WordPress to the nth Power: Multisite and Beyond

WordPress to the nth Power: Multisite and Beyond
Curtiss Grymala, University Webmaster, University of Mary Washington

Last year about this time, University of Mary Washington launched its new website using WordPress (WP) for its CMS. In the intro to his presentation, Curtiss Grymala, webmaster at UMC, explained that the overarching university site comprises 250 sites set up within site and 40 different networks, each of those with different multi-site installations.

Curtiss used a great analogy for the differences between single sites, multi-sites and multi-networks.

He compared a single WP site to a single family home. This is your own home. You can paint the siding and shutters any color you want. You can install any system you want. And you are responsible for upkeep and repairs.

A WP multi-site was compared to a row home or townhouse. You may be able to change interior, and if you are lucky, choose an exterior color or install a climate control or security system, but mostly likely you will need approval for that. But, in this case, you are not responsible for the trash removal or general upkeep of the property—there is a supervisor for that. But, if one townhouse burns down, the others connected will likely also burn down.

The WP multi-network, then, is like a subdivision of houses and townhouses. He also likens this to a college residence hall. The residence hall has a few wings, each with a few resident assistants, and then there is likely a coordinator in charge of all the RAs. So, there, there are many levels of control and with varying permissions within this one unit. The resident can do what he wants in his room, but then there are several levels of authority above.

Curtiss went on to say that the real explanation of these differences is almost as simple as his layman’s terms.

WP multi-site started out as a separate branch, WP MU. “Blog” was a term they used for single site you were the owner of; “site” a term for overarching WP installation. Curtiss explains that now this is “flipped their heads”; the term for a single site you’re the owner of is “site” and the overarching installation is now a “network.”

Curtiss listed three options for installing WP Multi-network, using a single plug-in:

• Networks Plus – Ron and Andrew Rennick

• WP Multisite Network – John James Jacoby

• Networks for WP by David Dean

After the explanation of the differences of the installations and covered recommended plug-ins, Curtiss explained more in-depth about the structure of Mary Washington’s site. Networks are used as subdomains; sites within those networks are subdirectory sites. He said that nested subdomains could have been an option, though he opted not to do that.

But wait; WP Multi-Network not only “slices and dices and juliennes fries – but it does more!” said Curtiss. He added that a network admins, or Super Admins, are the ones who are able to install plug-ins, edit and install themes. WP Multi-Network allows you to control how super admins are able to use the system through a plug-in called Extended Super Admin. From here, you can remove permission levels from network admins that you can’t do within WP alone.

Side Effects

Curtiss said that WP Multi-Network isn’t going to be good for everyone and that there could be issues with plug-ins or themes that are coded poorly. Also, if a specific plug-in can’t be network activated, it can’t be multi-network activate either.


Curitss shared that the WP install is integrated with Active Directory, meaning users aren’t logging in directly through WP. Passwords are instead managed through Active Directory. This prevents usernames and passwords from being ‘out there’.