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NASA has removed the beta label from the new nasa.gov site, which is built on WordPress, replacing Drupal as the CMS. After a lengthy process that took 18 months of active web development, data migration, and content creation, NASA launched its modernized primary and science websites, showcasing the innovations and discoveries that have set the agency apart for over 65 years.
The multi-million dollar project began a few years ago when a combination of the IDEA Act and the end of support for Drupal 7 gave NASA the opportunity to overhaul the CMS used for nasa.gov. Lone Rock Point, a VIP Gold Partner of WordPress.com, led the project, which began with a year of UX design and an evaluation of various enterprise CMS that would ultimately support 456 CMS users, 68.698 migrated pages, and 3.023 new pages of destination. As part of the project, NASA's website infrastructure was moved from an Amazon Web Services environment to WordPress.com VIP.
In earlier stages of the project, content authors expressed interest in a CMS that would allow them to free themselves from templates considered rigid. Gutenberg's block-based approach met this need, and user testing showed that WordPress could deliver it. Now that the site is live, the different types of landing pages created with the block-based approach prove its worth. – said JJ Toothman, president of Lone Rock Point.
According to public statistics available on SimilarWeb, NASA's website, nasa.gov, attracts approx 30 million unique visitors every month on a global scale. Furthermore, the site records approx 120 million page views per month. These numbers are quite high and reflect the importance and popularity of the site. The vast reach of nasa.gov highlights the importance of having a robust, flexible, and highly performant web platform to handle such a volume of traffic and user interactions.
SimilarWeb is a web analytics tool that provides detailed data on traffic, engagement and other website metrics. It is a service frequently used to evaluate the performance of a site and to conduct competitive research.
Drupal VS WordPress
NASA evaluated both proprietary and open source solutions, and Toothman said they looked at more than a hundred CMS platforms. They narrowed the choice down to four CMS: two commercial and two open source (WordPress and Drupal). The team completed high-level prototypes and user evaluations on all four finalists, using this data in the CMS selection process.
Toothman outlined some of the factors that made WordPress preferable to others:
- Access to resources. Simply put, there is a huge community around WordPress. This community is extending WordPress in innovative ways; sharing knowledge and training for WordPress; and continually building WordPress expertise within the community. This makes it easier for an organization like NASA to get support. With commercial CMS solutions, however, NASA would often have to go back to the original CMS vendor to find resources. This is limited flexibility, undesirable for them.
- An ecosystem of plugins which offers real-time content analysis in the WordPress administrative environment, in areas such as SEO and accessibility. The fact that the content could be analyzed by the author before publication was significant.
- Ease of use of the content creation environment.
Toothman and his team have found strategic ways to help new block editor users familiarize themselves with the authoring tools. They created hands-on training sessions and work to build pages in real time together with users and created an online knowledge base.
NASA announced that it will open source some of its custom blocks and other parts of the project to give back to the WordPress community. The completed project is a high-profile testament to the agency's confidence in the block editor and the broad ecosystem of tools available. It also highlights WordPress as a reliable CMS with notable adaptability for enterprise-level business projects with complex publishing requirements.
For years, I and many of us in the WordPress community have debunked customer stakeholder perceptions in 2 areas: (a) WordPress is not for big businesses, it's just a blogging platform. (b) WordPress is not a secure CMS.
While I don't expect NASA's choice to use WordPress to erase these pre-existing perceptions, it is further evidence to support the fact that WordPress is enterprise-class and can meet security benchmarks. – said Toothman.
A technical analysis of the Hosting Software Stack used.
When talking about enterprise-class websites like NASA's, the choice of hosting and server configuration are aspects of vital importance. Fast WordPress hosting is essential to ensure fast content delivery and improve both user experience and SEO.
We therefore wanted to proceed with the analysis of the HTTP response headers of the nasa.gov site, in order to understand which software technologies are at the basis of their WordPress hosting.
The NGINX web server, chosen by NASA for its website, is recognized in the industry for several qualities: high performance, flexibility and a lightweight structure that saves on hardware resources. Unlike the more traditional Apache web server, NGINX operates through an event-based model rather than a thread-based model. This gives it a superior ability to handle a large number of simultaneous connections without excessively increasing RAM memory consumption. This architecture is therefore highly advantageous in scenarios where the site is subject to traffic spikes, which often happens with high-profile platforms such as nasa.gov.
On top of this, NGINX is extremely versatile in terms of the protocols and technologies it supports. For example, it can perform load balancing, a technique that distributes incoming web traffic across multiple back-end servers. This distribution is done intelligently, directing client requests to the least loaded server at the moment, thus optimizing resources and ensuring that no single server is overloaded. This feature is particularly useful for maintaining high performance and good reliability, critical aspects for any Enterprise-class site.
The HTTP headers “cache-control: max-age=300, must-revalidate” and “x-cache: hit” indicate the use of an advanced caching strategy, implemented through Varnish Cache. This HTTP accelerator specializes in caching web content and quickly retrieving and distributing it, significantly lightening the load on the web server. When properly optimized, Varnish is able to deliver web pages with minimized latency and high throughput thus ensuring a very low TTFB and very minimal latency as can be seen from the following screenshot obtained from SpeedVitals.com.
One of its main strengths is its flexibility: Varnish allows detailed configuration of caching rules, including parameters such as lifetime and validation. This makes it extremely suitable for use on websites that require high performance and sophisticated caching management, essential features for enterprise-class platforms.
HSTS (HTTP Strict Transport Security)
The implementation of the “strict-transport-security: max-age=31536000” header is a clear indicator of NASA's commitment to security. Known as HSTS (HTTP Strict Transport Security), this header forces browsers to use HTTPS connections, eliminating the possibility of man-in-the-middle attacks and increasing overall site security.
In summary, NASA's server setup is an excellent example of how advanced server technologies like NGINX and Varnish Cache can be combined to create a highly scalable, performant, and secure environment. The use of HSTS adds an extra layer of security, making the site not only fast, but also extremely secure.
In conclusion, NASA's decision to adopt WordPress as the content management system for their flagship website is a telling testament to the robustness, flexibility and scalability that WordPress can offer, even for enterprise-class projects with complex requirements and high volumes. of traffic. Migrating from Drupal to WordPress was a long and painstaking process that required a significant investment in time and resources, but the result is a modern, efficient and high-performing website.
The success of the NASA site with WordPress is further highlighted by the use of advanced server-side technologies such as NGINX and Varnish Cache, components that are also fundamental in our Managed Server software stack. These technologies allow us to provide high-performance and high-speed hosting solutions for WordPress and other popular CMS. NASA's choice reinforces the view that even large-scale organizations are increasingly seeing the intrinsic value of WordPress and complementary technologies, further validating the approach we have taken for our hosting services.
This case study highlights how WordPress has grown far beyond its origins as a blogging platform to become a cutting-edge CMS solution, capable of meeting the needs of organizations that demand the ultimate in security, speed and flexibility. And with the ever-expanding ecosystem of plugins, themes and blocks, WordPress looks set to maintain a prominent role in the CMS landscape for many years to come.