Understanding WordPress Multisite, a conceptual introduction

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I was honored to be invited to WordCamp Detroit this year to give a presentation on WordPress Multisite. The attendees were an interesting mix of beginners and advanced users, so I took the chance to hopefully encourage those who are close to trying Multisite out, and to give some useful tips to those working with it right now.

What is WordPress Multisite?

Assuming you’re completely up to date with your WordPress installation—and nobody here would ever fall behind in their upgrades, right?—then Multisite is already a part of your WordPress site. It just isn’t turned on.

Whereas by default WordPress gives you one site or blog to run with, turning on Multisite allows you to launch additional sites off of your main blog. So while a normal WordPress site URL structure might look like this:

www.yoursitename.com

a Multisite’s additional sites’ URLs will look like this:

subblog.yoursitename.com

So, who cares?

There are a number of ways using Multisite can help you. Depending on your situation you could :

  • Save time by running many sites as one. Among other things, install and upgrade WordPress, themes, and Plugins only once.
  • Offer a blog to each of your visitors. It might not work in every community, but for the right groups it can be a nice complement to your site.
  • Manage your client’s site, and control just what they have access to.

Examples of Multisite

If it helps, have a look at some prominent examples of Multisite in action:

You can see other examples of Multisite at the WordPress Showcase.

Where Multisite came from

Multisite wasn’t always exactly what it is today. And since you can’t really understand something without knowing where it came from, let’s briefly look at its history.

There used to be two projects, WordPress and WordPressμ. The μ version is what enabled the network capabilities that we know as Multisite today. The problem was, μ stood as a separate software project from WordPress. WordPressμ shared most of WordPress’ codebase, but was always updated later, keeping it always a version or two behind WordPress proper.

Needless to say, this was less than ideal.

Then, in March of 2010 “the merge” was completed, rolling μ functionality into WordPress 3.0. And the world got a little bit better for everyone.

Use Multisite today

We’re not going to jump into how to set up Multisite, since this is more of an introduction than it is a tutorial or walkthrough. But to give you an idea of what you can do with it when you start, check out a couple of these Plugins:

Learn more from other, smarter people

I like to joke that any conversation or presentation about Multisite is just a roundabout way of linking back to something that Ron or Andrea Rennick have done. These two have spent an awful lot of time learning everything there is to know about Multisite and WordPress networking.

So I have a few sites you can reference here, but most of them will be theirs.

My slides

As any decent slides go, mine aren’t very useful without the accompanying presentation. That said, the video of the presentation should be coming along soon, and I’ll add it when I can.

Your turn to share

I find that there are usually misgivings or questions that people have about Multisite that hold them back from really trying it out. What’s been stopping you from giving it a shot?

If you have used Multisite before, why don’t you jump over to our discussion post on it and tell us about your experience.

If you’ve been convinced to try multisite, take the plunge with our tutorial showing you how to enable it on your WordPress 3.0+ installation.

21 thoughts on “Understanding WordPress Multisite, a conceptual introduction

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  4. I’ve been working on building a WordPress Multisite installation for these exact reasons. Currently I have WPMS powering three unique websites: Labs.openviewpartners.com, Blog.openviewpartners.com & Openviewpartners.com. All 3 are contributed to by over 40 different users, each with a single sign-on user account. Various resources are shared throughout the 3 sites, but each has it’s own design with a unique version of the OpenView brand. Multisite was tough to setup initially, but having all 3 sites on a single platform is invaluable. Sharing content, resources and writing plugins to allow each site to inter-relate is incredibly powerful, we’ve only just begun to scratch the service of what is going to be possible.

  5. Ryan,
    Great post on WP MS!
    I have a question on how it can be used. I have about 50 WP clients that have mostly the same type of setup and most are using Woo Themes. I install all the plugins and keep the sites up. All they do is update content.

    But then I have clients who FTP to their sites, update the theme code, add plug-ins and are are always tweaking the site. So My question is, is WPMS good for clients that need more access to the code in the themes or should I set them up with their own hosting account and cPanel access?

    Thanks for the insight!
    Rick

  6. There are a couple projects I am looking at using multisite for. One I know will work perfectly. The other I am not so sure. Questions:
    1) Can you have a homepage that connects them all for the user?
    2) Can you NOT connect them all for the user if desired? For example can you use multisite with several distinct sites (mysite1.com, mysite2.com, mysite3.com) etc., and replicate the plugins and keep one single log-in?

    Thanks!

  7. I foresee two major issues with multisite, but perhaps I’m misreading it.

    The first is that, like buying an All-In-One printer/fax/scanner, when anything goes down, it ALL goes down.

    The second, and I know I was/am confused about this is the memory consumption/requirement and speed. I would think that as a site grows, it becomes a resource drain and slows down. So if you combine a few sites into a single multisite, you are undoubtedly going to increase the speed at which you decrease the speed. So 10 sites might run smoothly in shared hosting, while 10 sites hooked together in a multisite would likely not be compatible with shared hosting.

    So aside from being too lazy to update each site, other than the a common login (a huge plus) I don’t really see the benefit of multisite.

  8. Hi I am really interested in using multisite to develop my clients websites on my server. Is it easy to develop several sites using multisite and then transfer just one of the sites to a clients server when development is complete?

    Thanks for the info,
    -Lindsey

    • This is precisely why I came to read this article! Too bad no one chimed in. :( I guess I’ll just have to try and see how it turns out.

  9. does multisite allows same login detailsthrough those various subdomains? eg. i have this username and password which is working in subblog1.yoursitename.com, would it work in subblog2.yoursitename.com? thanks.

  10. Would multisite be appropriate if I had about 4 dozen domains that I want to get up online, and each domain has similar, but not quite exactly the same content? I have a main commercial website and want to launch a bunch of satellite websites that contain information and point back to my main website.

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