Beware the WordPress white screen of death

Debugging the ultra-modular WordPress blogging software can be a challenge

By Joab Jackson, IDG News Service |  Open Source, content management, wordpress

Woe to the WordPress administrator who finds only blank pages where once stood a WordPress-based blog or Web site. The site has been plagued with what an increasing number of WordPress operators are nicknaming the White Screen of Death.

As the nickname states, the White Screen of Death, WSoD, renders all the WordPress-built pages as a blank screen. But unlike the infamous Microsoft Windows Blue Screen of Death after which it was named, the WSoD does not offer any debugging code, or pointers to what might be causing the problem. Just a blank page where content once resided.

Worse yet, in addition to offlining a Web site or set of blog pages, the bug can also render invisible the WordPress Web-based administrator console, in which some debugging could occur.

The true cause of WSoD cannot be traced to any individual cause, or even to the WordPress code itself, but rather to a conflation of issues around the technology WordPress uses, as well as how the software is augmented by others.

"Our hands ... are mostly tied here, especially since WordPress is extended through code from others," said Andrew Nacin, a WordPress developer, in an e-mail interview.

The good news is that the developers of WordPress offer some simple hints at how to debug the problem, and they promise more measures to thwart the appearance of blank screens in the upcoming version 3.0 release of the software, which should be posted within a few weeks.

Since its first release in 2003, WordPress has played a pivotal role in the emergence of blogs on the Web. An open-source project, it is free to download, and Redwood City, California-based Automattic offers a hosted version of the blogging software, which runs more than 11 million blogs.

Organizations are also considering using WordPress as a low-cost content management system.

WordPress is a modular program. It is actually built with other open-source tools, most notably the PHP Web scripting language. In order to construct a WordPress page, the Web server software executes a series of PHP scripts using a PHP processing module, drawing the content from a database, usually MySQL.

While the WordPress package offers the basic ability to run a blog, most of the additional functionality comes from plug-ins developed by third-parties. Likewise, the look-and-feel of a WordPress blog can be altered by using themes, or templates also generated by third parties.

Some of these of plugs-ins and themes are better constructed than others. And that's where the problem begins.

"Generally, you'll see [a blank page] when PHP hits a brick wall before the browser is served any output," Nacin said.

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