You may have noticed that Joe recently published an interview with a successful WordPress multisite user as part of a planned ongoing series. If you did, you may be wondering what on earth multisite actually is.
It’s not an unreasonable question – you could happily use WordPress for many months, or even years, without exploring the possibilities that multisite offers.
So if you are a total multisite newbie, consider this your initiation.
In a Nutshell
Multisite allows you to manage several blogs under the “umbrella” of one WordPress installation. Each site is installed as a subdomain of the parent site (i.e. sub-site.yourdomain.com). However, you can use domain mapping to give each site its own unique domain name (i.e. www.sub-site.com).
As the owner of a multisite network, you have access to and control of every single site in the network from one WordPress dashboard. Sub-users are granted control of their specific sites. To them, the rest of the network is effectively invisible.
It is completely free to use and open source. It is actually available on any WordPress installation (post 3.0) – it is just turned off by default.
Multisite (and its predecessor) was developed with a particular website network “model” in mind, the best example of which is WordPress.com. For those of you who don’t know, WordPress.com is in fact built upon the multisite platform – just scaled up massively. It is perhaps the best example of what is possible – a network of literally millions of blogs, all running off one WordPress installation.
So multisite is perfect for creating a community of related blogs, or providing your own custom hosting service. Another excellent example of an effective multisite setup is edublogs.org - a service that provides a tailored solution for academic institutions.
Multisite can also be used to create a network of unrelated sites that you can manage through one dashboard. All of the sites share the same WordPress installation, themes and plugins. What this means is that updating a theme or plugin across all sites on a multisite network is a one click affair, as opposed to having to access each site individually to upgrade.
You also have extended functionality – such as being able to post out to all blogs on a multisite network (by using this plugin).
Is It For You?
Many people use multisite to manage a group of unrelated websites, but it wasn’t designed with this primarily in mind. The core functionality was constructed on the assumption that you would be running a network of sites, like the real-life examples mentioned above.
When using multisite for unrelated websites, you must bear in mind the fact that there is no true separation. This can be problematic under various circumstances. For example, you could have a client who has specific upgrade requirements, or who wants to port their website onto alternative hosting. Both scenarios would raise major issues in a multisite environment.
However, as far as I am aware, it is the only viable free solution for creating a network of WordPress websites.
Is There An Alternative?
When it comes to setting up your own network of related sites in the style of WordPress.com, there is no worthy alternative – multisite is king. But the same can not be said if you are looking for a tool that allows you to easily manage multiple unrelated WordPress sites.
The market leader on that front is ManageWP – a tool that allows you to manage completely separate WordPress installations from one centralized dashboard. It also comes packed with a whole load of other features that can help you to effectively manage a group of websites.
Whilst ManageWP offers a limited free version of its tool, you will have to pay for full functionality.
Even if you choose not to use it (or have no reason to use it), you have got to love multisite. It is a free solution to managing multiple websites, even if it is often implemented in a round peg to square hole manner.
If you are looking to set up the next WordPress.com, you have just found your new best friend. If you are looking to manage multiple separates, it is a solution. But perhaps not the solution.
If you are interested in exploring the potential of multisite further, the best place to start (in our humble opinion) is WPMU DEV’s multisite manual. The rest is down to you!
Creative Commons photo courtesy of Nina Matthews Photography