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Best Practices for Building a University Multisite with Drupal

Setting up a Drupal multisite for universities and colleges is one of the go-to strategies for content management. The Drupal website content management system (CMS) is scalable, secure, and open-sourced, so you can access the technology you need to keep up with the complexities of higher education.

So, how can you leverage a Drupal multisite to ensure that you deliver a consistent brand experience while giving departments and staff members the flexibility to manage their own microsites? Start by reading this comprehensive guide about the best practices for building a university multisite with Drupal!

Drupal Multisite: The Basics

Before we dive into things to consider when building a university multisite with Drupal, it is important to start with the basics: what is a Drupal multisite and how does it work?

A Drupal multisite is a platform that allows you to run many different websites with one single codebase. The codebase serves as the set of standardized elements and common resources for the websites - but the multisite structure allows each one to remain independent. 

Another way to think about it is that you are creating separate websites within the single codebase you develop. Each site is entirely separate, though, and can contain its own content and database. You can even host each of the websites on a separate server!

It can achieve this by creating a folder for each unique website within the /sites/ folder of the Drupal platform. Every folder connects to a different database and has its own settings and binary files. 

The Drupal maps the request when it reaches the server to determine which database and configuration to load. This functionality is what enables it to serve different themes, modules, and content to each website. 

The system administrators can implement limitations too. For example, Drupal can control what sites can access themes and models by putting them in a folder that only certain websites can access. 

If you want to create a structure that allows you to standardize code, features, and functionality – while reducing maintenance and cost – the multisite approach is ideal. The Drupal multisite installation is perfect for universities and colleges since it allows different departments, faculty, and staff to run their sites as needed.

Benefits of a Drupal Multisite

Although the concept of a Drupal multisite is fairly simple, it can help you build a robust platform. It is one of the most effective ways to serve many websites from a singular codebase.

Here are some of the most powerful benefits of building a university multisite with Drupal:

Reuse your Code and Themes

Perhaps the biggest benefit of a Drupal multisite is the ability to reuse the code and themes you’ve already built. That means all you need to do is build a feature one time, and you can deploy it to every other website!

Although you could technically reuse your code without a multisite, that is much more difficult in practice. With a Drupal multisite all the websites are on a singular platform – so everything you build works out of the box. 

The same concept can be applied to themes. After you build a base theme, you can create additional ones that inherit the foundations but add additional accents and more. This will save your developers a ton of frontend work, as the base and child themes will work on all devices. 

Reduce Maintenance and Coding Requirements

Another reason that building a multisite with Drupal can benefit universities and colleges is that it reduces maintenance and coding requirements. It is no secret that less code means less trouble and maintenance, and a Drupal multisite can help you achieve that – without sacrificing flexibility and functionality. 

Reviewing code, ensuring that it is up to date, and maintaining a high standard is easier when everything is managed within one system. Consider how much time it will save when a bug fix can be deployed to all your websites at one time!

Quickly Launch New Sites

Drupal multisite also allow you to quickly launch new websites – without hiring a larger staff or spending more on development. If you build a Drupal multisite that includes an installation profile, a new website boilerplate can be launched in a matter of hours – if not minutes.

Simply put, the installation profile captures all the configurations and functionality that will be launched again and again. That makes the multisite approach one of the fastest ways to deploy new websites. 

The site can be ready for content entry with limited IT support, too - so your faculty, staff, and research departments can get started right away.

Best Practices for Your University Multisite

Now that you understand what a Drupal multisite is – and the benefits they provide for universities and colleges – let’s review a best practice checklist for building and designing a website. You must implement these best practices while you develop your multisite so that you can optimize its performance and obtain the maximum benefits.

These best practices include reviewing your hosting capabilities, prototyping before scaling, automating testing and deployment, implementing governance policies, leveraging the open-source community, and partnering with a digital agency. 

Analyze your Hosting Capabilities

The first thing you must do when building a Drupal multisite for universities and colleges is analyzing your hosting capabilities. You need to ensure that your hosting infrastructure can support it and allow it to function properly. 

You need to be able to manage multiple domains pointing exactly where directed, as well as a carefully tailored deployment mechanism. Most of the larger hosting providers support Drupal multisite, but not all of them do – so make sure that you check before moving forward. 

Prototype Before you Start to Scale

Another valuable best practice is to prototype before you start to scale. Take time to understand what your users need and how you can best develop your codebase. If you try to scale too quickly before building an accurate prototype, you may run into issues down the road. 

Automate Testing and Deployment

Every time you change the base theme or adjust the code, you have to deploy it to all the websites. The most efficient way to ensure that you didn't create new issues or break something on the live websites is to automate testing and deployment. 

Manually doing this can be time-consuming and tedious – plus it increases the risk of human error. Automating these processes can help your organization maintain high-quality sites in the long run. 

Implement Governance Policies for Site Owners

Although one of the benefits of building a multisite with Drupal is the freedom that individual site owners have to develop content, you must implement standard governance policies. This will ensure that you deliver a consistent experience under the university umbrella. 

Leverage the Open-Source Community

Drupal is completely open-source, so it has a large community of users that share ideas and support one another. They are the leading content management system for universities and colleges, so leverage those resources to improve your multisite deployment. 

Work with Drupal Multisite Experts

The most effective way to implement these best practices is to work with Drupal multisite experts, like OPIN digital. We can provide strategic guidance, creative design, and software development to ensure that your university multisite is successful.

Ryan Pelicos

Marketing Coordinator

Ryan is a passionate storyteller who thrives on challenging the status quo. He is an avid researcher with a keen analytical mind able to strategize on technology, sales and marketing decisions by analyzing data and behaviours across various industries and technologies.



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