You might have noticed a new message calling for a “PHP update required” by WordPress on the initial screen of Dashboard after a recent update. Although you can discard this message, you have two good reasons to perform a PHP update on your hosting account: security and performance.
What is PHP and why a new version matters
PHP is an HTML preprocessor that is required by WordPress to run. The main advantage in contrast with plain HTML is the ability to perform direct transactions with the server. This allows the creation of dynamic pages. Like most modern technologies it’s being updated regularly.
Until recently WordPress had no problem (kind of) to run on an “early” or “outdated” version of PHP; yet, many developers in the community were insisting on setting a limit for the low-end. Eventually, WordPress set the new minimum version of PHP to 7.2
For compatibility reasons, WordPress will keep on running with the previous versions of PHP (as early as 5.6), whereas there is no guaranty this will go on forever. Moreover, the more recent version will offer great stability, security, and performance. Today, we can’t see an actual reason to leave any installation stalled to an outdated version of PHP.
PHP update required by WordPress: a hosting issue
Although the system prompts a message for this update, it’s an action you can’t perform from the WP Dashboard; not even using a plugin. You have to log in to the hosting account to do that.
We’ll cover the two most popular hosting platforms with their distinctive appearance, cPanel, and PleskDesk. Like any software, those platforms have a user interface that may change in the future; but, if you know what to search for, you’ll find it anyway.
PHP update using cPanel©
You can log in to cPanel, either directly (URL) or via your hosting account. In the first case usually, you need to add the number of the open port after the domain name separated by “:” whilst in the second case, you can go there by clicking on the corresponding button. In both cases, you need to have your credentials available.
https://mywebsite:2083a typical URL for connecting to an administrator panel
After logging in the panel, scroll down a bit until you locate the Software section. Next, click on the Multi PHP Manager or Select PHP Selector if the host has activated a legacy version of the panel.
On the next screen, you can select the PHP version using a drop-down list. Note that, the change will be applied immediately and next time you access the site, it will run on the new version.
Each PHP version has a number of different extensions which are super important. Although your hosting provider has activated the default ones, in some rare cases you may need to activate a few more. To do so, you only need to fill the box next to each extension.
PHP update using PleskDesk©
To log in to this panel also, you can go via adding the open port number after the site’s URL, separated by a “:”. The hosting provider will have sent you this address. Else, you can go through your hosting account where usually there is a discrete button for the hosting panel. Again, you will need your credentials to continue.
When you log in this panel you’ll find yourself in the Website & Domains. On this tab, you should be able to access the PHP Settings with one click.
On the next screen, you should be able to select the version from a drop-down list. In this location, you might notice a second drop-down list where you can choose the PHP handler. You don’t have to change that unless you have a really good reason. The hosting provider should have the correct handler that depends on the active server.
Review the Site Health on WordPress
At this point, if you log back into the WordPress Dashboard, the “PHP update required” message should have gone away. If you need to check again, you can go to Dashboard > Tools > Site Health and review the overall condition of the website.
As of August 2020, the minimum version required by WordPress is 7.2 Anything less will prompt for a PHP update on the site.
What if I don’t update?
Although WordPress now requires version 7.2 (and recommends 7.4), it doesn’t mean it will stop working with earlier versions. In fact, it will run with a version as early as 5.6. Yet we are not sure how long this will be possible. Also, a number of plugins will have a hard time working with previous versions. WooCommerce has already announced that it will soon require version 7.2 or newer in order to continue running. Besides, the overall performance of the website will be degraded to the absolute minimum.
On the other hand, if your site is running on a newer version of PHP like 7.2 or 7.3 you will not be able to notice a great difference in loading speed. Still, the update is a great idea as there is a major change in the way the language works at the latest version.
Zeev Zuraski, one of the principal authors of PHP explained the potentials of the newer versions in his WordCamp Europe 2020 talk.
What if a PHP update is not available?
In some cases, the update might not be available. If your site is running on a very old server the hosting provider might not provide you the option. In this case, consider migrating to another. Still, if your site is running on a very old version of PHP and the panel gives you the option to update to a more recent (but not the latest) version, do it without a second thought. It is much safer to have it running on 7.1 rather than on 5.6. The performance will be vastly improved as well. Moreover, WordPress will support that newer version a bit longer.
Because of the increased demand for PHP updates, some providers have applied a new method for PHP control, via a cloud service. When you log in to the panel you may notice that the PHP version is controlled by a cloud service. Although you will be ensured that the service controls the PHP software, WordPress will still identify the version as obsolete and will prompt for an update. In this case, try switching to the manual selector. Try to select the latest, safer, and faster version of the preprocessor. If the system does not allows you to perform this action, you can stay with the older version until the host will provide you with the option.
Updating PHP on localhost
If you have set a testing environment for web development on your computer, you will need to update PHP there as well. However, the process might not be so simple; on Unix based OSes updating PHP requires updating several packages before installing the latest version. Thankfully, Homebrew can make the whole process much easier.
If you are deploying on a Windows machine you might be luckier. In fact, some environments like Laragon allow for easily updating without even removing the previous version; the installer will do the trick. Note that, this environment is heavily dependant on Visual C++ so you need to have the latest versionsof those packages installed.
In any case, make sure all the stack (Apache or Nginx centered) is updated to ensure you get the best available performance. And, stop seeing the “PHP update required” message every time you log in to Dashboard…