How to Create a Network of WordPress Multisite Networks

Multisite is great and all, but if you really want to take WordPress to a whole ‘nother level installing a Multi-Network – or a network of networks – is what you want to do.

It’s a mind-blowing concept as speaker John James Jacoby described at WordCamp Chicago in 2014. In the video description, he also explained that the WordPress multi-network feature is what most people actually want instead of Multisite, but it’s also not well-known.

It’s easy to see why when you explore just how beneficial this setup can be to your workflow and how much time you can save.

It’s something almost everyone needs, from freelancers and bloggers to multi-national corporations. That’s why we’ll cover exactly what a multi-network is in this post, as well as the pros and cons of creating one and how you can easily set one up and maintain it with a free, easy-to-use and well-maintained plugin for Multisite.

What Exactly is a Multi-Network, Anyway?

Most people already know about WordPress Multisite and how it works. You can turn on the Multisite feature on a single installation of WordPress in order to create a network that houses as many blogs or sites as you want – or at least what your server can handle.

If you would like more information about Multisite and how to set one up, check out one of our other posts called The Ultimate Guide to WordPress Multisite.

A multi-network, on the other hand, works in about the same way, but instead of housing single WordPress sites it houses Multisites. Basically, you can create a network of networks.

Each Multisite that’s created in a multi-network shares the same database.

Tables for a multi-network in phpMyAdmin
Your database looks the same for a multi-network as it does for a Multisite.

Each blog within a Multisite, including the main site, is displayed in the database as separate tables. For example, wp_#_terms where # is the site ID.

You can also map any domain you own to a new Multisite you create within the multi-network. Each Multisite can also create sites with either a sub-domain or sub-directory URL path.

What you may find surprising, however, is that this feature is already built into the WordPress core. The only catch is its UI is hidden.

Unfortunately, you aren’t able to see the option to create a multi-network in your super admin dashboard, which is a bummer, but with the help of the WP Multi Network plugin, you can expose this UI in just a few clicks.

But before we get into the installation process, it’s important to know what the pros and cons are of setting up a multi-network. This way, you can decide if it fits your needs.

Why Would You Want this Kind of Setup?

There are many possibilities when it comes to creating a multi-network. In fact, it’s quite similar to the uses of Multisite.

The main benefits of a multi-network include:

  • Complete control and organization of all Multisite installs you run.
  • You won’t have to remember each site you run along with their login credentials since they can all be under one umbrella.
  • You can keep all your client sites together to access them quickly and easily.
  • Apply core, plugin and theme updates, as well as code changes, just once instead of tens or even hundreds of times for each site you manage.
  • Hardening of your network’s security can be done only once and is applied to all of your Multisite network, rather than needing to secure multiple locations.
  • If you have many related Multisite networks, placing them under one network can be useful for organization and can help give your sites a cohesive look.
  • You can give access to people for certain Multisites they run while keeping other sites in the network inaccessible to them. This is particularly helpful if you have clients all wanting their own Multisite.

Risks and Drawbacks of a Multi-Network

Unfortunately, it’s not all rainbows and joy balloons. Multi-networks also have similar downsides to Multisite networks. The cons, unfortunately, aren’t much different to the pros.

Here are the main drawbacks you need to consider:

  • Having all your Multisites under one network means that hackers only need to access your multi-network account to wreck all your sites.
  • Pushing through some updates or tweaks to code can break all of your networks, rather than just the one you’re working on.
  • You should be the only administrator to your multi-network, unlike single or Multisite installs where you may be able to get away with multiple admins since one change could negatively affect the entire multi-network.
  • You need to be at the top of your game when it comes to security since a few steps in the right direction is no longer enough.
  • Plugins and themes aren’t built with the multi-network feature in mind so you may need to tweak some code to get the specific results you want. For example, some plugins can only be activated per Multisite rather than across the entire multi-network.
  • There’s a bit of a learning curve when it comes to using the multi-network UI. If you’re not familiar with domain mapping and Multisite, it can be difficult to run a multi-network.
  • There isn’t currently any documentation available for the WP Multi Network plugin, which is what is covered in this post.

For security tips to help you manage all your Multisites within your multi-network, check out some of our other posts: WordPress Security: The Ultimate Guide, WordPress Security: Tried and True Tips to Secure WordPress and 12 Ways to Secure Your WordPress Site You’ve Probably Overlooked.

If you understand the risks, but you’re ready to get started, then read on.

Getting Started with Your Multi-Network

In order to create a multi-network, you need to have Multisite installed. If you’re not sure how to do this, check our ultimate guide to Multisite.

But before you do, it’s a great idea to make a full backup just in case something goes wrong. You can restore your site easily if anything goes wrong.

For instructions on how to backup your Multisite, check out these other posts: How to Backup Your WordPress Site (and Multisite) Using Snapshot, 11 Best Free Quality Backup Plugins for Protecting Your WordPress Site and 7 Top Premium and Freemium WordPress Backup Plugins Reviewed.

Once that’s done, install and network activate the WP Multi Network plugin to your Multisite network just as you would with most other plugins.

There’s one last thing you need to do before you can start managing your new multi-network. Access the wp-config.php file and comment out the DOMAIN_CURRENT_SITE line above the happy blogging comment. It should end up looking similar to the example below:

Of course, your domain should be listed instead of displaying yourdomain.com. Once your file is saved, you can start setting up your multi-network.

The new "Networks" tab in the super admin dashboard.
The new tab where you can access your new network.

Navigating Your New Setup Like a Pro

Once your multi-network has been set up, you should see a new Networks tab in what was formerly your super admin dashboard.

Right now, only the main Multisite is installed which isn’t very exciting so let’s add a new one.

The screen for creating a new Multisite network.
You can map your Multisite to any domain you own.

Click Add New to create a new Multisite. Next, enter your desired Multisite Network Name. In the Domain field, you can type the domain you wish to use for your Multisite.

You have a few options here. You can enter your multi-network’s domain, then under Path, type in a sub-directory name you would like to use.

Your URL should end up looking similar to www.your-multi-network.com/Multisite1. Alternatively, you can enter a new domain that you own with or without a path. Just make sure the new domain is pointed to your multi-network’s site path.

Sub-domains pointed to the location of the multi-network.
Sub-domains created in cPanel that are good to go.

In the pictured example above, the first sub-domain is the URL of the multi-network. The second sub-domain is mapped in cPanel to the folder mn in the root directory where the multi-network is hosted. This means that the second sub-domain can be mapped to a Multisite in the network.

For more pointers on how to properly map your domain, check out one of our other posts called The Ultimate Guide to Domain Mapping with WordPress and Multisite.

Next, enter the name of your new Multisite and main site in the Site Name field, then click the Create Network button at the bottom of the page.

The All Networks page will be loaded next.

The "All Networks" page
You can see all the Multisites listed in your multi-network.

This is where you can see all the Multisites you have in your network.

Option links appear on mouse hover over Multisite titles.
The options available for your network of Multisites.

Hovering over one of the Multisite titles reveals some link options: Edit, Dashboard, Visit, Assign Sites and Delete.

The only difference for your main Multisite is that the Delete button isn’t displayed. If you click the Edit link, you are directed to the standard Edit Site screen.

As you may have already guessed, the Dashboard link directs you to that Multisite’s dashboard, the Visit link directs you to the homepage and the Delete link, well, deletes your Multisite.

The only option that looks brand new is the Assign Sites link. When you click on it, you’re brought to a new page where you can move sites from one Multisite network to another.

The "Assign Sites" page.
The “Assign Sites” page.

Selecting a site from the left-hand side from the Available field, then clicking the right arrow button moves that selection to the Assigned field, where you want the site to be moved. You can click the left arrow button after making a selection from the Assigned field to move the site back to its original network.

When you’re done switching your sites around, click the Update Assignments button at the bottom of the page to apply your changes. If you would rather quit without saving, click the Cancel button at the bottom instead.

If you would like to migrate sites or Multisite installs to your multi-network, you can do this following the same process as you would if you were moving content around to a different site.

You can find more information on how to do this in our posts: A Step By Step Guide to Moving Content From One WordPress Site to Another and Migrating Multiple Blogs Into WordPress Multisite.

Wrapping Up

That’s all there is to it. With your new multi-network set up, you can get all your Multisites organized under one network and save time with updates and changes since you can take care of them all in just a few clicks from a central dashboard.

You can also couple the WP Multi Network plugin used here with the BP Multi Network plugin if you would like to split up your BuddyPress social networks into your multi-network.

What’s next with your new multi-network? You can easily apply consistent branding across your entire network in just a few clicks. You can learn how to do this in our post Stop WordPress Stealing Your Brand’s Limelight.

You can even add features to your network that users can pay to use on their site and we outline how to make it happen in our post Adding Premium Upgrades to Your Multisite Network with Pro Sites.

Could you see yourself using a multi-network? How would you use one or why wouldn’t you? Share your experience in the comments below.

15 Responses

  • New Recruit

    “Plugins and themes aren’t built with the multi-network feature in mind so you may need to tweak some code to get the specific results you want. For example, some plugins can only be activated per Multisite rather than across the entire multi-network.”

    This is the big one, for me. It’s still common enough to come across plugins that the authors haven’t tested, or haven’t tested much, on just Multisite. On multi-network you can almost guarantee, perhaps 99%+ of the time, that you’re doing something untested. So, whatever other benefits you get, you will get all the pain of being a pioneer, and will need to be ready for that.

    David

    • Hey David,

      Yeah, it can be difficult to see past that point to be a pioneer.

      With multi-networks, you’re running several Multisites so while plugins may not be create specifically for multi-networks, they are created for Multisites. That means you would still be able to use the plugins within the Multisite networks, but you just wouldn’t be able to activate them once across all Multisite networks.

      Still, it’s a difficult task if something brakes.

      Cheers,

      Jenni

  • The Crimson Coder

    I’m currently running 3 multi-network multi-site setups. My largest multi-network has seven networks and 87 websites / subsites. I’m using “Networks for WordPress” by David Dean (unsupported and modified in-house) – “BuddyPress Multi-Network” by Brajesh Singh with Domain Mapping by WPMUdev
    and { define( ‘BP_ENABLE_MULTIBLOG’, true ); }

    We’ve also had to write several custom scripts that we now consider core scripts in bp-custom.php as well as five separate drop-in scripts that sit in mu-plugins that are critical to keeping user data true to each individual network and mapped subdomain.

    This isn’t ‘WordPress’ for the light hearted. We have spent almost two years in development and management and we have to be extremely vigilant when it comes to updates, backups, and conflict resolution. We’re so deeply entrenched in this process that I often lose sleep over the smallest of issues but the rewards are worth the headache.

    One master file of Plugins (we lovingly refer to as APPs now)
    One master file of Theme’s
    One Core Foundation of Users
    One Database to Rule Them All!

    And with “Allow Multiple Accounts” by Scott Reilly… Well, now I’m afraid I might be saying too much! :-)

    I’m sure @TylerPostle would be happy to vouch for us! :-)

    Not ready to release all of our findings, forks, and folly’s yet but stay tuned!!!

    @VentureCore

  • The Bug Hunter

    last multi-network (I’d also recommend using the WP Multi Network plugin) I tested was lots of fun… would be great to see some WPMUDEV plugins play *nicer* with the environment (eg. MCC has some quirks and don’t get me started on Pro Sites, etc…) though from what I can see there are some gnarly limitations in the db architecture so yeah, work in progress =)

    https://github.com/johnjamesjacoby/wp-multi-network
    also, check out https://github.com/humanmade/Mercator

    working with WP Multi Network and 100% HTTPS I have used:
    in .htaccess (above WP rules):
    `RewriteCond %{HTTPS} !=on
    RewriteRule ^ https://%{HTTP_HOST}%{REQUEST_URI} [R=301,L]`
    in wp-config:
    `define(‘FORCE_SSL_ADMIN’, true);
    /** Multisite */
    define(‘WP_ALLOW_MULTISITE’, true);
    define(‘MULTISITE’, true);
    define(‘SUBDOMAIN_INSTALL’, true);
    //define(‘DOMAIN_CURRENT_SITE’, ‘original.primary’);//not needed with wp-multi-network
    define(‘PATH_CURRENT_SITE’, ‘/’);
    //define(‘SITE_ID_CURRENT_SITE’, 1);//not needed with wp-multi-network
    //define(‘BLOG_ID_CURRENT_SITE’, 1);//not needed with wp-multi-network
    define(‘DOMAIN_CURRENT_SITE’, $_SERVER[‘HTTP_HOST’]);
    define(‘WP_HOME’, ‘https://’ . $_SERVER[‘HTTP_HOST’]);
    define(‘WP_SITEURL’, ‘https://’ . $_SERVER[‘HTTP_HOST’]);
    define( ‘WP_CONTENT_DIR’, dirname(__FILE__) . ‘/wp-content’);
    define(‘WP_CONTENT_URL’, ‘https://’ . $_SERVER[‘HTTP_HOST’] . ‘/wp-content’);
    define(‘WP_PLUGIN_DIR’, dirname(__FILE__) . ‘/wp-content/plugins’);
    define(‘WP_PLUGIN_URL’, ‘https://’ . $_SERVER[‘HTTP_HOST’] . ‘/wp-content/plugins’);
    define(‘PLUGINDIR’, dirname(__FILE__) . ‘/wp-content/plugins’);
    define(‘UPLOADS’, ‘wp-content/uploads’);
    define(‘WPMU_PLUGIN_DIR’, dirname(__FILE__) . ‘/wp-content/mu-plugins’);
    define(‘WPMU_PLUGIN_URL’, ‘https://’ . $_SERVER[‘HTTP_HOST’] . ‘/wp-content/mu-plugins’);
    define(‘MUPLUGINDIR’, dirname(__FILE__) . ‘/wp-content/mu-plugins’);`

    Great article, hope folks have some WP fun with this stuff… =)

    Cheers, Max

    • Hey,

      The post was actually a tutorial for the WP Multi Networks plugin you mentioned. :)

      I also addressed the issue with plugin and theme compatibility in the post. Since the multi-network function isn’t an officially released part of core, you’re not going to get very many (if any) plugins that are specifically made for the multi-network feature no matter where you get them from.

      Still, plugins that work for Multisites should still work on multi-networks. You would just have to activate them individually. There may be exceptions, but that’s the way it goes with plugins in general. (Not all of them are made equal.)

      Thanks for sharing the code example. :)

      Cheers,

      Jenni

  • Connector

    Hi there!!

    I already played with that config on a test site, and now with a live site, and I must say I still learned something new today …. that it IS already built in WP Code, and that that plugin simply adds the user interface!

    woooohat?
    OK, now I understand my subnetworks and subsites of them are still working after plugin deactivation.
    (hint : why not a new blog post about “all the existing hidden WP Core features”)

    Now about my comments on it :
    – I now a flaw of that is that all uploads of “root” sites are going in the same folder? (or do I mistake?)
    and that plugin solves it only if it’s kept acitvated? can you clarify or comment on that please.

    – about setting subdomains in cpanel, I would recommend to set wildcard subdomains *.yourdomain.com instead of setting up a new one all the time.this also works well with domain mapping or multi-domains by you WPMUDev!

    very interesting post!!

    • Hey Patricia,

      I agree, it’s so cool that it’s technically a part of the core already.

      Yes, you’re right. Uploads are directed to the uploads folder of the main site, unless the WP Multi Network plugin is activated and remains active.

      This is due to the fact that in more recent core updates (I think after WP version 3.4) uploads are handled a bit differently. If your site has existed prior to version 3.5 and you have updated it since then, you should be just fine if the WP Multi Network plugin is deactivated. It’s only for newer versions of WordPress where there is a conflict.

      That’s why it’s a good idea to test out the plugin before hand and backup your entire site before creating a multi-network. :)

      Hope that clears things up.

      Cheers,

      Jenni

      • Connector

        Thanks for your reply.

        Yeah sure I always test on a test site first and make backups before to use on production sites.
        I will actually not use this plugin for some reasons I discovered (upgrade network = go to each sub-network, network activated plugins, etc…)

        But it’s very interesting, and as I do not need to create subnetworks to give them to users, but only to “play” with subdomains and domains combinations, then what I discovered thanks to you is that I can do it anyway, even without the plugin, and this is new to me.

        Thank you again!
        Cheers
        Patricia

  • Sue
    Site Builder, Child of Zeus

    Jenni, thanks a bunch for bring this to light. I’m about to do a multisite network this weekend, and didn’t even know a multi-network was possible. I’m especially grateful for the caveats you attached to this, making it easier to decide if this is a viable option for me.

    Many thanks,
    Sue.

  • The Incredible Code Injector

    Hi, I run wp-multi network with 3 multi-site networks and so far have had zero issues with the plugins I’ve used. It makes administration SO much easier. I’m just wondering how it works with SSL. Since the new networks aren’t sub-domains, a wildcard SSL cert wouldn’t work. Any ideas?

Comments are closed.