-end and will rely on email notifications to tell if a site is still working as intended.

Plugin or theme authors need a way to run their scripts in a non-obtrusive manner to safely update a site. Should these be automated? Should the plugin email the site owner after an update to ensure things have gone well? It’s all still up in the air.

The Good and the Bad

Now that we’ve covered what automatic updates are, with the benefits and drawbacks, let’s dive into figuring out how automatic updates work, how to control them, and how to disable them.

This series will cover:

  1. The different update types
  2. Auto update constants
  3. Auto Update quick tips
  4. Auto update filters
  5. Auto update actions
  6. How to disable automatic updates
  7. How to enable automatic updates
  8. Enabling automatic updates in your third-party plugin or theme
  9. An overview of helper plugins for automatic updates
  10. An overview of automatic update services
  11. The state of automatic updates and hosts
  12. The future of automatic updates

I look forward to writing this series, and you’re welcome to leave comments (and even plugs) that may make it into this series.

This series will be free of charge and does not require a login to view the contents.