How to build WordPress sites, test themes and plugins, and learn web development on your PC or Mac. Install WordPress on the computer instead of using a live site on the web. It’s safer.
If you have a website and want a new theme or plugin, it is easy enough to install, but it can be a bad experience for site visitors as you fiddle around with the plugin or theme configuration. It might take a couple of hours to customize everything and visitors may see layout, design and functionality problems while you are working on the site.
Sometimes you try a new theme or plugin and it does not do what you want. You then have to set about removing it and undoing all the changes you made. If this is done on a live website, it can be a bad experience for visitors. They don’t want to see a site under construction.
Working on live sites should be avoided or at least minimized.
One way to do this is to run WordPress on your computer. You can test themes and plugins, get to know them, try setting them up and customizing them. Familiarising yourself with a theme or plugin, or testing code like HTML, CSS or PHP functions on a test site rather than a real live site is essential.
I have already looked at running WordPress on your computer using DevKinsta, Local and DesktopServer. Here I look at using VirtualBox and Bitnami WordPress Stack, both of which are free. VirtualBox is an app that enables you to run alternative operating systems in a window on the desktop and it runs on Windows PC, Apple Mac and Linux. It is used here to run Linux, which in turn runs WordPress.
It may sound complicated, but it is really quite straightforward and you can get it up and running with little technical knowledge. You just have to download an app and a file and import the file into the app.
1 Download Bitnami WordPress
- Go to https://bitnami.com/stack/wordpress/virtual-machine
- Click Download .OVA format
- Sign in to the site, it is free
- Save the file to disk
The latest version of WordPress is always provided, but once it is up and running on your computer, it can be updated like a WordPress site on the web. You need to sign in to download the file, but it is free. I used the Google sign-in, Facebook didn’t seem to work. It is a big file that is around 500 MB, so it could take a few minutes.
2 Download VirtualBox
- Go to https://www.virtualbox.org/wiki/Downloads
- Click Windows hosts if you have a PC or OS X hosts if you have a Mac
- Save the file to disk
Most people probably have a Windows PC or Apple Mac, but there is also a version for Linux computers too. All are suitable and capable of running WordPress in a virtual machine.
3 Install VirtualBox
Installing VirtualBox is no different to installing any other app on a PC or Mac. Just remember to copy the uninstaller tool on the Mac, just in case you ever want to remove it.
4 Install the extension pack
The extension pack adds essential functions to VirtualBox and must be installed afterwards. You will probably find that it is automatically installed when VirtualBox is run for the first time, but if it does not auto-install, download the extension pack from the VirtualBox downloads page, then go to Preferences > Extensions and click the Add button on the right. Select the file and add it.
5 Import an appliance
Import an appliance? That is not a very descriptive menu option, but it is the one used to add virtual machines to VirtualBox, like the one you downloaded from Bitnami. You can also export appliances, which can be used to move a virtual machine, like WordPress, from one computer to another computer.
6 Import Bitnami WordPress
- Select File > Import appliance
- Click the folder button
- Select the file downloaded from Bitnami
- Click Import
Adding Bitnami WordPress to VirtualBox is easy and you just need to select the file you downloaded. Details of the virtual machine are shown in the Settings box. You do not need to concern yourself with anything here and everything is already configured. It just works.
7 Start WordPress
After a minute or two, bitnami-wordpress appears in the sidebar in VirtualBox. Just click the Start button to run WordPress on your computer.
They are not needed right now, but the Take and Clone buttons in the toolbar are very useful. Take creates a snapshot of the current state of the WordPress site. This is very useful and if you make a mess of the site, you can simply select a snapshot to put everything back as it was when the snapshot was created. If you want to install a theme or plugin, test some code and so on, click Take and save a snapshot.
Snapshots are quick and easy to create and use little disk space. Clone makes an exact copy of the 500 MB or so of files making up the virtual machine. You probably won’t need to use Clone, use Snapshot instead.
8 See WordPress site details
A new window on the desktop opens when the Bitnami WordPress virtual machine is started. This is very important because the yellow text in the center has the website address. I looks something like this, http://192.168.1.140, which is kind of weird, but it works when it is entered into a web browser.
It also tells you the admin username and password to log in to the WordPress site. No-one on the internet can access the website, only you on your computer.
9 View and manage the site
Here is the website up and running. It is a brand new site with only a default theme and a single post. It is up to you to add content, themes and plugins.
Just add /login to the site URL, such as http://192.168.1.140/login and then enter the default admin username and password to get into the admin interface.
When you want to stop the website, just close that text window in step 8. At this point there is nothing in the site, but once you start adding themes, plugins and content, create snapshots before doing anything risky so you can easily undo changes in VirtualBox.
The site can be used for learning and testing, before you do anything on a live site. That way you know what you are doing and can minimize downtime. Suppose you build a complete website using VirtualBox and Bitnami WordPress? The way to get it online would be to use one of the site backup and move plugins, like Duplicator or All-in-One WP Migration. That second one was automatically included last time I tried Bitnami WordPress.