What is Multisite? A Guide to Options for Creating an Effective WordPress Network

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I’ve written a lot about Multisite for this blog and received lots of feedback from people who are just as keen on Multisite as I am. But you guys have plenty of questions, too!

Some of the most frequent are about what Multisite has to offer – what can you do with it and how? In this post, I’m going to answer some of those questions. I’ll cover:

  • Some of the possibilities that Multisite gives you, and
  • The techniques, tools and plugins that will help you get the most from Multisite.

Hopefully, in this post I’ll whet your appetite for some of the things you might be able to do with Multisite and give you the starting information you need to do it.

Let’s start with the possibilities.

Multisite: a Wealth of Possibilities!

Multisite offers so much more than a standard WordPress installation. You can use it to manage your business, keep on top of your personal projects, serve a community, and make money.

Hosting Your Own Sites

Are you one of those people who likes to create personal projects, whether they be blogs, portfolio sites, experiments or businesses? Maybe you have dozens of domain names registered for different purposes, or maybe just two.

If you’ve got lots of sites to manage, you’re probably finding it all a bit of a headache. Every time WordPress is updated or your plugins or themes get an update, you have to check through each and every one your sites, meaning you’re spending quite a lot of time managing them.

I’d imagine you don’t have a burning desire to spend your life doing site admin.

Multisite will make your life so much easier. By moving all your personal sites into one Multisite network, you only have one WordPress installation to manage. When there’s a WordPress update: you do it once. When a plugin you use across multiple sites is updated: you do it once. And if you’re using third party themes, you only need to update them once.

Plugins update screen in the Multisite network admin
With Multisite, you only need to update plugins once

There are some extra considerations: you have to test your code on all of the affected sites before running an update, and you should set up a local copy of your network so you can test updates before you activate them on your live site. And you’ll have to keep on top of which themes and plugins you’re using where.

There are tools you can use to help with this, more of which shortly. And if you want to keep all those domains you registered for your individual projects, you can map them to your network. Again, more on this shortly.

Hosting Client Sites

A lot of web developers and designers also set themselves up as hosting resellers. This generally involves buying a reseller hosting package from a hosting provider and then managing your clients’ sites yourself or charging them for access to their own control panel.

But if you’re anything like me, you’d much rather be interacting with the WordPress backend than with cPanel or Web Host Manager. And you’d like to save some money and hassle too.

cPanel is great but I'd rather spend my time working in WordPress.
cPanel is great but I’d rather spend my time working in WordPress.

Multisite gives you the answer. Instead of using reseller hosting to host multiple client sites, just buy a single hosting package (VPS tends to work well), create a Multisite network and host your client sites on that.

You can use domain mapping to map your clients’ domains to their sites so that to any visitor, the site will seem as if it were hosted on its own domain. But you’ll only have to manage your code from one place.

This means that if you’re like me and you use the same plugins on every single client site (backup, security, caching and SEO for example), you’ll only need to keep (and update) one copy of each on your network, and you can simply network activate it. And if you use a templating system like our own Upfront or a theme framework (either your own or a third party one), then you’ll only need to keep one copy of that.

A word of warning though: when you update WordPress, and the themes and plugins you install, you’ll be updating live sites which are critical to your clients. You should keep a copy of your network on your local machine (or even better, on a staging server) which you use to test updates before you activate them on your live site. This is critical – don’t be tempted to skip it, or you could risk your clients’ sites going down.

Serving a Community

Multisite is also a great tool for supporting a community. Whether you’re doing it as a volunteer, an employee or member, or for profit, you can use a Multisite network to let your community of users create their own sites, or manage ones which you set up for them.

You can enhance the community aspects of your network with BuddyPress, which adds social media functionality. Or if you don’t want to go that far, you can use our community plugins, like Reader,  Recent Global Posts and Recent Global Comments to give your users a way to consume each others’ content and engage with each other.

Our own Edublogs is a good example of a Multisite network supporting a community. It lets educators and their students create blogs for free, and includes a Reader page in the dashboard, which lets users see each others’ content and communicate with other suers. And it also makes money – more of which in a moment.

edublogs website
Edublogs serves the education community.

For lots more on creating a community network, see our masterclass on Multisite for communities.

Making Money

Be honest, you’ve been wondering when I’d get around to this, haven’t you? Multisite isn’t just about supporting your own projects or creating something great for a community. You can also use it to make money – in some cases, lots of money.

Our own CampusPress is a good example – it’s a Multisite network powering websites for schools and educational institutions, with a team of developers who provide a service to help site owners get exactly the site they want. Site owners pay a subscription for the service.

CampusPress uses Multisite to host paid for education sites.
CampusPress uses Multisite to host paid for education sites.

You can also use Multisite to allow people to create their own sites and charge for this or for premium features once they’ve set up a free site. Our own edublogs is a great example of this: a blog is free, but if users want premium themes or plugins, then they pay a fee.

And the world’s largest and most well-known network of blogs, wordpress.com, is also a Multisite network:

WordPress.com website
WordPress.com runs on a Multisite network

Like Edublogs, it lets you create a site for free – but if you want to map your own domain to your site or add premium themes or plugins, you pay extra.

The easiest way to make money from your network is to use our Pro Sites plugin – find out exactly how to start bringing in business with it in our comprehensive guide.

Pro Sites plugin
Pro Sites lets you make money from your network.

Tools and Techniques to Get the Most From Multisite

So you’ve now got an idea of some of the options for a Multisite network, and the possibilities it offers. But some of it may feel a bit daunting – how on earth do you make these things work?

Luckily there are plenty of tools and techniques you can use to make Multisite work for you with the minimum of hassle.

Domain Mapping

This is possibly one of the most useful Multisite plugins. With it you can create as many sites as you want on one network, map domains to them and have them behave as if they were hosted on that domain. The outside world will never know.

You can map multiple domains to each site on your network and specify which domain you want to use as the primary domain: i.e. the one that displays in the suer’s browser.

Domain mapping plugin
Our Domain Mapping plugin lets you map domains to client sites.

Our Domain Mapping plugin lets you do all this and more. You can charge users to map domains and even sell domains right from your Multisite network – meaning you can become your own hosting and domain provider. Sweet!

Multisite Enhancements

The free Multisite Enhancements plugin gives you some useful enhancements to your network. The most useful is the fact that on your plugins and themes pages in the network admin, it shows you which sites in the network have which themes and plugins installed.

This means that when you’re updating your network, you know which sites you have to test. Very useful.

Creating a Development Network

If you’re hosting sites for anyone other than yourself on your Multisite network, it’s essential that you keep a copy of your network for testing, updates and development. This can be on your local machine.

If your network is large and well established it can be difficult to copy the entire database, in which case you might need to set up a new network locally and then import each site separately – time consuming I know. But if you’re setting up a new network, or yours is still small, then don’t delay – make a local copy now.

In fact, you should really be doing things the other way around. Create a network locally for development and then when you’ve tested everything, copy it to your live server.

Beware: if you’re using domain mapping you’ll need to disable that in your local network. Everything else should work the same way though. Whenever you update your network, always do it on this development version first before copying it to live. And use a version control system like GitHub to track your changes – that way you can roll things back when you need to.

For full advice on creating a local network, see our guide to setting Multisite up.

Creating a Staging Network

As well as your local network, a staging network lets you be even more thorough when it comes to testing. This is a midpoint between your local network that you use fro development and initial testing, and your live network.

Whenever you need to make changes, do them locally first. Then use a system like DeployHQ to push your commits from GitHub to your staging site. The staging site should be on the same server as the live site, with the same environment. Test that thoroughly and then push the same commits to your live site. This way, you’ll never directly edit the code in your live site, and you’ll have a safe development process that avoids problems.

DeplyHQ lets you deploy your GitHub commits to your staging and live networks.
DeplyHQ lets you deploy your GitHub commits to your staging and live networks.

Network Security, Backups and Performance

It’s important to keep your network secure. This means keeping it backed up, making regular security checks, hardening it to protect against tacks, and optimising it for performance.

All this can sound like a lot of work, and quite scary too. But if you manage sites for other people, especially if you’re charging them, it’s essential that you do all of this to avoid downtime.

The good news is that it’s made easy by our plugins. Snapshot lets you back up the sites in your network and restore them with one click, Defender helps you make your site secure and scans it regularly for issues. And Hummingbird will help you make your site run faster.

For a guide to setting these plugins up and optimising their settings, see our guide to network management.

Multisite Has Lots to Offer

Hopefully I’ve given you some inspiration for things you can do with Multisite. In my view it’s a great tool with lots and lots of possibilities. And by using the tools above, including our plugins, you can use Multisite to make your life easier and boost your web development business. Good luck!

Do you use WordPress Multisite? Would you like to but just not sure whether it's the right solution for you? Ask any questions you may have in the comments below! VIEW 12 comments
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12 Responses

    Caspian

    Rachel, thanks for another great Multisite article. You’ve been a great source of info on the topic, please keep em coming.

    “Pro Sites” unfortunately has been a big disappointment. I had planned to start a new business based upon Pro Sites but the WPMU Dev Member Forums have convinced me otherwise. There are serious billing problems that haven’t been fixed in 6+ months. The Support team will try to fix the problems with individual Hotfixes or say they will notify the Developer. And then… crickets. I thought Pro Sites was one of WPMU Devs flagship plugins. From what I can tell, it hasn’t been updated since… 2015?

    I can’t build a business on software that isn’t actively maintained.

      James Morris

      Hello Caspian,

      The latest version of Pro Sites was released May 8, 2016 (version 3.5.4). Pro Sites is still being actively developed. And with the changes we’ve made over the last few months here, we now have more resources and talent being dedicated to continuing to build and add features to our plugins and themes.

      Checking your profile, I see you’ve commented on a number of other member’s threads regarding Pro sites, but the only thread you’ve started is Why did your pro sites business fail? However, I’m seeing no support tickets posted.

      Have you tried building with Pro Sites? We have thousands of members who are building with Pro Sites successfully. Yes, sometimes issues come up, but our track record of resolving these issues is very good. And, of course, we are always working to improve the stability and compatibility of our products.

      The beauty of having your WPMU DEV membership is you can try all of our products on as many domains as you want and you have our help 24/7 should you need it. Why not install Pro Sites on a staging site and give it a shot. It may just be what you’re looking for. ;-)

      Best regards,

      James Morris

    DigiBlueArc

    Hi Rachel,

    I do appreciate your guides and posts. I’m going live with what will be a huge multisite this weekend. I appreciate the reminder about the plugin MS Enhancements. Having a list of which plugins are active on which blogs will be useful.

    In the list…
    Adds several useful items to the multisite ‘Network Admin’ admin bar (do you know what these are?)

    Also… removing the W logo from admin bar is important (is this the best way to brand the admin for each blog to my company name?)

    This also made me think about the plugin MS Sitemaps – is this a duplicate of what’s in MS enhancements?

    One more question, hope you don’t mind. Is the plugin MS Theme Manager necessary if I’m planning to use Upfront for users to choose and implement a theme.

    Best regards,
    –rick

      Michelle

      Hey Rick,

      Good luck with your MS launch this weekend. Having the right plugins to manage your network is vital not only for your piece of mind, but also for ease of management and of course branding your business.
      MS enhancements vs MS sitemaps
      These 2 plugins functions differently. MS Enhancements will help you with your super admin dashboard area. MS Sitemaps will help index the pages/posts of each site as they are published, helping the search engines to find not only the sites, but the content too and it also helps with your seo.
      MS Theme Manager – This has a lot to offer in the way of managing and branding yourself and your business, installing it will give you a way to decide which themes are include and which are not.
      Re-branding your entire network is well worth it.
      Using our ultimate branding plugin will let you put your stamp on your network. Our UB plugin has many options to customize your network. For starters, you design what your login will look like, no more wp logo, just your logo with plain background or something a bit more funky.
      Upfront and MS theme manager.
      Once again this will depend on what exactly you want to achieve. Will all the themes be free? Will you have extra themes designed? Do you want to edit, label and manage themes easily on your multisite?

      Hope this answers most of your questions.

      Have a wonderful weekend.

      Michelle

    DigiBlueArc

    Wow Michelle!

    Awesome help. I totally get it. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your clarification for MS Enhancements, MS Sitemaps & MS Theme Manager. I need them all.

    ***Upfront and MS theme manager.
    ***Once again this will depend on what exactly you want to achieve. Will all the themes be free?

    Yes, a users initial blog will be free to build and use. I plan to use Upfront for their theme choices. I then plan to use Site Pro to sell what I’m calling modules but are really plugins. Each of these plugins will be an add-on with a small monthly, quarterly or yearly fee. An example of the modules with fees, I’ll use “autoblog” for content, floating social media for likes, follow etc that will be free but I will charge a small fee for the social marketing module, I’ll charge a small fee for connecting woo commerce, mapping domains, local marketing, memberships and so on.

    I’ll be grouping some modules in site pro with the intent of keeping the fees very small so they can’t resist. Users do get some free things such as community groups with buddypress, hustle, defender, hummingbird, anti-splog, smart crawl, smash pro, snapshot etc. I have a total of 12 modules at this time.

    Will you have extra themes designed? I have a theme program called Tesseract that has about 31 pre-designed responsive templates that are very sharp. I probably need more based on user requests and that is something I have not done yet… create themes. I’m not even sure how to make the Tesseract themes available to the users. I’m hoping that “Upfront” will help me with this issue…. I have not yet worked in the Upfront theme (except to look at it when you first came out with it). From the documentation I’ve read it seems it will be straight forward.

    Do you want to edit, label and manage themes easily on your multisite?

    Oh YES! Any suggestions are super appreciated.

    I have studied edublog and wordpress.org. I have the guides you guys created and I follow them to a T.

    Thank you for your time and input. Your plugins and this membership with all your guides and posts and forums and support are a godsend for me. I’m a fan and I’ll be with you as a yearly grandfathered member for the long haul.

    –rick

      Michelle

      Hey Rick,

      You are very welcome. I am very happy I could clear thing up a bit. I have pasted your post into mine so that I can answer it properly and not forget to mention something. JUST LOOK FOR THE CAPITAL SENTENCES. :-) Right lets get started.

      Wow Michelle!

      Awesome help. I totally get it. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your clarification for MS Enhancements, MS Sitemaps & MS Theme Manager. I need them all.

      ***Upfront and MS theme manager.
      ***Once again this will depend on what exactly you want to achieve. Will all the themes be free?

      Yes, a users initial blog will be free to build and use. I plan to use Upfront for their theme choices. I then plan to use Site Pro to sell what I’m calling modules but are really plugins. Each of these plugins will be an add-on with a small monthly, quarterly or yearly fee. (DON’T FORGET ABOUT OUR PRETTY PLUGINS PLUGIN. THIS PLUGING LES YOU LIST, SORT, MANAGE AND EVEN SELL PLUGINS ON YOUR MS SITE)
      An example of the modules with fees, I’ll use “autoblog” for content, floating social media for likes, follow etc that will be free but I will charge a small fee for the social marketing module, I’ll charge a small fee for connecting woo commerce, mapping domains, local marketing, memberships and so on.

      I’ll be grouping some modules in site pro with the intent of keeping the fees very small so they can’t resist. (GREAT IDEA) Users do get some free things such as community groups with buddypress, hustle, defender, hummingbird, anti-splog, smart crawl, smash pro, snapshot etc. I have a total of 12 modules at this time.

      Will you have extra themes designed? (NOT RIGHT AT THE MOMENT, BUT HAVE YOU THOUGHT OF USING OUR JOBS AND PRO’S SECTION? YOU CAN POST YOUR REQUESTS. WE HAVE DESIGNERS AND DEVELOPERS DOING CUSTOM WORK) I have a theme program called Tesseract that has about 31 pre-designed responsive templates that are very sharp. I probably need more based on user requests and that is something I have not done yet… create themes. I’m not even sure how to make the Tesseract themes available to the users. I’m hoping that “Upfront” will help me with this issue…. I have not yet worked in the Upfront theme (except to look at it when you first came out with it). From the documentation I’ve read it seems it will be straight forward. (DOING OUR UPFRONT INTRODUCTION COURSE WILL BE A GOOD WAY OF GETTING TO UNDERSTAND UPFRONT AND HOW IT WORKS)

      Do you want to edit, label and manage themes easily on your multisite? (THIS IS WHERE OUR THEME MANAGER COMES IN. IT ALLOWS YOU TO DO THIS)

      Oh YES! Any suggestions are super appreciated.

      I have studied edublog and wordpress.org. I have the guides you guys created and I follow them to a T.

      Thank you for your time and input. (YOU ARE WELCOME. WE ARE HERE TO HELP YOU) Your plugins and this membership with all your guides and posts and forums and support are a godsend for me. I’m a fan and I’ll be with you as a yearly grandfathered member for the long haul.

      –rick

      HAVE A GREAT TIME BUILDING YOUR BUSINESS.