How can I recover my WordPress site from an old backup?

“Rust in Peace,” photo by Flickr user Tom Driggers under a Creative Commons license

On the r/Wordpress subreddit someone asked

Help needed. I need to install an old backup
I have a jetbackup file from 2017 that I took from my old site. I was trying to bring it back up. I built [a test server on Amazon.] I can start the restore but I get a lot of errors. I was able to fix a few by fixing old syntax issues. I don’t think this is the best way. What do the experts here suggest?

User sghokie on Reddit

There are all sorts of reasons to restore an old version of WordPress from a backup. Historical, curiosity, nostalgia, recovery after disaster, even legal reasons. The good news is that WordPress core developers historically bent over backwards to preserve compatibility. But over time server, programming language, and general technology advances to a point where you can’t just run a restore script.

Here’s my somewhat edited answer to their specific question but it can be generalized to most older versions that don’t simply restore themselves.

Versions of WordPress from 2017 may not be compatible with modern versions of PHP. If you can dial PHP back to version 5.6 on your existing server then try that first. That version was most common in 2017 and so WordPress and all your plugins (including your backup/restore plugin) should work with that.

Otherwise you might try downloading Local by Flywheel, the desktop server app, from LocalWP.com. That’s quite configurable and, since it runs on your desktop, you can access the file system, access the database (with the Adminer database admin console anyway), run debuggers, etc. You might be able to piece things together that way.

If you’re trying to do a restore with the Jet (Jetpack?) plugin, you might try downloading WordPress 4.7 (released in 2017) and a 2017 version of Jetpack. (Version 4.9 or 5.0 were released in 2017.) Spin those up on your server. Then try your import again.

Then, you’ll want/need to inch your way forward. First, bump your version of PHP forward to the highest mark you can without throwing errors. Then, try updating WordPress core, then theme and plugins, etc.

There’s a very good chance your theme won’t be compatible with newer versions of PHP. Same for some plugins. Others will have simply disappeared. You may find you need to manually install newer versions if you can find them, or move or delete them from the your site’s theme or plugins folders.

Bottom line I’ve managed it for clients in the past. You just have to approach it like an old piece of furniture or art that needs to be restored. If you’re trying to do it yourself and find yourself running out of gas you can always contact us for a phone or Zoom call. We’ve got a lot of experience fixing older or broken websites and we’d love to help with yours.

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David Innes, RealBasics.com

I've been building and maintaining websites since 1997 and building and supporting similar hypertext-driven software since 1987. I've done maintenance, support, and maintenance for physical and digital systems since 1981. And no, I still haven't seen it all but by now I usually know where to look. More about David Innes...