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When to choose multi-site, multi-domain or neither

A multisite setup – generally speaking – allows for more individual freedom between sites. So at a glance, one might think that this immediately makes multisite more attractive than multi-domain. We all prefer more freedom, right? However, this is a double-edged sword. 

| 01 nov 2016

This is the 5th article in a series about 'Multi-site/Multi-domain' solutions.

With a multi-site or multi-domain solution it is possible to create, manage and deploy multiple websites from one Drupal CMS installation without needing Drupal developers or IT support. We told you about what a multi-site/multi-domain solution exactly is, what the differences are and what the advantages/disadvantages are. But when to choose multi-site, multi-domain or neither of them?

A multi-site setup is generally speaking more complex – so more expensive to set up, configure and to manage content in.  

Freedom vs. restrictions

A multisite setup – by allowing individual freedom – can therefore become counterproductive to goals like TCO management. So since an important benefit of a multi-domain or multisite setup comes from lowering IT-complexity and TCO, it’s arguable that choosing the option with more freedom is automatically the best option. It might be beneficial to choose the restrictions and uniformity of multi domain* over multisite freedom. Because despite its restrictions, multi-domain setups often – by enforcing uniformity – may do more to lower TCO cost  than a multi-site setup does, by improving security, shortening the time-to-market of new websites and simplifying content management. 

* as has been pointed out before the multisite and multi-domain aren’t blackand white as depiced here, but for the purpose of this article we’ll stick to this thinking in extremes. 

Acquia Cloud Site Factory

One Shoe is a partner of Acquia. With Acquia's Cloud Site Factory software it's possible to create and deploy tens, hundreds, or thousands of sites through a single dashboard that’s easy to use.

Standardization vs. exceptions

Organizational changes and needs may even be more important to consider than technical challenges and requirements or functional features. It is our experience that few organizations are willing to accept restrictions when all they see is possibility. And within those organizations, few IT managers have mandate to block or refuse anything, even if it’s in the interest of maintenance or security.

So more often than not, what starts out as a great multisite platform that has standardized the online IT landscape and lowers TCO of both development as well as maintenance, can still becomes a support and development nightmare, where the developers are forced to implement exception upon exception until all initial standardization and benefits are lost. With that loss comes an increased TCO and change management challenge which may never return to normal without starting over again.

You know you’ve gone too far when even the developers don’t know how to manage the spaghettified code mess they’ve created any more. 

The key differences between multisite and multi-domain may be subtle. Something that’s a seemingly small detail may push the Drupal architect to switch from one architecture choice to another. It’s these little details that make deciding hard. And in some cases, you should choose neither option. 

Sticking to 'traditional' 1-site-1-CMS setups

Your choice for a multi-site, multi-domain or 1-site-1-cms setup depends on both the short-term and the long-term development of your organization, the IT platform and the KPI’s and specifications of each individual website on it. If you or your organization doubt you’ll be able to keep every stakeholder in check, or if you are unsure how your business needs will change, you may want to stick to “traditional” 1-site-1-CMS setups and spare yourself the trouble of building a multisite solution.

That way, you can probably accommodate for all whims of the organization and any single site can then be killed or changed, without affecting the rest. 

Where to start?

If you consider multisite or multidomain, always ask yourself some questions first. Questions like;

  • What do you hope to gain (from multisite or multi domain solutions)?
  • What’s the problem that (multisite or multi domain) should address?
  • What business case or use case should the (multisite or multi domain solution) support? 
  • What does the long-term scenario for this business case and the user stories look like?

Talk with a Drupal specialist

After you’ve answered these questions for yourself, present the answers to an Drupal expert or Drupal architect with sufficient multisite and multidomain experience and ask him if a multisite or multi-domain solution would help you reach your goals (or those of your target audience).

It’s important to make sure your Drupal developer or Drupal architect knows all the goals and long-term expectations of the project, before starting development, so he or she can make the right base-architecture decisions.

The base-architecture decisions will influence development costs, maintenance costs and freedom of choice throughout your Drupal CMS platform’s lifespan. 

Want to know more?

At One Shoe we have done quite a few multi-site and multi-domain projects, so we’re fairly confident we know the pitfalls and relevant aspects of this subject. We are happy to provide sound advice. Don’t hesitate to contact us for more information. 


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