wordpress multisite raidboxes

What is a WordPress Multisite and When Should I Use One?

Multisites give you the ability to manage multiple WordPress websites in a single installation. Yet it remains one of the most misunderstood features of WordPress. We clear the jungle of the multisite network for you: What is and can a WordPress multisite do and for which projects is it worthwhile? 

Sites in a multisite network are registered as subdomains, subdirectories of the root domain (subdirectory) or with their own domain in a multidomain network. For each of these sites, there can be multiple levels of access. All sites in the network have the same choice of themes and plugins because they are installed globally - but content and look can differ enormously between sites. The themes and plugins are installed globally, but which ones are used on the individual websites can be decided individually.

These features make a WordPress multisite useful in many ways. Nevertheless, there are a lot of cases where a multisite network is not the best solution.

The Multisite function was introduced in 2010 in WordPress version 3.0 and has since become a very common way to manage multiple website installations. Often, the decision for a WordPress multisite setup turns out to be problematic in retrospect - this happens mainly when individual pages have become too individual and are now to be converted into individual websites. But more on that later!

Most important features

  • One WordPress installation for an unlimited number of websites
  • Network admin accounts are at the top of the entire network
  • Website admins can manage individual pages

One or more accounts act as network administrators at the top of the network. As a network admin, you can manage themes and plugins for all websites from one dashboard - that is, install, uninstall or update them. You can also control the content and appearance of all websites. It is also possible to add new websites to the network and assign them a website admin account. Website admins can control the content on their own site and customize the theme. They can also activate or deactivate plugins, but they cannot install themes or plugins.

WordPress Multisite Network Overview
Site for the network administration of a network admin

The WordPress multisite installation basically runs exactly like a single WordPress installation. This makes the process very user-friendly.

Advantages and disadvantages of WordPress multisite

Using a WordPress multisite network has advantages and disadvantages - which means you should carefully consider whether or not it is the right solution for you.

Multisite advantages

  • simple management
  • multiple hierarchical user levels possible
  • a single backup for all websites

A WordPress multisite installation is particularly worthwhile due to the significantly reduced administration effort for plugins and themes. This is because they can be installed or updated for all websites via a single dashboard. Hierarchical user levels are particularly worthwhile for institutions such as educational establishments. But more on that later.

Multisite disadvantages

  • backups for individual websites in a multisite network are very time-consuming
  • some plugins do not support a multisite network
  • more server power needed
  • website security risks are a risk for all websites
  • website admin has no FTP access

When setting up a WordPress multisite network, you must make sure that the plugins you want to use support multisite, otherwise the advantage of time savings and simplicity will be nullified. The server power required due to the higher traffic quickly leads to performance problems, especially with shared hosting. If there is unauthorized access on one website, all websites on the network are at risk. The lack of FTP access for website admins means in plain language that they cannot edit the website's code.

You may have noticed at this point that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Don't get that wrong, as this only means that WordPress multisite requires a targeted use, because these disadvantages can be avoided or are not even relevant for some applications. All in all, it is now clear that there are some particularly worthwhile applications, which will be presented in more detail in the chapter "Decision support". 

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What are the requirements for WordPress multisite?

Although it is a widely supported feature of WordPress, there are two basic requirements for installing a WordPress multisite network. 

  • existing WordPress installation
  • web host supports a multisite installation

When choosing hosting, shared hosting is usually the cheapest option, but for WordPress multisite this is not a good option. With a shared server, the server's resources are naturally shared. Therefore, it is unlikely that a shared server can handle the traffic for multiple sites on your network. Therefore, a dedicated server or a virtual private server is recommended for multisite use. 

If your web host does not set up a multisite installation for you, you will also need a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) programme. Popular FTP programs are FileZilla or the FTP extension for Visual Studio Code. This allows you to edit, upload or download files on a server. No code needs to be written to install WordPress multisite, just copy a few small snippets into some files on the server. Detailed instructions would go beyond the scope at this point. If you're interested, check out this guide.

WordPress domain mapping

You now know what a WordPress multisite network is, when you can use it and what it takes to install it. Let's now look at how the sites relate to the original WordPress installation and what impact this can have.

Before you add your first website, you must select a type of network. The multisite types cannot be combined and changing the type later will be time-consuming. You have three options to set up the network:

  1. as subdomain
  2. as a subdirectory
  3. as multidomain 

The URL shows which system has been chosen. An example of a subdomain would be store.brand.com and a subdirectory would be brand.com/store. In this way, the URLs of the individual websites can be managed intuitively. But if there are more than a handful of subdomains or subdirectories, it can be difficult to come up with a user-friendly name for each one.

With WordPress Domain Mapping you can avoid this problem. Since version 4.5, WordPress domain mapping is a built-in function in WordPress. It allows you to use custom domains as a substitute for the URL of the subdomain or subdirectory. 

Companies with international reach can change their subdomains or subdirectories to different top level domains depending on the country or region. For example, Britain.brand.com could be changed to brand.co.uk, or brand.com/de/ to brand.de.

WordPress domain mapping

Note: For WordPress domain mapping, you must also have access to the domain you are mapping.

At this point we should mention SSL (Secure Socket Layer) certificates. This is a method to secure your website by encrypting data. 

Some web hosts, including Raidboxes, even offer free SSL certificates that you can activate with one click. However, a standard certificate is only valid for one domain. All sub-directories of a domain are covered by the SSL certificate of this domain, but a sub-domain requires a different type of certificate - here you need a so-called wildcard SSL certificate.

In a multisite network, it is in the nature of things that the websites are all interconnected and therefore all require SSL encryption. As with most networks, if the security of one element is breached, all elements of the network are compromised. Therefore, for security reasons, it is important that the entire network is covered by the correct SSL certificate.

Set up multisite network at Raidboxes

You can set up your multisite network at Raidboxes by creating a new box and using the option "Create Multisite". Select the type of network and configure the rest. The main page of the network is then created and the network admin account is created. 

WordPress Multisite Raidboxes
Create WordPress Multisite at Raidboxes

In contrast to the normal installation, all configurations for the multisite setup at Raidboxes are made in the box settings. As already mentioned, multisite networks are mostly managed centrally via the WordPress Multisite dashboard or via the box of the entire network. Therefore, for technical reasons, the following functions will not be possible (for the time being):

  • updates of any kind for individual websites of a multisite network
  • assign a second domain to a subdirectory or subdomain box
  • security headers for individual websites of the network
  • URL redirects for individual websites of the network

These limitations are in the nature of a multisite network and are therefore difficult to enable. Features that can be implemented and are still planned in relation to WordPress multisite:

  • staging
  • creating templates and creating a new box from a template
  • customize Cronjob overview and settings for subpages (currently only possible for an entire WordPress multisite network)

Migrate WordPress Multisite to Raidboxes

The WordPress experts from our partner Codeable will take care of the entire process of moving your multisite network in cooperation with us. We explain how to move your multisite to Raidboxes. in this Helpcenter article.

Configuration and settings

Once you have installed a WordPress multisite, you will see the dashboard of your original website. At the top there is a new option called "My Sites". Hover over it to open two menus. Follow "Network Management" and click on the "Dashboard" option. 

Wordpress Multisite Menu

From here, navigate to "Settings" and first check that your admin email address and main page title are still correct. Then there are several options to configure. These are mostly self-explanatory, but I'll briefly cover the registration settings items here, as they can easily be misunderstood.

Under "Forbidden names" you can restrict the registration of websites with specific words - for example, if you enter the keyword "admin" in the field, the website admin.domain.com cannot be registered. This feature can be useful in a larger network where websites with custom names can be registered to prevent the use of unwanted names.

Wordpress Multisite Settings

The option to limit email registration is also useful. With this function you can define a specific e-mail domain from which new websites can be set up. This is particularly useful if you want to limit registration to an internal email address.

Themes and plugins

You can also find these settings under the network administration. Themes and plugins can be made available network-wide. The website admins can then activate or deactivate them for their websites.

It is possible to change the default theme that is used to add a new website. To do this, add the following code to the wp-config.php file and replace "new-theme" with the (folder) name of the theme you want to set as default.

// Standard Theme für neue Websites festlegen
define( 'WP_DEFAULT_THEME', 'new-theme');

wp-config.php

Since the wp-config.php at Raidboxes is read-only for security reasons, you can make this change directly from your Raidboxes dashboard, at Settings - WordPress - wp.config.php.

Adding a new website

To add a new website to the network, go to "My Websites - Network Management - Websites". Click on "Add New" and you will be led to a site with self-explanatory options to add a new website to the network.

Wordpress Multisite Add New Site

SSH and WP-CLI

By the way, as with a single site, you can also use SSH and WP CLI with WordPress multisite to manage your pages. This works exactly as with a single site, but the "-url=subsite.example.com" parameter must be specified.

A little help in deciding

As already mentioned above, there are very specific cases in which a WordPress multisite installation really makes sense and the advantages of multisites come into play to a particular degree. These include, among others, the following cases:

Multilingualism

For the use case of multilingualism, a multisite of the type "subdirectory" is common, since the contents are the same and only the languages differ.

Example:

  • Main page: mysite.com
  • Subpage: mysite.com/en
  • Subpage: mysite.com/fr
  • Subpage: mysite.com/es

Internationalization

It would be easy to internationalize through multidomain, but in contrast to multilingualism, the content would be different:

  • Main page: English site: mysite.com
  • Subpage: German site: meineseite.de
  • Subpage: Spanish site: misitio.es
  • Underside: Dutch: sitemijnpagina.nl

Subpages for different products

If your company sells different products, a subdomain multisite can be the right solution. For example, if your company offers several different, larger products that stand alone. This is more often the case for software development companies, for example. 

  • Main page: mycompany.com
  • Product page: myproduct.mycompany.com
  • More product page: myotherproduct.mycompany.com
  • Another product page: mynewestproduct.mycompany.com

If you want to set up an online shop with seasonal goods (Christmas trees in winter/fruit trees in summer), a multisite could also give you many advantages, for example, by setting up several domains for the respective seasonal products, but the merchandise management system remains the same.

Educational institutions

An excellent application for WordPress multisite are companies or institutions such as schools or universities, which set up separate subpages for products, departments, sites or divisions. The departmental staff can explicitly manage their subpage, but nothing else, and the global experience across the entire site remains consistent for the visitors.

In general, a multisite is suitable if some common resources are used and the individual users want to work independently in their field of activity. For this reason, many large organizations (such as universities and colleges) use multisites. The advantage is that each department or faculty can maintain its own website or internal blog with multiple contributors, while one team manages the entire network of websites. One such example of a multisite is the University of British Columbia's blog.

Real examples

A prime example of a multisite is WordPress.com itself - with many millions of sub-pages! How time-consuming and expensive it would be to manage and maintain them individually. 

Another example of the use of a multisite is the gigantic network of BBC America: the same parent theme is used for all network pages, but each individual sub-directory has its own child theme.

Still unsure? 

If you are unsure whether WordPress multisite is right for you, just answer the following questions:

  • Are you sure you'll always need the same themes and plugins?
  • Do you only need one IP address?
  • Do you have about the same load on all websites?
  • Is the administrative effort of the individual websites small?
  • Is it OK if every account with FTP access on one website also has FTP access to the other websites?

If you can confirm all these questions, then WordPress multisite is right for you and will save you a lot of work. If you have to say no to even one of these questions, sooner or later it will make you work more than you would have with individual WordPress installations - or even become a security risk.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this guide has given you a good overview of the pros and cons and how to use a WordPress multisite installation wisely. The user-friendly dashboard and intuitive options make it an excellent choice for some applications. However, coupling websites together also limits certain uses. WordPress multisite is most worthwhile for multilingual but otherwise exactly the same websites. If you have any further questions about this feature, feel free to contact the Raidboxes support team via live chat.

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2 Comments on "What is a WordPress Multisite and when should you use it?"

  1. I have a question regarding upgrading multisite themes. I’m working on a multisite network and will be designing themes for the network sites to utilise. How can I keep those themes up to date if things change?

  2. Hallo Philipp, das ist tatsächlich von der Lizenz abhängig. Im allgemeinen Fall gilt „eine Plugin-Lizenz für eine WordPress Installation“, in diesem Fall würde eine Lizenz natürlich die gesamte Multisite abdecken – weil alle Unterseiten in einer einzelnen WordPress Installation stecken.

    Aber das ist leider nicht bei allen Plugins der Fall, deshalb solltest du auf die Lizenzen achten und jedes Plugin einzeln darauf prüfen.

    Viele Grüße
    Patrick

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