Everything you need to know about WordPress multisite networks.

After building your first few WordPress sites, you may start to notice that you are repeating many of the same steps each time. Depending on your needs, building a WordPress multisite network may be a good option to build sites more efficiently, especially if the sites have a lot in common.

In this article we’ll dive deep into the how and why of using the multisite feature of WordPress, including the pros and cons compared to building single sites.

Table of Contents

What is a WordPress multisite network?

A multisite network is a series of sites that share a common WordPress filesystem. So rather than having a separate set of files for each site, a single set of files is shared among all the network sites.

The only exception to this is the uploads folder which will have a separate upload folder for each network site.

Like the filesystem, all sites in the network also share a single database, a single plugins folder and a single themes folder.

Shown below is the network dashboard. Notice that the admin menu on the left lists management tools for sites, users, themes, plugins and multisite settings.

The multisite dashboard in WordPress.

Why use multisite?

From installing plugins and themes to configuring SMTP settings to managing users, there can be a lot of repetition when developing WordPress sites individually. Multisite setups can make these and other repetitive tasks more efficient.

For example, maintaining one filesystem and one database is typically easier compared to maintaining one filesystem/database for each site. The same is true for updating plugins or scanning for security vulnerabilities.

Additionally, it can be easier to limit user activity in a multisite network. For example, by default site admins are not able to install plugins or themes. This must be done by the network admin or super admin.

These restrictions might be important in a network where functionality and appearance must remain consistent and can easily be impacted by unexpected plugins/themes.

Pros and cons

Pros of using multisite

These are some of the benefits of choosing a multisite network:

  • Reduced storage requirements.
  • Reduced maintenance time.
  • Faster deployment of new sites.
  • Easier deployment of plugins/themes consistently across the network.
  • Better control over who can install plugins/themes.
  • Centralize the management of who can login to each WordPress site in the network.

Cons of using multisite

These are some of the drawbacks of choosing a multisite network:

  • No individual site backups/restorations.
  • Larger databases.
  • Larger server requirements.
  • Traffic pikes on one site can negatively affect all sites.
  • Not supported by all plugins.
  • More complicated if using separate top-level domains.
  • Many plugins do not support multisite.
  • A problem on the parent site can take down the entire network child sites.

We will discuss the pros and cons in more detail in an upcoming post.

When to use multisite

WordPress multisite is a good fit when sites are closely related. For example, departments at the same university or identical eCommerce sites running in different countries.

In these examples, it makes a lot of sense to share resources across the network.

In contrast, if any of the sites in your network might ever need to be split off and run separately, multisite is not a good choice. Separating the database entries alone would be very problematic.

Thus, using multisite for unrelated clients at a marketing agency would not be advised.

How to enable multisite

Here are the basic steps to installing a multisite network:

  1. `Install a WordPress site as normal, taking care to enable pretty permalinks.
  2. Add the following line to your config.php file:

    define( 'WP_ALLOW_MULTISITE', true );
  3. Refresh your browser and install the multisite network at Administration > Tools > Network Setup.
  4. Follow the on-screen directions to complete installation.

For more details, refer to the official documentation.

Managing a WordPress multisite network

Managing sites

Once installation is complete you can manage the network using the My site link in the admin toolbar. Here you can add and remove sites in the network.

The sites manager shown below highlights management tools for creating, deleting, and archiving sites.

The sites manager in a WordPress multisite network.

Managing plugins & themes

With a multisite network, you’ll also be able to install plugins and themes in a central location and make those available to all of the sites in the network.

As shown below, the installed plugins are activated across the entire network of sites, and can be deactivated and/or deleted as needed. Themes work in a similar manner.

The plugins manager in WordPress multisite.

Managing site admins and access to features

Another benefit of WordPress multisite is centralizing user management and access to sites and features such as plugin installation. In an upcoming post we’ll dig into user management and permissions.

Managing updates

One of the benefits of using a WordPress multisite network is that you only have to update the plugins and themes in one place as the filesystem is shared.

Updating the network begins like updating any WordPress site. But this only updates the main site. There is a second update network step that pushes the updates to all the sites on the network.

We will detail the steps for updating your network in an upcoming post.

Here are some popular plugins that will save you time when maintaining your WordPress multisite network.

Although some of these plugins have not received an update in years, they can be used on the latest version WordPress (6.x at time of this writing) using modern PHP versions like version 8.1.

Ready to get started?