WordPress is a popular content management system that is used extensively all around the world. It powers up to 810 million websites, which covers approximately 43% of the sites on the web. As WordPress websites are mainstream, it stands to reason that one should heed the safety of these sites, especially in cases where the site deals with sensitive data and financial information. This is where Environment Variables come into play. The following article explores what WordPress .env files are and how they can help your website.
What are Environment Variables?
A .env file is crucial to any system. Users must be familiar with two of the fundamental components of a computing device, which are constants and variables. As seen in mathematics, variables in any program can change the final result based on pre-determined factors. In computing, variables, and constants both represent unique memory locations that contain data needed by the program for calculation purposes. Here, constants, as their name represents, are assigned fixed values, while variables might change on execution.
Where Environment Variables differ is that the value is set outside the program. These values are built into the operating system or other microservices. Thus, an Environment Variable is made up of a name/value pair that allows for any numeric creation at a point in time.
Environment Variables are commonly used for injecting information into Node.js and WordPress. Thus, they are commonly used for:
- Providing sensitive values like the API secrets to an application without storing the values in the site’s database, thus enhancing security.
- Flagging variable behavior between different environments.
- Set up a database connection detail.
Application of Environment Variables
Let us discuss the various applications of Environment Variables. Its primary use is to limit the need to modify applications on the go without re-releasing an application due to any configuration data changes. Thus, modifying and releasing application code is made relatively easier. It also simplifies a complicated process and decreases any undesirable risks or side effects. As such, there are several use cases for Environment Variables which might include but are not limited to the following:
- Execution mode of applications
- domain names
- API URLs
- Authentication keys
- Group mail addresses
- Service accounts
WordPress Environment Variables explained
WordPress Environment Variables are used to secure its site configuration settings, effectively shielding it against cyber threats. It further makes controlling the website easier, as the user doesn’t have to upload the configurations every time the local situation changes. As such, there are different environment types that can be set within WordPress, corresponding to the different stages of website development or deployment.
Types of WordPress Environment Variables
Environment Variables that are set on WordPress are optional and refer to the various stages of website development. Although some plugins and themes can use these variables to modify their behavior accordingly, it depends on the website configuration.
Note: Users need not set any environment type, as the newer sites are created sans environment types without any negative repercussions.
Having said that, there are different types of environments that can be set on WordPress, such as:
A local environment type is normally used for WordPress development websites that are located on local systems, mainly for testing, development, or debugging purposes. Although you would rarely find this environment type in a hosted scenario, it can be used for specific development workflows.
The development type is similar to the local one, as it is also used for testing WP websites before deployment. These sites are normally accessed via SSH or SFTP and rely on a development-type environment.
Staging-type environments are used for test runs, as the websites are first deployed in a simulated environment mirroring the actual and live production environment. The simulation is an exact copy of the production environment. Thus, it can be used to validate any modifications or upgrades before planned deployment.
Finally, we come to the production stage, which is the live environment where the website will actually be deployed. It is accessed by end-users, thus making it a priority that the stage be stable and secure at all times. Thus, any alterations or changes made are readily noticed, allowing the administrator to make the necessary changes.
Given below are a few common environment types used in WordPress:
|WP_CLI_CACHE_DIR||Used to store the WP-CLI file||~/.wp-cli/cache/|
|WP_CLI_PACKAGES_DIR||Used to store packages that have been installed through the WP-CLI package management.||~/.wp-cli/packages/|
|WP_CLI_CONFIG_PATH||Defines the path to the global config.yml file||~/.wp-cli/config.yml|
|WP_CLI_DISABLE_AUTO_CHECK_UPDATE||It disables the automated WP-CLI update checks.|
|WP_CLI_CUSTOM_SHELL||It can be used to override the default shell or bin in play.|
|WP_CLI_SSH_PRE_CMD||It is used to call on the WP-CLI remote server when using SSH|
|WP_CLI_SUPPRESS_GLOBAL_PARAMS||It can be sued to skip showing the global parameters.|
|WP_CLI_PHP||Points to the PHP binary path incase of a system default override.|
|WP_CLI_PHP_ARGS||Presents the arguments to pass the PHP binary.|
|WP_CLI_STRICT_ARGS_MODE||Used to avoid ambiguity between global and local commands.|
Advantages of WordPress Environment Variables
The WordPress Environment Variables have certain advantages, storing configuration settings being one of them. As such, here are a few points that elaborate on this fact:
- It offers greater security as the configuration is not stored in a file but within the web server.
- It makes handling wp-config.php files easier as it can help with version control as variables do not require regular uploading. Users also won’t have to match local configuration settings every time.
- It will also make migration to a new server much easier, as it won’t be hindered by updating the website, as the config settings are treated as .env files.
- There is also no need to change the database regularly and run the risk of missing any crucial details when updating the production database on a virtual machine.
Disadvantages of WordPress Environment Variables
There are also a few disadvantages to these WordPress Environment Variables, such as:
- Users need to set them in all the environments for the variables to function properly.
- The environment variable key is limited to 255 bytes.
- An environment variable’s value can’t exceed 4096 bytes.
- The overall limitation placed on all the keys and values can’t surpass 16384 bytes.
- Any new or updated variable won’t be available until the next code deployment, which can delay the website.
Behaviour of different types of Environment Variables
Although every WordPress plugin or theme won’t undergo drastic changes when influenced by an Environment Variable, some do show distinct changes and adjust themselves accordingly. These are:
Plugins can use these variables to decide if they should be activated or not. It is a fairly decent application, as some plugins might not work on older versions of WordPress. However, the user is required to disable them manually. Switching to the Environment Variable instead can solve this issue.
Similarly, by utilizing Environment Variables, plugins can also adjust their settings without manual input from the user. It can be so that the plugin uses one setting during the development environment and another during production.
At the same time, these Environment Variables can also change how the plugins behave in different environments. A plugin might be more active as a backup during the production phase rather than the development phase.
Plugins can send customized notifications based on the environment they are facing, allowing users great mobility when tackling website development.
Why are they important?
These variables are important for WordPress, as they can improve the security of the website by storing sensitive data in a separate file. Thus, your code remains protected even in the case of a cyberattack. It also prevents unauthorized access to data and makes it much harder for anyone to exploit your website. Lastly, these variables also offer flexibility and portability to the websites, as the user can move the site from one server to a different one without resetting the configurations of the website. Hence, it can result in simplified management, deployment, and application of the site, freeing the user to focus on website development.
How to set up a WordPress Config file to integrate Environment Variables?
You can follow this detailed guide to set up a WordPress Config file using Environment Variables.
Step 1. Downloading and Setting up WordPress
The user must first download and install WordPress on his local device before he can proceed further with the guide. He is also required to create a public directory where all the WordPress files will be placed and then make it the root directory.
Step 2. Configuration
Now, he should proceed with the setup as he normally does, fill out the wp-config, and make sure everything is ready for the site deployment.
Step 3. Installing PHP Dotenv
If you have a composer installed on your device, you can directly install PHP Dotenv which is a composer package, otherwise, first install the composer and then set up PHP Dotenv.
Step 4. Creating a .json file
Using composer, create a .json file on your local system and place it in the public directory. Otherwise, create one manually. After that, use the terminal to run the composer file, which will create a ./vendor directory. Place it in the public directory.
Step 5. Modify your wp-config file
Finally, alll you have to do is create a .env file and include the following:
It will allow users to change constant values into variables.
Securing WP .env files
Only creating a wp .env file isn’t enough if you can’t ensure its security. Thus, follow the given tips to better secure your .env file:
- First off, you should use stronger passwords for your database and API keys.
- You can also use encryption to secure the .env file.
- Similarly, you can create file authentication to restrict unwanted access to the file.
- Also, make sure to use complex and unique values for your Environment Variables which will make them much harder to guess.
- Try the hardening approach to prevent any random URL from obtaining access to your .env file.
Lastly, one should remember that securing a WordPress website takes the topmost priority, and Environment Variables have a proven track record when it comes to storing wp-config settings. Thus, users can rely on a .env file to secure the website in order to protect personal information or financial transaction details. It will make the code much leaner as the sensitive information will be protected in a .env file, hence making the rest of the code easily manageable.
However, creating a .env file is not the end-all, be-all solution. Users also have to ensure the safety of said file if they want to protect the website in the long run. Thus, certain practices should be considered and applied for the security of the file.