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Managing WordPress with Git and Composer has some big advantages. In particular, it can give you version control and helps get new people up to speed quickly. But it’s not for every WordPress project. In this article we’ll look at the pros and cons of this approach, and I’ll show you how to manage WordPress core, themes, and plugins using Git for version control and Composer for dependency management. Finally, we’ll look at moving WordPress into a subdirectory on Git for increased security.

Composer is a dependency manager, a tool that lets you say what software components (and which versions) your project depends on, and that automatically downloads and installs those dependencies.

Git is a version control system that keeps track of changes to the code of a project, enables engineers to collaborate on a codebase, and aids deployment of applications to servers. While it is possible to only version control parts of your WordPress project, such as a custom-built theme or your own custom plugins, this article focuses on using the powerful and reliable combination of Git and Composer to keep control of the whole web application that you are building with WordPress.

Table of Contents

  1. What is Composer?
  2. Why Git?
  3. Advantages of the Composer + Git Approach
  4. Installing Composer
    1. Configuring Composer
    2. Installing WordPress Core Using Composer
  5. Creating a Git Repository
    1. Adding Plugins and Themes From the WordPress Repository
    2. Adding Custom or Third-party Plugins and Themes
    3. Some Notes on Using Git in This Way
    4. Deployments and Updates
  6. Next Steps: Moving WordPress
  7. Next Steps: Using Git Submodules to Manage Themes and Plugins
  8. Next Steps: Restructuring WordPress
  9. Wrapping Up

What is Composer?

Composer is the de facto dependency manager for PHP. A dependency is a “package” of code that your project needs to work. Perhaps a library that handles API requests, or authentication. It’s like a plugin for the PHP language.

In a WordPress context, these dependencies are:

  • WordPress core – the main WordPress software that you normally download or install using a one-click software installer.
  • Plugins and “must-use” plugins.
  • Themes.
  • Any other PHP packages you want to make use of.

The code of the specified dependencies makes up an application. You use the dependency manager to keep control of the application, so that you have a known and reproducible codebase at any given time.

The packages that your project requires, and their versions, are listed in a composer.json file, along with some other settings that tell Composer what to do.

The composer.json file doesn’t have to contain exact version numbers of packages. You can tell it to use “1.2.x” or “the latest development version”. Composer has an update command that figures out which versions of which packages need to be installed and saves the packages and versions in a composer.lock file.

The packages listed in the composer.lock file are what is actually installed by Composer, and I note that this file is always generated by Composer commands. You should not edit it manually.

Once you commit composer.lock to your project repo, anyone working on the project is locked into using those same versions, and can get up and running with a copy of the code/application just by running composer install. It’s quick and ensures everyone is working with the same codebase, and that that same codebase is what is running in the live environment.

By default, Composer packages are drawn from Packagist and there is a repository of WordPress plugins – mirrored from the official wordpress.org repository – at wpackagist.org. There is also an automatically synced WordPress Core repository in Packagist that we will make use of later.

The dependencies are recursive. If a library requires another library as a dependency, Composer will import and manage the second library as well.

Why Git?

Version control systems like Git are a huge help to developers, allowing collaboration on a level that wouldn’t be possible without them.

For example, you can use awesome Git features like rolling back breaking changes, merging changes from different developers, and using branches for bug fixes and feature builds. And you can also use amazing tools like GitHub Actions, Buddy, and DeployBot to automate testing and deployment workflows.

Any files that aren’t part of the application shouldn’t be included in version control. In WordPress, the most common example of this are media files. You’ll want something other than version control if you’re trying to keep content in sync, such as WP Migrate, or you could use something like Bill Erickson’s “Media from Production” plugin to avoid having to copy files from your production environment to other environments.

Advantages of the Composer + Git approach

There are pros and cons to using Git and Composer to version control your entire website. It’s not suitable for every use case. Using version control is a good way to manage the processes of website changes and updates and to enable collaboration if…

  • Your sites are tightly-controlled and firmly your organization’s responsibility for the long term.
  • You want to enforce a quality assurance process with testing and automated deployment.
  • You have a team working together to manage the sites.

The three main advantages to keeping WordPress in Git and using Composer are:

  1. You get to precisely control the software that is running your website without needing to store all of that software yourself or copy and move it around. You just specify which versions you want, and the automated process can build a copy of your site for staging, for local development, or when deploying to the live environment. This ensures consistency between copies of the site, enabling collaboration and convenience.

  2. You get version control, ensuring that any changes to the code you are controlling are tracked, attributed, and properly managed. You’ll always know exactly which changes were made, who made them, when they were made, and you have the ability to roll back the code to any previously-saved state. And you can use workflows like Pull Requests to conduct code reviews and quality assurance.

  3. Because the packages are pulled from external sources, you don’t need to store all of the external code in your own project’s Git repository. You just pull it down from a central source as and when you need it.

Version control gives you the freedom to experiment, while always leaving you with the option of turning back the clock if you don’t like the results. This is especially useful in team development situations, when multiple people may be making changes at the same time.

I should stress at this point that we will only be using Git and Composer to manage the code of our WordPress-based site or application – the core, plugins, and themes. The content, both in the database and other files such as images and media, will not be included in our version control. You will have to find other methods to keep them synced and controlled should you need to.

This approach is not for every person or project though. You may be an agency building smaller sites for smaller clients, using off-the-shelf and no-code components, on simple hosting plans, with lower risks involved, and that will get handed over for the client to look after themselves, or with minimal input from you. In this case, the steep learning curve and additional complexity of dependency managers and version control may not be worthwhile and could hinder future development. In fact, WordPress’s automatic updates are probably preferable to manually updating anything in this instance.

Installing Composer

The first step to version-controlled WordPress awesomeness is to install Composer. Composer is the command-line tool that allows you to install and update packages.

The latest version of Composer requires PHP v7.2.5 to run. There is a version of Composer that is compatible with older versions of PHP, but I’m not telling you how to use it because you should really be on PHP 7.4 by now.

It’s worth noting that you can choose to install Composer in your project, or globally. There isn’t a lot of benefit to running it in just your project, unless you are dealing with some legacy codebase or system that really requires it. We recommend installing it globally so you can run it from anywhere.

If you have a Linux (or equivalent) command line, then installing Composer globally boils down to running a couple of commands. The process is documented on the Download page, but ours is a little simpler:

curl -sS https://getcomposer.org/installer -o /tmp/composer-setup.php sudo php /tmp/composer-setup.php --install-dir=/usr/local/bin --filename=composer

If your brain’s security radar is beeping away at this point, that’s good. You should always be careful about executing arbitrary code downloaded from the internet using sudo. You’re just gonna have to trust us (and the millions of other users) that Composer is legit. However, you always run sudo commands entirely at your own risk.

You should now be able to run composer from the command line. If something didn’t work, check out the Composer installation instructions for help.

Configuring Composer

Composer gets its marching orders from composer.json. In this section, we’ll create the file, set it up to serve our plugins and themes as dependencies, and specify which plugins and themes we want to install.

Let’s get started by creating our composer.json file in our project root. We can do this by running the command composer init. This will guide you through the basic settings that need to go in the header part of the file.

For most things you can accept the defaults for now, but it’s worth noting that:

  • It will ask you for a “package name” – this is only really relevant if you are publishing your package for others to use, so don’t worry too much about it.
  • The “vendor” is a string that identifies you or your organization – again, helpful as a namespace if you are publishing your package, and it will normally be the same as a GitHub username.
  • The “name” is the name of your project.

Eventually you will be asked if you want “to define your (dev) dependencies interactively” – say no to these questions as we will do this in the following steps.

You will also be asked something about “PSR-4 autoload mapping yadda-yadda-blah”. Skip this unless you know what this is asking you.

Confirm generation with a “yes” at the end, and you should have a composer.json file. You can open it up and look at it if you want, but it probably won’t mean much at this point.

$ composer init Welcome to the Composer config generator This command will guide you through creating your composer.json config. Package name (/) [rosswintle/composer-test]:
Description []: A test composer project
Author [Ross Wintle , n to skip]:
Minimum Stability []:
Package Type (e.g. library, project, metapackage, composer-plugin) []: project
License []: GPL Define your dependencies. Would you like to define your dependencies (require) interactively [yes]? no
Would you like to define your dev dependencies (require-dev) interactively [yes]? no
Add PSR-4 autoload mapping? Maps namespace "RosswintleCTest" to the entered relative path. [src/, n to skip]: n { "name": "rosswintle/composer-test", "description": "A test composer project", "type": "project", "license": "GPL", "authors": [ { "name": "Ross Wintle", "email": "[email protected]" } ], "require": {}
} Do you confirm generation [yes]? 

There is more configuration to do later, and if you ever get stuck, or just want a starting point, I’ve created a complete, base composer.json file that you can work from. Feel free to copy and paste or download that to get started.

Installing WordPress Core Using Composer

We want to install something. So let’s start with WordPress core. We saw that it was installable from John Bloch’s Composer package.

The package name for this is just “johnpbloch/wordpress”. You can see this matches the “vendor/name” pattern that we saw before.

So we can add WordPress to our project using the command:

composer require johnpbloch/wordpress

This says: “Our project depends on (requires) the johnpbloch/wordpress package. Please add it to the composer.json file and install it into our project. With thanks in advance.”

Now, this is a bit of a special package. Normally, Composer installs the dependencies into a subdirectory called /vendor. Within the vendor directory are subdirectories for each of the vendors and packages.

So you would expect WordPress to now be installed in /vendor/johnpbloch/wordpress. But it’s not! There is a special script that runs to install WordPress into a /wordpress subdirectory of the root of your project. And that is where you should see it now. You will get the /vendor directory too, but WordPress has been copied out of it.

If you set up a web server to run with the /wordpress directory as a project, you should be able to visit http://my-domain.local/ (with your domain) and see the WordPress setup screen.

To set it up as a project, you should be able to point MAMP at the /wordpress directory, or configure something like Laravel Valet or run PHP’s built-in web server:

php -S localhost:8000 -r wordpress

Later we will look at how this directory can be renamed too. In all cases you will need a database running, which is not covered in this article.

I will leave it up to you to set up the wp-config.php file and complete the site’s configuration. You may use the setup screen that you now see, the WP-CLI config command, or you could edit the wp-config.php file by hand to get things set up.

The next steps assume you have a site running and being served.

Creating a Git Repository

We have said that one of the main benefits of using Composer in this way is that we can store everything needed to recreate the application code for our site in Git.

There are two steps to beginning this process:

  1. Initialize a Git repository.
  2. Add a .gitignore file so we don’t store files that we can recreate on demand using Composer.

We’ll initialize Git in the top-level, root directory of the project. This is not the /wordpress subdirectory. It is the directory that contains the composer.json and composer.lock files, and the /vendor and /wordpress subdirectories.

There are various ways to initialize a Git repository. If you use a GUI client for Git, make sure you “Create from existing files” (or similar) and point it at the project root. Or run git init from the command line.

$ git init
Initialized empty Git repository in /Users/rosswintle/projects/new-wordpress-site/.git/

If you’re using a GUI for Git, you will now see a lot of files waiting to be committed.

GitHub desktop showing 2910 files to commit.

We don’t want this. The aim is not to have WordPress or any of the /vendor files in our project repository. We don’t need them there, as they can be re-installed at any point using the information in the composer.lock file, which defines the current packages and versions in use.

We will use the .gitignore file to … well … to tell Git to ignore these directories!

Your GUI tool, if you use one, may allow you to do this interactively. Otherwise, use your text editor to create a new file called .gitignore in the project root. This should have two lines in it:

/vendor
/wordpress

With that saved (or with these directories ignored in your GUI – which, if you’re wondering, just creates the .gitignore file) you should see just the .gitignore, composer.json, and composer.lock files waiting to be committed.

Use your GUI or command line to commit them, and your project is safely in the hands of Git’s clever algorithms.

Adding Plugins and Themes From the WordPress Repository

By default, Composer will only look in the packagist.org repository, and it doesn’t contain WordPress plugins and themes.

To be able to pull in WordPress plugins and themes, you need to point Composer at the wpackagist.org repository. You do this by adding this chunk of config into your composer.json file:

"repositories": [ { "type": "composer", "url": "https://wpackagist.org", "only": [ "wpackagist-plugin/*", "wpackagist-theme/*" ] }
],

We also need to tell Composer where to put plugins and themes. This involves adding a bit more configuration into composer.json:

"extra": { "installer-paths": { "wordpress/wp-content/mu-plugins/{$name}/": [ "type:wordpress-muplugin" ], "wordpress/wp-content/plugins/{$name}/": [ "type:wordpress-plugin" ], "wordpress/wp-content/themes/{$name}/": [ "type:wordpress-theme" ] } }

You may already have an "extra" section in this file, so be sure to add the new config to it.

With that in place, you can now install any plugin or theme from the official repositories using the composer require command, as we did for installing WordPress.

# To install a plugin, use this format: composer require "wpackagist-plugin/:" # To install a theme, use this format:
composer require "wpackagist-theme/:"

Version constraints are complicated, but probably the simplest form to remember is using a * wildcard. To install the free version of our WP Migrate plugin, using version 2.x, you would run:

composer require "wpackagist-plugin/wp-migrate-db:2.*"

If you always wanted your updates to get you the latest version, you could use a * as the version constraint:

composer require "wpackagist-plugin/wp-migrate-db:*"

The first time you run a command like this, you may be asked if you want to “trust “composer/installers” to execute code.” This is safe to do, but be aware that this does let Composer run code on your computer.

If all is well, you should get the plugin installed (but not activated). I would also recommend committing your changes to Git at this point.

Adding Custom or Third-party Plugins and Themes

This is all fine if you want plugins and themes from the repository. But what if you want to add third-party plugins that aren’t on the wordpress.org repository, or your own custom code? The /wordpress directory isn’t in Git, so how do you version control your own things?

Some theme and plugin authors support custom repositories for their plugins. For example, we allow users to install WP Migrate via Composer. But if that doesn’t apply, then the trick here is to selectively unignore specific directories using the .gitignore file.

Let’s say you want to create a custom theme with the name deliciousbrains. This will be in the /wordpress/wp-content/themes/deliciousbrains directory.

Currently, your .gitignore file should look like this:

/vendor
/wordpress

We want to unignore this theme directory. We can do that by putting it at the bottom of the file and preceding it with a !, but there’s a catch: Unignored files need to be in unignored directories.

For example, unignoring /wordpress/wp-content/themes/deliciousbrains doesn’t work because /wordpress/wp-content/themes is still ignored. So we need to be a bit cleverer. I can only apologize for this complexity, but feel free to just copy and paste it into your .gitignore file:

# Exclude composer dependencies in the vendor directory
/vendor # Exclude WordPress core
/wordpress/*
/wordpress/wp-includes/
/wordpress/wp-admin/ # Include wp-content, then exclude each of the subdirectories
!/wordpress/wp-content
/wordpress/wp-content/* ## Themes: include the directory, exclude all subdirectories except those specified
!/wordpress/wp-content/themes/
/wordpress/wp-content/themes/*
!/wordpress/wp-content/themes/deliciousbrains
# Include custom themes here ## Plugins: include the directory, exclude all subdirectories except those specified
!/wordpress/wp-content/plugins/
/wordpress/wp-content/plugins/*
# Include custom plugins here

Some Notes on Using Git in This Way

  • It’s best practice not to store secure information in a Git repo (you should always ignore wp-config.php). This means you’ll have to manually create a wp-config.phpfile on each environment/server that you deploy to.
  • Your /wp-content folder won’t be stored in Git. If you’re deploying or migrating your site, you’ll need to manually migrate anything that is not installed by composer, such as uploads.
  • The database won’t be stored in Git, but don’t worry. WP Migrate has you covered 😉

You’ll also need to commit the changes to your Git repo and re-deploy if you update WordPress locally. Be aware that when using this method WordPress will disable automatic updates, because it will detect a .git folder. This is a good thing. It means there is a one-way deployment of updates to your site, rather than your live site becoming out of sync with your Git repo. Just make sure you’re aware that keeping your site up-to-date is important for security reasons.

Deployments and Updates

If you deploy your Git repository, you will need to run composer install on the server the first time you deploy.

To run updates after that, run composer update locally, test to make sure nothing is broken, and commit the composer.lock file to Git. Then, when you want to deploy to a live site, run composer install on the server after the deployment.

If your composer.json file specifies certain versions, such as “2.*”, you may need to update that to reference updated versions of the dependencies too, before running composer update. Specifying versions helps you keep critical components (such as WooCommerce) from being updated without manual intervention.

There are also services that will handle most of this for you in one of two ways:

  • Running the composer install on a temporary server and then deploying all of the installed files out to your remote server.
  • Allowing you to deploy to the server and then automatically running a post-deploy script to install or update the dependencies.

Next Steps: Moving WordPress

We now have a fully Composer-managed, Git-controlled WordPress install. Hurrah! We are firmly back in control of our software.

We are left, though, with WordPress in the /wordpress directory, which may not be ideal.

Some hosting providers let you specify where to serve files from. Others, including your local development environment, may require that they are in a directory named something like /public or /public_html.

If you want to move your /wordpress directory, you can rename it. But you will need to then:

  1. Add the wordpress-install-dir setting to the extras section of your composer.json.
  2. Make sure you update paths in both your .gitignore file and in your composer.json file.
  3. Run composer update and then thoroughly test everything.

After doing such a move, the extras section of my composer.json looked like this:

 "extra": { "wordpress-install-dir": "public", "installer-paths": { "public/wp-content/mu-plugins/{$name}/": [ "type:wordpress-muplugin" ], "public/wp-content/plugins/{$name}/": [ "type:wordpress-plugin" ], "public/wp-content/themes/{$name}/": [ "type:wordpress-theme" ] } }

Next Steps: Using Git Submodules to Manage Themes and Plugins

Using submodules, it’s possible to set up a Git repo as a subdirectory of another Git repository, allowing you to clone that repo into your project while keeping your commits separate. There’s a good reason to avoid doing this.

It becomes very difficult to make sure the submodules containing your plugins and themes are updated regularly, as you have to do it manually. This will almost certainly slow down your workflow. Even if you’ve got the time, you’ll often find that keeping those submodules updated results in a bloated and unwieldy repo. This can be very tedious to work with, especially if you want to quickly bring new people into your project.

With that said, there are at least two use cases where storing themes and plugins as submodules can really work for you. First, submodules are great if you’re developing plugins in WordPress and need to commit your changes back to your repository. You can’t do that with Composer. The second case is also applicable to plugin development. If you develop a plugin yourself, one that you maintain and reuse across multiple sites, then storing your plugin in a Git submodule can end up saving you a lot of time.

Next Steps: Restructuring WordPress

There are some benefits to having WordPress core files separate from the other parts of your site. Iain covered some of the benefits in his post when he detailed how to install WordPress core in a subdirectory using WP-CLI or Composer.

This is a more advanced topic, so I’m not going to cover it here, but that article is a good first step.

Wrapping Up

It might seem like we’ve done a lot of work but this is where we begin to see the advantage of a setup like this. Now we just need to run composer install to install WordPress or composer update to update WordPress.

All of our team can very easily get the exact, current state of our site’s code. We are storing minimal code in our Git repository, instead relying on defined dependencies to state what should be installed, installing those dependencies on demand, and large deployments can be simplified and easily automated.

I hope you’re able to try this out, see the benefits, and take some, or all, of this workflow and implement it in your own WordPress sites.

Remember that this is not necessarily the “right” way to manage WordPress. It is just one way you can use WordPress, Git and Composer all together. Take the bits that work for you and create your own workflow and ignore the rest, or improve this workflow. It’s up to you. Got any tips or suggestions we didn’t cover? Let us know in the comments.

Source: https://deliciousbrains.com/storing-wordpress-in-git/

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