What is WordPress Multisite Explained

Experienced developers, theme and plugin authors often talk about WordPress Multisite. Yet, if you are a novice WordPress user, you may wonder what is WordPress Multisite, should I use it, or how it is different from a regular WordPress website. WordPress Multisite is not a rocket science, it just needs a few minutes of your time to be explained.

In this article, we will cover following topics related to WordPress Multisite:

  • What is WordPress Multisite;
  • When to use WordPress Multisite;
  • How to setup Multisite network;
  • How to manage your Multisite network.

What is WordPress Multisite

As the name suggests, it is a network of multiple WordPress sites. The trick is that you will need to install WordPress only once to have multiple WordPress sites on one server. The same principle applies to WordPress themes and plugins which you will need to install on, so called, ‘main site’. After, themes and plugins will be automatically replicated to all of the copies of your Multisite network. In other words, it is a like having a site with an unlimited number of subsites.

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What is the main site?

The main site is a root WordPress site that will be created together with your initial WordPress Multisite installation. Consider the main site as a headquarter from where you will control all the minor sites within your Multisite network. Make global adjustments to configuration, plugins, and themes, and see all changes happen across a whole Multisite network.

The good news that creating the main site is not very different from a regular WordPress site. This means that whole Multisite network installation is very similar to regular installation with few details, but we will get to this later.

Another important part of the main site is the ability to create and control minor sites (sometimes called ‘virtual sites’) within your Multisite network. Thanks to the WordPress these options are available straight from the WordPress Admin panel once you are a Super Admin.

Regular site vs Multisite network

There are few things from the technical perspective that are different in Multisite in comparison to a regular WordPress site.
The first one is that wp-config.php file (configuration file of WordPress instance) will contain few extra lines.

The second is a wp-upload folder that will have several subfolders to store files separately for each of the sites within a Multisite network. Each of the subfolders will be linked to the site with unique ID.

And the last, but not least, is a database which will be slightly bigger as you will have several sites within your network. You don’t have to worry about this one much as it will be handled automatically.

Now as you know what is WordPress Multisite it is a good idea to look into examples on when to use and when to avoid it.

When to use WordPress Multisite

Everyone can have reasons or specific cases for sticking to the WordPress Multisite. Still, it is possible to distinguish common patterns for the most popular cases as follows:

  • A network of websites or blogs for the company;
  • A network of websites managed by agency or developer;
  • A SaaS (software as a service) that requires site network for distribution.

Ok, now let’s look into these categories to find some exciting examples.

A network of websites and blogs is surely something an enterprise can look into. Companies like BBC America, Reuters and The New York Times are running multiple blogs related to different industries and purpose. Managing every blog separately would be an additional headache as they all share some common general patterns. This is why these companies rely on WordPress Multisite that allows them to quickly manage all of the blogs from one place or quickly set up another blog.

BBC America blog with WordPress Multisite network
BBC America uses WordPress Multisite network to manage blogs.

If you are a freelance developer or an agency that offers full-service WordPress website development, you can too benefit from the WordPress Multisite. We all know that developers use a common base for most of their projects, including WordPress configuration and starter theme. Having a Multisite network allows you, as an agency, quickly create a new instance for your customers and start development process right away.

Software as a service or SaaS is one of the most important reasons why WordPress Multisite really exists. In fact, Automattic did a great job to develop and ‘giveaway’ WordPress Multisite technology once they decided to launch WordPress.com. Yes, WordPress.com is using WordPress Multisite network to host all the websites of their customers. The biggest advantage here is that they are able to instantly deliver changes to all of their customers without configuring every instance separately.

To summarize, WordPress Multisite is technology for advanced cases and specific solutions related to the mass production or management. Which leads us to the second part of the section …

When not to use WordPress Multisite

At the same time, it is not always a good idea to use WordPress Multisite. In fact, it is way more often when you should avoid using WordPress Multisite network. Below you will find few simple cases when regular WordPress site is a way better option.

  • You are creating a website with custom configuration for specific client and it will be single site only;
  • You will host each site separately (either for one or several clients);
  • You have security standards that restrict Multisite network;
  • Sites will need their own specific themes or plugins;
  • Your hosting does not offer necessary requirements for a Multisite network.

As you can see, most of the restrictions are associated with custom solutions for one site. I guess, that with this idea in mind, you can come up with a lot more cases when WordPress Multisite is not a good idea. Choose wisely!

How to setup Multisite network

You already know what is WordPress Multisite, you know when to use it and when to avoid it. Now, it is about time to learn (or refresh your memory) on how to setup your Multisite network. First, you need to understand either you want to use subdomains or directories. If you are setting up a Multisite network for existing site, you will be forced to use subdomains.
How to Install WordPress Multisite

The very first thing to do is to install WordPress in a normal way – means just follow the famous WordPress 5 minutes install process to install it on your server;

  1. Open a wp-config.php file and allocate very last line:
    /* That’s all, stop editing! Happy blogging. */
  2. Just above this line, add following code:
    define( ‘WP_ALLOW_MULTISITE’, true );
  3. Don’t forget to save your wp-config.php file;
  4. Open WordPress admin panel to install a Multisite network. Go to Tools – Network Setup and select either to use subdomains or directories;
  5. Select a title and e-mail address for your network (or leave them as default);
  6. Click Install button;

You are now in the final step of the setup where you are asked to modify wp-config.php and .htaccess files. WordPress Multisite installation screen will provide you the exact code and places where you will need to make changes.

WordPress Multisite installation process
Installation process of WordPress Multisite network.

Congratulations! You have successfully setup your WordPress Multisite. Now, you can manage the Multisite network by adding sites, themes and plugins.

How to manage your Multisite network

What does it mean to manage a WordPress Multisite? In fact, there are few things that we can manage:

  • Site management;
  • Theme management;
  • Plugin management;
  • Updates.

Site management in a WordPress Multisite

Creating a website in a Multisite network is a manual process unless you automate it with a plugin that allows users to create a website on their own (handy for SaaS services). The manual process is really easy with few following steps to complete:

  1. Navigate to My Sites – Network Admin – Sites;
  2. Select Add New to open form;
  3. Specify site address, title, language and site administrator e-mail address;
  4. A new site will be created and you can see it in Sites – All Sites.
WordPress Multisite Admin Dashboard
An administrational dashboard of WordPress Multisite.

Theme management in a WordPress Multisite

The first thing to know, only Multisite network super admin can install WordPress themes and make them available for the minor sites. The good thing is that you (as a super admin) can either allow theme for all websites or specific websites within your Multisite network. Note that themes can be enabled for a Multisite network only if they are network enabled. To add theme take the following steps:

  1. Navigate to root site Network admin and select Themes – Add New;
  2. Select theme you want to install and proceed with the installation;
  3. On the Installation screen make sure to select Network enable.

If you did not enable network for theme upon install, you can do it under Themes section by opening theme and clicking Network enable.

As mentioned above, you can also install a theme for the specific site within your Multisite network. For example, you have a specific requirement from your client. To do so, follow these steps:

  1. In the Network admin section select Sites;
  2. Locate the site that requires a theme and click Edit;
  3. Navigate to Themes tab and locate the theme you want to enable;
  4. Click Enable.

That’s it! Now you know how to easily manage themes in your Multisite network for all or specific sites. Let’s proceed with a plugin management …

Plugin management in a WordPress Multisite

Plugin management, to some extent, is not very different from theme management so here are the steps to install a plugin for a Multisite network:

  1. Navigate to root site Network admin and select Plugins – Add New;
  2. Select plugins you want to install and proceed with the installation;
  3. On the Installation screen make sure to select Network activate.

And that’s it, meaning your plugin will now work for all sites in your Multisite network. But what if you want to have a plugin for a specific site within your Multisite network? Then you have to take a bit different part (just like with theme):

  1. Navigate to root site Network admin and select Plugins – Add New;
  2. Select plugins you want to install and proceed with the installation;
  3. On the Installation screen make sure to select Return to Plugin Installer;
  4. Go to the Sites and locate the site you want to edit;
  5. In the site admin panel go to Plugins section and click Activate for the plugin you want to use.

As you can see, managing themes and plugins is not very different process with just a few minor differences. Also, it is not a rocket science to manage themes and plugins for a Multisite network if you are familiar with how the process works for regular WordPress site.

Updates in a WordPress Multisite

In fact, the update process for a Multisite network is the same as for any regular WordPress with just a few extra clicks. The good thing is that WordPress will guide you through this process as smooth as possible. So first you will install updates to your WordPress, and then you will take extra steps to push these updates to all the minor sites of your Multisite network.

Conclusions

Most of the WordPress users will not benefit from Multisite network directly or unless they use services based on WordPress Multisite technology. At the same time, enterprise level companies and service providers can use advantage of the WordPress Multisite to quickly set and manage their network of blogs or managed products.

What has been your experience with the Multisite network or products that rely on this technology?