One of the first technical decisions you’ll need to make before you begin building your turnkey platform is the type of software platform you’re going to build it on.
Your choice of platform will determine how your WaaS system is structured on the back-end, how individual websites will be provisioned for your customers, and how easy it will all be to maintain.
In other words, this is a pretty important decision!
There are three things your turnkey platform must be able to do: provision new sites, do so automatically, and make it all as easy to maintain as possible.
The “turnkey” part of a turnkey website system is that you have one (or a few) website configurations that you can easily “spin off” for your clients. That’s the primary function your platform must be able to deliver.
You can then multiply the efficiency of your system by automating the entire process. This will allow your customers to sign up, pay, and receive their website automatically without your involvement. I’ve touched on how automation is an important goal if you want to be able to scale your service in order to maximize your potential reach and income.
Finally, you want to be able to maintain all of the websites together for the sake of consistency. The goal here is to have hundreds of users on your platform. Maintaining that many separate installs can be a recipe for disaster. Not only will all those websites start to drift apart from a consistency stand-point, but each one will take up a chunk of storage and DB space. Ideally, we want to find a solution that allows us to update one set of core files that power all of our websites.
When looking for a platform solution, you’re looking for the ability to have your turnkey websites duplicated, automated, maintained, and remain consistent. For this, I recommend using WordPress Multisite.
Let’s get the easiest question out of the way first. If you’re reading this you’re most likely already a WordPress convert. However for the few of you who may not be a fan of WP, I just wanted to take a brief moment in this section to explain why I believe it’s the best software for building turnkey websites (or any websites for that matter).
Plugin and Theme Ecosystem
This is by far the top reason why I think WordPress is the right choice for this. If it weren’t for the robust and extensive list of WordPress plugins, I wouldn’t have been able to piece together my WaaS (Website as a Service) system nearly as quickly or as affordably.
Bevause WordPress is so popular, it attracts plugin developers. If there’s a piece of functionality you want on your website, it’s probably already been created as a plugin. That’s no different when it comes to WordPress plugins turnkey websites. There is a growing ecosystem of plugins available to help you build a turnkey solution. You can even use many traditional WordPress plugins to enhance your platform.
If you’re not comfortable with relying on 3rd-party code to run your turnkey platform, keep in mind that you can develop your own plugins to accomplish much of what 3rd party plugins will do. That of course will take lots of time and/or money. Instead, you can start out using 3rd party plugins and over time develop your own custom solutions to replace the plugins. I’ve done that for things like SEO, theme customization, and other aspects of my own WaaS.
If you choose to develop your own functionality, whether you hire a developer or do it yourself, there are tons of resources available.
WordPress was made for this
WordPress is made for making it easy for your customers to update their websites and for you as the developer/consultant to deliver it to them. In fact, WordPress has it’s own turnkey WaaS platform, it’s called WordPress.com!
Turnkey WordPress Solutions Compared
I hope now we’re in agreement that WordPress is a good solution for turnkey. It will save you time, money, and frustration. However, there are many ways to clone and deliver websites quickly. The top options are cloning, multitenancy, and multisite. Let’s explore each.
The most straightforward solution is to simply build a website and then clone it. There are numerous ways to clone a website, such as using a server-side script or a duplicator plugin. Some hosts even offer the ability to copy a website with one click of a button.
This is a great solution for creating cookie-cutter websites that look the same when they’re deployed, but issues can start to arise after that.
First of all, each website needs to use the full resources of a WP install, meaning a separate database instance and a separate install directory. On some managed hosting platforms, this means paying for an entirely separate account.
Secondly, there’s no way to ensure consistency moving forward, especially when you want to deploy new features, plugins, or updates. Since each website is its own stand-alone WP install, even if you deploy everything exactly the same across all websites, there will naturally be some deviation among the websites over time. This is bad news if your goal is scale and automation.
Which brings me to scale. Management of multiple single installs becomes costly and cumbersome once you reach a certain threshold. Currently, I have more than 150 websites on my platform. Managing all of those websites independently, or even using a service like ManageWP, can start to get costly and prone to errors with that number of sites.
Multitenancy is a specific software configuration that allows multiple websites to run off of one instance of WP. I’m honestly not an expert on multitenancy, and I think that’s part of the problem.
In order to get this to work, you need to know the technicalities of server hosting and you’ll need to configure it yourself on your web server. Managed WordPress hosts don’t support multitenancy, which means you’d need to set up and maintain your own hardware or virtual private server (VPS).
I think this approach is best if you’re looking to save server resources for your custom client websites; for turnkey websites, it’s a bit of overkill. Plus, I’m not sure how you would automate the process for users to sign up and get a website. The goal of our platform is to be completely automated, and multitenancy doesn’t quite cut it.
I haven’t found anything better than WordPress Multisite for automation, scale, and management.
Here are some of the top reasons why multisite is the right platform for your turnkey solution:
- It is a stable, well-supported platform.
- Many plugins and services support it.
- Many managed WP hosts support it.
- Multisite is already built in to WordPress.
- It’s easy to keep your websites updated and consistent.
- Multisite-enabled plugins make it easy to manage network settings from a central interface.
- Theme updates and tweaks only need to be done once and they will apply to all of your websites.
- No additional technical knowledge is required. If you can manage a WP website, you can learn to manage a multisite install.
Note: When you install multisite, you’ll need to set it up to support subdomains (as opposed to subfolders) for your sites. This is crucial in order to allow your users to map their own domains.
Multisite Concerns Addressed
While I consider WordPress multisite to be the platform panacea for the WaaS model, I continue to hear push back from some about it’s benefits. I’d like to take a moment to address some concerns I’ve heard in case you may be harboring similar apprehension.
- It’s Not Secure – I think the big reason people feel multisite is insecure is because in essence you’re hosting multiple users and websites on one single install of WordPress. It feels as though there’s a single point of failure, so if one website gets breached, they all do. While technically that is true, the only way for your entire network to get breached is if you, as the super admin, allow someone to gain access through your account or if you allow a plugin or theme vulnerability to go on un-patched. Both of these scenarios can be mitigated by following WordPress security best practices and using a secure host like WPEngine. It’s a misnomer that the users on your network could open a security vulnerability because WordPress does a great job of locking down the permissions and access of sub-site admins so that they do not have access to cause damage to your network.
- It Doesn’t Scale Well – This one is easy to debunk by pointing to existing multisite platforms that host hundreds of thousands of websites, like Edublogs, CampusPress, and even WordPress.com. Multisite itself is not the bottleneck. Your hosting resources are. That isn’t a unique problem for multisite. If anything, working off of shared resources, as is the case with multisite, lessens the burden on your server.
- Users Can’t Easily Migrate Away – This used to be much more of an issue than it is now. These days, there are multiple ways that a website can be migrated off of a multisite network. You can always export their content using the native WordPress export tool. There are also plenty of plugins that allow you to migrate a subsite off of multisite and onto a stand-alone WordPress installation including Backup Buddy, All in One WP Migration, and WP Migrate DB Pro.
- It’s Hard to Manage – I tend to hear this from people who haven’t properly gotten to know WordPress multisite. It’s true that multisite is a different animal than stand-alone WordPress. It does take some time to get used to it. But once you do, it’s a cinch to manage users, subsites, plugins, and themes for your whole network. Much easier than trying to wrangle multiple single WordPress copies.
I believe WordPress Multisite offers the best blend of reliability, ease-of-use, scalability, and extensibility that makes it the perfect candidate for hosting an automated turnkey WaaS. While I’m currently all-on on multisite, I’m certainly not above being convinced that there is a better turnkey platform out there. I’d love to hear your recommendations in the comments below!