WordPress Multisite vs. A Management Tool: Which Do You Need?

For the most part, you’re going to meet clients with a business or other online-friendly venture that they want you to create a website for. And, so you develop and perhaps even later manage the WordPress site on their behalf. This is especially more common when you’re first starting a WordPress business and want to get the hang of things by tackling traditional single-site project requests.

As your business and list of websites grows, though, you may find that regularly accessing multiple concurrent web development projects becomes unwieldy and inefficient. Also, take for instance, the special cases where a client wants you to develop a network of WordPress sites for them.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just merge the management of all your websites into a single dashboard rather log into each separate installation every time?

The good news is that there are solutions to make the management of multiple WordPress sites more convenient. However, in order to determine whether WordPress Multisite or WordPress management tools are the right solution for you, you must first understand the difference between the two options.

WordPress Multisite vs. WordPress Management Tools: Which Do You Need?

When you create and/or manage more than one WordPress site at a time, there are typically three options you have to choose from:

  • WordPress Multisite: This is functionality WordPress built into the CMS back with the release of 3.0. Basically, it allows users to manage multiple websites from within a single WordPress installation.
  • WordPress Management Tools: WordPress management tools give users the ability to manage WordPress sites from within a single tool and dashboard. Typically, this tool exists outside of WordPress.
  • Separate Installations: This option is for users that want to build and manage each of their WordPress sites (if there is more than one) separately from one another. Each maintains its own unique login and dashboard within WordPress. This option is only ideal for WordPress developers that work on websites one at a time and don’t offer continued maintenance services.

There are a number of reasons to consider using the first two options above. While it may seem like WordPress’s built-in Multisite functionality is the answer to all your needs since it conveniently keeps everything within WordPress, this multi-site management solution has its limitations.

So, let’s talk about the pros and cons of WordPress Multisite as well as WordPress management tools. Then we can look at some use cases in which each would be the ideal solution for your needs.

WordPress Multisite: The Pros and Cons

WordPress Multisite: WordPress’s solution to multi-site management… or is it? Here is what you need to know.

Pros

  • WordPress Multisite is free to use.
  • It allows you to keep an entire network of related websites together under a single WordPress installation. This means only having to log in once to manage all your sites.
  • It also means the quicker development of new websites if they each follow a similar formula and use the same plugins or themes.
  • Because this exists within WordPress, there is barely any learning curve to using Multisite. You’ll simply have to take what you know about the interface and apply it to the new tabs available.
  • It’s much easier to manage everything in one place, including the connected WordPress sites, their subdomain names, user access, settings, and so on.
  • Rather than install WordPress plugins and themes for each website under your care, you only have to do it once (if they share those integrations, that is). As you can imagine, this makes your server much lighter as you don’t have to run multiple instances of the same plugins or themes.
  • You can manage all your core, theme, and plugin updates from Multisite as well. And it only requires a single update; there’s no need to apply the update to each individual site.
  • There are WordPress plugins made specifically to be compatible with and streamline the Multisite network. Snapshot Pro is one of them and, guess what? You only have to do one backup since all your sites are stored in the same database.

Cons

  • While it’s free to use, you probably end up having to pay more in the end since your WordPress installation will require more server space and resources to power all those sites.
  • You can’t use Multisite to manage unrelated sites, even if the websites all belong to the same client. This is because they exist within your main website hub and will be allocated a subdomain name that connects them to the overarching network (see naming conventions under “Activating Multisite”).
  • You shouldn’t use Multisite for highly sensitive or private websites, even if they’re related. Think of this as you would shared hosting.
  • It also isn’t ideal if you expect one or even a few of the sites to receive huge traffic spikes. Again, this is like shared hosting in that a spike in traffic for one site could hurt the rest of your network.
  • If individual site administrators want to use their own handpicked themes and plugins, they can’t do so without your permission. It’ll be hard to say “yes” to adding something to the network if only one site needs it and consequently will slow down the rest of the network.
  • If you decide that you want to move one of the sites out of the network, the migration won’t be as straightforward as a standard domain-to-domain migration.
  • Not all hosting types or plans are compatible with Multisite. It’s not that you can’t activate Multisite on them. However, if you’re placing vast quantities of data on the server, something like a basic shared hosting plan isn’t ideal.
  • You have to be selective about which plugins or themes you add to your Multisite network since not all of them will work with it.

Use Cases

Multisite works best for related websites that are owned or managed by the same individual.

Look at most TV network websites. The main website focuses on promoting all their shows. But then you can drill down into the individual sites for each TV show where the focus is only on that one.

Take ABC, for example:

ABC Home Page

Then go ahead and visit the show page for Grey’s Anatomy:

Grey's Anatomy Show Page

You can see that the Grey’s Anatomy page still has the ABC header up top. However, the rest of the page is its own microcosm dedicated to the TV show.

Edublogs is another example of a WordPress Multisite in action:

Edublogs

Here is an example of a website built on the Edublogs Multisite network: What Else:

A Thing to Consider

There’s a small bar up top that points you back to Edublogs and, of course, the domain name reflects that it’s a subdomain of Edublogs. Other than that, though, this is a completely self-sufficient website.

If you’re interested in getting started with Multisite, use Rachel McCollin’s Ultimate Guide to Multisite.

WordPress Management Tools: The Pros and Cons

WordPress Multisite isn’t the only option if you have multiple websites you want to consolidate under a single management hub. WordPress management tools work similarly to Multisite, but without the domain and control restrictions.

Pros

  • WordPress management tools give you a single dashboard to manage all websites from, along with users and settings.
  • The websites managed here don’t need to be related to one another and don’t need to reside on the same web hosting server.
  • It’s a fantastic option if you want to consolidate the management of WordPress core, plugin, and theme updates. Unlike Multisite, you can run these updates individually for each site.
  • In addition to updates, you can handle other tasks for your WordPress plugins and themes, like activations and deactivations.
  • You won’t encounter issues with finding compatible WordPress plugins or themes. Since websites managed in these tools have separate WordPress installations, they’re not on the same network or server so they can do everything free-standing WordPress sites do.

In addition, depending on which WordPress management tool you use, you’ll enjoy the following benefits:

  • Dashboard analytics for spam, performance, security, and SEO for all websites.
  • Security monitoring, uptime monitoring, and speed checks are available.
  • You can schedule and manage backups for each site.
  • You can grant access to individual contributors (team members or clients) so they can only see their own website on the dashboard.
  • You can also create new content (mostly just blog posts) from the dashboard.

Cons

  • It costs money to use a WordPress management tool.
  • If you want to configure custom settings for plugins and themes used on a website, you will have to log into the WordPress installation.
  • Some of these tools come with a steep learning curve. It may be fine for an advanced developer, but maybe not someone new to WordPress or web development.

Use Cases
Now, in terms of how you can use a WordPress management tool, this is ideal for the WordPress developer or agency trying to get a handle on concurrent web projects.

It’s also a good alternative if you’re working for a client that has a network of websites they need managed, but with the following restrictions:

  • Each site has strict security requirements.
  • Each requires a custom domain name or unique IP address.
  • The sites all have a different set of features that need to be fulfilled by various plugins or themes, so there’s very little overlap that would make Multisite worth it.

If you’re interested in exploring WordPress management tools further, consider these popular options:

CMS Commander


Looking for a no-frills management tool? CMS Commander takes a straightforward approach to helping you get all your sites in one place. Every management task option is clearly labeled and easy to use, from updating WordPress to creating new content.

InfiniteWP


The InfiniteWP WordPress management tool was definitely built with web developers and agencies in mind. While you can handle the basics with the free version of the tool (updates, backups and restore, etc.), you’ll want the add-ons that really open up the management capabilities.

Jetpack


Technically, Jetpack has a management tool built into the plugin. When the plugin is enabled on any of your WordPress sites, simply grant access to WordPress.com and then you can manage your multiple sites from within that dashboard.

MainWP


Perhaps the greatest thing about MainWP is that it truly knows who its users are. In other words, it’s not just the WordPress developer trying to get a handle on all his or her websites. There are WordPress maintenance support providers who could benefit from building their business’s workflow around this tool.

ManageWP

ManageWP

ManageWP is another option that comes with a nice tool set for managing all your client sites. It provides tools for updating, securing and monitoring all your sites in one place.

The Hub

The Hub

WPMU DEV’s The Hub is a fantastic WordPress management tool if you not only want to manage a ton of websites from one dashboard, but also if you want to impress clients with the tool you’re using to do so. It’s also chock-full of features to automate your workflow when managing WordPress sites, too, which is always a plus.

Wrapping Up

As you can see, both multi-site management options will end up being huge energy and time savers in your WordPress development workflow. It’s simply a matter of identifying when each solution would be right for the kinds of websites you develop. Of course, if you do end up needing WordPress Multisite and want guidance and best practices on how to use it, enroll in the WPMU DEV WordPress Multisite Masterclass.

Brenda Barron
Over to you: How often do you encounter network development requests from clients as opposed to just single-site builds? Which kind of work do you prefer best?

19 Responses

  • WordPress DevOps

    I dream about The Hub managing my Multi Network. It’s about manage its Multisites (each one with its own Child-Sites), being able to generate White Label Reports per-site instead of per-network. And the cherry: The Shipper managing Dev (local), Staging & Live sites in a peaceful manner. They say it’s all on the pipeline, can’t wait to see!

  • Site Builder, Child of Zeus

    I used Multisite once when a client wanted her site done in 3 different languages. It worked out fine.

    I’m hesitant to use it for multi-client sites. I recently had an issue with Siteground and addon sites. One of my addon sites started using an unusual amount of CPU usage (a plugin stuck in a loop) so Siteground took all the sites offline (I had about 6 addon client sites to my main site). We got things resolved, but it showed me that one site could take down all my sites. I don’t know if Multisite works the same, but I would assume if one site goes crazy (bad plugin for example) and uses more CPU usage than your plan contracted for, then all sites could be shut down.

    I use WP Main for site management and love it.

  • Made in Africa

    Perhaps I am missing something but I find that the hub does not allow updates for themes. So you still need to log into each site individually to update it, specifically when using child themes. If I am wrong, please do enlighten me?

    I like to use Multisite to group all my website that offer my services and then place all clients on their own individual hosting. This way I can actually keep my own costs down.

      • WordPress DevOps

        Hey Michelle,
        Unfortunately my theme (X, premium theme from Themeco) also doesn’t update from The Hub. Actually, on my Multisites Multi Network, not even via WP Dashboard. I have to do it manually on every X update. Sucks a bit, but as my server is at Cloudways, I don’t have “that much” work as a server owner, so it’s ok to have to manage this task (updating X). But for sure it would be much better to be able to automate it at some point.

          • WordPress DevOps

            Hey Michelle,

            The problem is: if I get live support, they’ll much likely ask me to deactivate plugins on my Multi Network, wich I just can’t do. For instance, I declare that X Theme wasn’t ever updated with The Hub, but I can’t be doing “conflict testing” for that matter. Specially because I feel like is a problem with Themeco, since not even inside the WP Dashboard they appear as “updateable”. This is since version 5.x and now 6.x keeps not updating. Not The Hub’s fault I assume.

          • Dan
            WPMU DEV Initiate

            Hi Michelle (and anybody feel free to chime in),
            1) I thought that I read in an older Hub article (2016?) that only WPMU DEV plugins and themes are updatable from the Hub, is that correct?

            2) So your article and others give the pros and cons of using multisite for site management or using a management tool, one or the other. Can’t the Hub and/or these other tools handle multisite too or are there conflicts?

            3) Also, is the Hub considered an internal or external WP management tool? Because I thought that internal basically means it’s a plugin.
            4) If I am reading this correctly, the Hub (and I guess the other tools you talk about too) is stand alone and external, so not a plugin, BUT a plugin is needed on each of my sites for them to be included in my Hub dashboard correct? See the confusion….If you can explain the exact differences that would be helpful.

            Also, in researching a new hosting for my project(s), I came across pantheon.io which said that server-based (built into the server management I guess?) WP site management and deployment of new sites with their propriety dashboard is much more secure than plugin based (and why I should choose them). Thus the question above, also leading into below for what I want to do with all this…

            I just started researching these management tools, in conjunction with a couple of plugins to create multisite networks (i.e. WP Multi Network plugin and I believe there is another I forget the name of). So security is a very big concern to me, especially if all goes as planned and I build out a large network of networks (of related type/niche sites but for different people/companies).
            5) Is the Hub or any of the other management tools you listed ready to manage multi networks? Sounds like Fabio Fava is also looking to do this (so I now also know not to go with Cloudways apparently for starting this project unless his problem was fixed).
            6) If not yet, when will it be ready?

            7) And, do you know of any problems with redundancy conflicts in the Hub dashboard with the super admin in multisite and multi networks?

            Thank you!
            Dan

    • WordPress DevOps

      With Multisite you can put all of your sites under a “same roof”, wich means updating (themes, plugins) once and having all sites updated on the network. The real deal is to make The Hub to be able to handle Multisites witht he Child-Sites under it (for customer recporting pourposes, at least), and The Shipper managing Dev/Staging/Live Sites for both single and multisite installs.

      • Staff

        Hey, Fabio.

        I am referring to the support statement. What we do ask our members to do is create a staging site. It will serve two purposes. You can test and update on it without worrying you will mess up your live site and we can can test issues without having to worry about your live site. Rachel wrote a great article for this here – https://premium.wpmudev.org/blog/set-up-staging-site-cheap-shared-hosting/

        Happy reading,

        Michelle

        • WordPress DevOps

          Hey Michelle,

          Unfortunately, as my Multi Network is in Cloudways, a Staging Application would cost me money, that I can’t afford for now. I’ll be glad to clone it as “staging” as The Shipper is actually “shipped”. Then I’ll be glad to pay the plus for an Staging Application (it will be a clone of the original one, with all domains replaced by staging.domain.tld), even if I pay it just to help Debugging & Testing the upcoming The Shipper. But I won’t do it before The Shipper is “shipped”.

          Hope you understand, money should be invested “as needed”. And as I’ve stated on my first message, I can live with this issue (manually updating X Theme every time it’s updated). Even because Theme.co guys leave a lot of MacOS “traces” (_MACOS directory, .DS_Store files, etcetera), and I clean them all with TinkerTool System before uploading it to my server. Then I upload the folder with another name (x-new), and just rename the actual x folder (x-old) and the new one to (x)…

          Cheers.

  • New Recruit

    Other cons to Multisite: When it comes to updating themes & plugins the stakes are higher – if one site gets hacked, they all get hacked. If you ever need to move, copy or extract one site or its database to move it somewhere else, its more difficult to do.

    Both of these were issues we ran into using Multisite. Granted these aren’t the fault of Multisite, but using Multisite does open users to potentially experiencing the above dangers.

  • Site Builder, Child of Zeus

    Thanks Brenda for addressing this topic!
    I’m approaching the point where I’ll need a tool to (easily) manage my client sites. Multisite, IMHO, seems most appropriate for site architecture rather than managing unrelated sites. To that end, I’ve been testing several options: the Hub (of course), iThemes Sync, and ManageWP; no verdict yet though.

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