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Michael Carr
Michael Carr

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What I Learned Building a Data Sync Plugin for WordPress in 2023 ⛓🎈

As a relative newcomer to PHP and WordPress plugin development, taking on the task of building a custom data sync tool felt daunting at first. The client needed to regularly pull data from a complex third-party API into WordPress custom post types and media attachments. With high expectations set, I knew the plugin needed to be robust, flexible and well-architected.

Throughout the development process, I learned a tremendous amount about best practices for syncing external data into WordPress. In this post, I want to share the key learnings on optimization, tooling and architecture that helped me build an effective plugin. Whether you're integrating a third-party API or handling large batches of data, these tips will help steer you towards a maintainable, scalable approach.

Use Composer for Plugin Dependency Management

Prior to this project, I wasn't familiar with Composer. But for complex plugins any PHP project, it's invaluable for dependency management.

Composer allows you to:

  • Declare dependencies: Easily pull in PHP packages from Packagist and GitHub.
// composer.json
  "require": {
    "monolog/monolog": "^2.0" 
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  • Manage updates: Composer can keep dependencies up to date automatically.

  • Simplify install: Other developers can install deps with one composer install.

For my plugin, Composer allowed me to quickly integrate libraries for logging, migrations, and API requests without fuss.

Optimize for High Volume Batch Processing

A core requirement was importing hundreds of records and associated media assets from the API in batches. With hindsight I would say a good rule of thumb to live by is: batch process everything, always.

To handle this smoothly:

  • Chunk large batches: When importing hundreds of items, split them into smaller chunks of a few hundred each. This prevents hitting PHP timeouts or memory limits.
// Pseudocode for chunking data sync

$batchSize = 100;
$data = downloadAPIData(); 

foreach(array_chunk($data, $batchSize) as $chunk) {

  // Process sync chunk

  // Queue next chunk 

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  • Watch out for limits: WordPress hosts like WPEngine limit PHP execution time per request (WPEngine caps each request at 60 seconds). Batch chunking avoided timeouts.

  • Tune PHP settings: Increase max_execution_time and memory_limit to fit your batch sizes, but test carefully.

  • Queue failures: Occasional failures during large syncs will happen. Queue failed records to retry later.

Understanding nuances like this took some trial and error, but being aware of hosting constraints early on and designing around them was crucial. For any complex batch processing, I now know how vital it is to thoroughly grasp WP-Cron behavior and limitations.

Learn WordPress CRON Inside and Out

I relied heavily on wp_cron() for scheduling recurring syncs. But its limitations tripped me up.

Key wp_cron() learnings:

  • Not real cron: wp_cron() uses page loads, not background cron jobs. So syncs stall on low traffic sites.

  • Avoid long jobs: Don't schedule hardcore processing in wp_cron() or requests time out.

  • Workarounds: Use a real cron calling a PHP script, or a plugin to emulate cron.

  • Schedule carefully: "Daily" cron may not run daily with low traffic. Schedule conservatively or lean on a third-party service to ping your wp-cron.php file regularly to promote on-time task runs.

Build a Custom Queue with Database Tables

To work around max execution time limitations, I built a custom queue using database tables. This allows task execution to be broken into chunks through the use use of a cron job. After understanding its limitations, I decided to use WP-CRON. A few design tips:

  • Store jobs in a wp_queue table containing job data like ID, payload, retries, etc.

  • Write cron jobs to schedule dequeuing jobs on intervals like:

// Dequeue jobs every 5 minutes
wp_schedule_event(time(), '5min', 'myplugin_dequeue_cron'); 
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  • On each dequeue, handle X jobs before re-enqueueing the rest.

  • Use row locks when dequeuing to prevent race conditions.

This let me break up syncs across multiple smaller cron executions to avoid timeouts.

Use OOP and SOLID Principles for Maintainable Code

With the client expecting the plugin to be robust and maintainable over time, I committed to using SOLID principles wherever possible. SOLID is an acronym coined by Robert C. Martin in the early 2000s that stands for:

  • Single responsibility principle
  • Open/closed principle
  • Liskov substitution principle
  • Interface segregation principle
  • Dependency inversion principle

WordPress plugins don't require OOP, but using object-oriented code and SOLID principles made the plugin far easier to maintain and expand.

Some benefits of OOP and SOLID:

  • Encapsulation: Group related features into classes to hide complexity.

  • Modularity: Different classes allow separation of concerns per SRP.

  • Reusability: Child classes and inheritance enable reuse of parent logic.

  • Maintainability: SOLID facilitates building maintainable, adaptive code.

While you can get by with procedural style, I highly recommend OOP/SOLID for non-trivial plugins. The time invested pays off later in development.

To implement SOLID, I took an object-oriented approach and broke the sync logic down into separate classes based on features:

  • Data Retriever - Responsible for fetching data from the external API
  • Data Processor - Parses, normalizes, and prepares data for import
  • Data Writer - Imports processed data into WordPress

Using dependency injection, I was able to configure each class independently at runtime. This made the system much more dynamic and flexible than having one monolithic procedural script. Adding new data sources or adjusting logic down the road will be simpler.

Adopting SOLID principles required more planning and architecting up front, but I'm confident it will pay off in the long run through increased maintainability. My client was very pleased with how modular yet cohesive the plugin architecture is.

Build a Robust Logger

With a complex sync process, having robust logging was crucial for monitoring and debugging issues when they popped up.

Like most non-trivial programming projects, I ran into many bugs, edge cases, and unexpected issues over the course of development. Thankfully, I learned some useful tools and techniques for debugging WordPress plugins:

  • Custom logger class - I created a simple logging class for debugging messages and errors. This allowed me to easily track execution and pinpoint where problems occurred.
  • WP_DEBUG constant - Enabling the WP_DEBUG constant in wp-config.php displays PHP warnings and notices. Great for catching issues during development.
  • Xdebug - A PHP extension that allows step debugging and performance profiling. Invaluable when you need to pause execution and analyze variable values.
  • Whoops - A PHP library that renders helpful errors messages and stack traces. Made debugging much less frustrating.
  • Browser developer tools - The network panel and JavaScript console were hugely helpful when debugging the React-based admin UI.
  • Postman or cURL to easily query and test API endpoints

Investing time up front in tooling and practices for debugging, logging, and error handling was well worth it for maintaining my sanity when tackling inevitable plugin issues.

  • Create a logging class for consistent API:
// Pseudocode logger

class Logger {

  public function info($message){}
  public function error($message){}

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  • Log key events like API requests, DB queries, batch totals.

  • Implement log levels (info, warning, error etc) for filtering.

  • Support console, file, and database logging.

Don't wait until errors pile up - build a logger early on to stay aware of what your plugin is doing.

Other WordPress Plugin Gotchas

Here are some other common pitfalls to watch out for:

  • Carefully handle activation/deactivation/uninstall hooks.

  • Follow WordPress coding standards.

  • Sanitize and escape dynamic data before outputting.

  • Learn best practices for settings pages and data storage.

  • Leverage actions and filters for modular, extensible code.

Take time to learn WordPress-specific conventions - it will pay dividends in stability.

Carefully Consider a JavaScript Front-End

One decision I debated was whether to build the admin UI with React. In the end I opted not to - while handy for complex UIs, React was overkill for this project.

Things to consider before adding a JavaScript front-end:


  • More dynamic UI with less page reloads.
  • Manage complex component state easily.
  • Use familiar frameworks like React or Vue.


  • Steep learning curve if new to JS frameworks.
  • Additional assets and build process.
  • Often unnecessary complexity.

For many plugins, starting with vanilla JavaScript is sufficient. Only reach for React/Vue if you have experience or require their advanced capabilities.

Key Takeaways

While complex at first, I emerged from building this custom plugin significantly more adept at WordPress development. Optimizing for high volume data, mastering WP Cron, leveraging Composer, and applying OOP/SOLID were critical in building the system.

Architecting a maintainable, extensible plugin required learning organized approaches beyond just PHP basics which paid off immensely.

** 🧐 What lessons have you learned from tackling custom WordPress projects? Share your experiences in the comments!**

Happy hacking

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