Multiple installations vs. WordPress Multisite?

As leaked at the end of the previous post, I intended to have multiple websites. Granted, all I needed was a website for my podcast, but I was looking at the big picture right from the start. What if I decide to launch a second podcast, or a third…? Of course, there is also this blog (Beyond) that is unfolding this podcasting adventure almost in real time. In addition, I was envisioning a main website displaying all my activities – a landing page, sort of.

Here is the catch1: my hosting plan let me run only one website (see Getting my web host). Fortunately, it allows unlimited subdomains. This opens the possibility to have several different sites as long as they remain underneath the same domain name. Now, WordPress doesn’t take much disk space2, but having multiple WordPress instances might eventually exceed my allocated 10 GB of storage space, among other limited resources. Each WordPress installation would indeed take a significant amount of resources on the server. Unless…

What if there was another option to create several websites?

What if there was a feature that allows multiple virtual sites to share a single WordPress installation? In fact, WordPress 3.0 introduced this very feature – called WordPress Multisite – back in 2010. It allows creating multiple websites using the same WordPress installation – rather than installing WordPress several times.

By installing WordPress just once on your server, you can run as many sites as you want.Rachel McCollin

Multisite is already built into WordPress, but disabled by default. It is free and super scalable (you can have as many sites as you want). However – no matter how enticing WordPress Multisite is – before to enable it, I wanted to ascertain whether it was the right solution for me. The issue was not trivial given the constraint of my hosting plan. Furthermore, several articles were stressing how complex Multisite could be and were advising against this powerful feature. So, which option was best for me: multiple standard WordPress installations or a WordPress Multisite Network?

Multiple Standard WordPress Installations vs One WordPress Multisite

The advantages of WordPress Multisite (as compared to multiple single installations)

It is important to clarify that I was considering this feature to build several websites – not to create a full-blown network per se. In particular, I was not interested in allowing end users to create new sites on demand – a typical use case for the multisite network feature, as exemplified by In other words, if I opted for the multisite feature over several standard WordPress installations, I would be the sole administrator of my websites (or my small personal/private network, to be semantically correct). Therefore, any arguments regarding other users were irrelevant.

Less resources

As I already said, each WordPress installation takes a significant amount of resources. Logically, this increases with the more instances you have. Therefore, having WordPress only installed once produces a smaller footprint on the server. Similarly, when the multisite feature is enabled, themes and plugins are stored just once and shared across the network, resulting in less server space usage and strain.

Clearly, Multisite would be less resource-intensive than all the separate WordPress installs. However, this is factual only when running more than three or four sites, as WordPress Multisite requires more server memory (RAM) than typical WordPress sites2. Similarly, having separate themes and plugins for each site would defeat the gain of sharing the server space.

More convenient

Quickly I recognized the full worth of WordPress Multisite. In particular, when it comes to managing multiple WordPress websites, it definitively beats the standalone WordPress option3.

Managing several different sites can be unwieldy and tedious – Multisite makes it a breeze.

A single dashboard

Jumping from one website to another can be frustrating and time-consuming when managing several single WordPress instances. Because Multisite is actually a single WordPress installation, you don’t have to deal with the hassle of logging in and out of many websites. Not only you need only one set of credentials, but also you can access all the sites of the network from a single dashboard. From there, you can manage everything at the network level or for each individual site. For instance, you can handle themes and plugins for the whole network and publish content on any of your websites.

A single update

WordPress updates are easier to deal with. Instead of updating each site separately, you just need to update your WordPress installation once. This is without a doubt a huge energy and time saver advantage as this applies not only to the WordPress core, but also to plugins and themes.

A single backup

Likewise, because the sites of the network are using the same code and the same database, you can stick to a single backup for all the websites. Importantly, a proper backup includes both files and database, and whether you have a standalone WordPress installation or a Multisite Network, you need to backup both. Hence, it is much simpler to backup WordPress Multisite.

Issues with WordPress Multisite

Interestingly, the enumeration of Cons was greatly varying from one source to another. Indeed, while agreeing that Multisite was absolutely worth it, some articles were listing so many issues that, at the end, it was not a feasible option anymore. Little comments like WordPress Multisite is a complex solution or it’s a great feature and works really well – until it doesn’t. Of course, the solution was to use their management tools or services instead (see the Evaluation of sources section in my How to podcast? post for an account on biased information).

Another problem with most articles related to the use cases of WordPress Multisite. Specifically, the typical applications for a multisite network are three-fold according to Rachel McCollin4:

  • A privately run network of sites or blogs for an individual or business
  • A network of client sites installed and administered by a developer
  • A network which people can add their own sites to

Here, I need to reiterate that I was in the first situation: a small personal/private network. Why this is important? Because most of the (Pros and) Cons of WordPress Multisite were business-oriented; in particular, addressing concerns specifically related to the last two use cases. However, any arguments regarding other administrators or users were of no matter to me. For example, I didn’t care that the control exercised by the site administrators over the individual sites is clipped (as compared to the one of the Super Admin5). I would be the sole administrator, hence the Super Admin as well!

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

Similarly, some of the issues described in those articles were not pertinent given my configuration, i.e. a shared hosting plan. That all sites on the network share the same resources was a good example of such potential issues. Indeed, the alternative – several WordPress instances on the same account – would involve the same limitation. Other similar concerns were of the kind: any spike in traffic to any one site on the network may affect the speed of all the other sites on the network. Other problems were that each site cannot have its own IP address or cannot be hosted separately. All inconsequential!

Anyway, the strongest argument against Multisite – asides that it requires higher technical knowledge – was that many plugins are not compatible with this feature. While this will definitively reduce the number of available plugins, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, the choice of plugins is so overwhelming that filtering out those that are not compatible could ease the selection process. Besides, insofar as developers have to put in some special effort to make their plugins compatible, these Multisite plugins should inherently be better coded – a token of quality, kind of.

Time for decision

To sum up, my initial question was not about the Pros and Cons of WordPress Multisite, but rather which option – multiple standard WordPress installations vs WordPress Multisite – was most appropriate for my use case (i.e. creating several websites running on multiple subdomains while taking into account my limited configuration). My initial impression was that WordPress Multisite was too complex and potentially risky, yet, the benefits of this feature – its amazing management capabilities, in particular – convinced me.

You should use a network of sites [when] you want multiple sites and one installation.Lisa Sabin-Wilson

Again, I would be the single owner and administrator – no other administrators or users – of a small handful of websites – no full-blown network – all being on one shared hosting account. For these reasons, most of the drawbacks involved with Multisite (i.e. applying to different use cases only) were of no consequence. It is not saying that Multisite was without disadvantages (e.g. the issue with plugin compatibility), but they were minor compared to the pluses. Furthermore, in regards to complexity, installing multiple standalone WordPress instances on a single shared hosting account had nothing to envy to a network creation6.

Now, deciding on using WordPress Multisite was one thing, creating the network was another. In fact, before to begin, there were additional considerations.

To be continued…

1 Granted, I could have upgraded my plan (unlimited amount of websites with the recommended GrowBig plan, for instance) – the reason, among others, why I chose SiteGround as my hosting provider. However, the StartUp plan was a better fit for my current traffic – not mentioning my budget. ^
2 Lisa Sabin-Wilson (2017) WordPress All-in-One For Dummies – Third Edition. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. ^
3 There are tools to manage multiple separate WordPress installations, namely WordPress Management Tools. However, most, if not all, of them are premium services, meaning you have to pay to use them, whereas Multisite is completely free. ^
4 Rachel McCollin (2018) The Ultimate Guide to WordPress Multisite. wpmudev. ^
5 The Network Admin (aka Super Admin) has the highest level of access and full capabilities to manage all sites on the network. In particular, he has the ability to perform tasks, such as installing new themes and plugins, which are no more accessible to the site administrators. ^
6 I will not address the former scenario, as I didn’t implement it. Nevertheless, if you are interested in this approach, you may consider watching the following two short videos by Tutorial Bites. The first described how to add a subdomain using cPanel in SiteGround and the second how to install WordPress on a subdomain using cPanel. This article by Creative Website Design may also interest you as it explains how important it is to set up your SSL prior to installing the WordPress software. ^

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