Hands-on: WordPress 3.0 adds better customization and multisite networks

The new version of WordPress includes useful new features for both single-site bloggers and organizational admins.

The open-source content management system WordPress turned seven years old last month. In its lifetime, it has attracted a devout following: More than 28,000 people download WordPress every day, with over 11.4 million active installations, including news outlets and corporate sites.

To commemorate the anniversary, WordPress is leaping forward this month with the release of Version 3.0, nearly five years after the debut of 2.0. The biggest change is integration with the previously separate WordPress MU (Multi-User) variation, which allows multiple blogs to be operated from a single WordPress installation and database.

The new version abounds in other new features while retaining the user-friendliness that has set WordPress apart from open-source alternatives Drupal and Joomla. (This review is based on the WordPress 3.0-RC3-15257 prerelease version, which came out a few days before Version 3.0; as far as I know, there are no significant differences.)

Installation

WordPress offers a Web-based interface for writing, publishing and consuming content, primarily text- and image-based content. It can be installed on any computer or server with at least PHP 4.3 and MySQL 4.1.2. Many hosting companies offer one-click installations of WordPress, though these packages are often a version or two behind the latest release.

Some basic configuration occurs during the installation, including naming the blog. Previous versions of WordPress automatically created an administrator account named "admin" with a randomly generated password. As a security measure, users were encouraged to create a new administrative account and delete the default one; otherwise, hackers would already know the username half of your log-in credentials. This security flaw has been rectified by allowing an administrator username and password to be manually defined during installation.

Incidentally, if you're already running WordPress 2.7 or later, upgrading to 3.0 is as easy as clicking the "Update Automatically" button -- but make a full backup of your current WordPress files and MySQL database first, just in case.

Multisite networks

The most dramatic change in WordPress 3.0 is the ability to host multiple sites. Using one installation of WordPress 3.0, thousands of users can each have their own blogs under a common domain name.

WordPress 3.0

Plug-ins can be activated for the main site in a multisite network.

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Most users of this configuration are large-scale entities that have previously relied on WordPress MU. For example, Best Buy uses such a setup to give each of its retail stores its own blog and event calendar. WordPress divides The New York Times beats across multiple blogs. And Harvard Law School uses WordPress to offer a free blogging platform to any of its faculty, staff and students.

WordPress 3.0 comes with support for these blogs to exist as either subdirectories (example.com/blog) or subdomains (blog.example.com). Unofficially, it also supports multiple domains via a domain-mapping plug-in.

Since one blog is enough for many WordPress users, the default installation supports only one site. Enabling the multisite function requires users to manually edit the wp-config.php file, activate a WordPress network and then follow on-screen instructions to apply further changes to both the wp-config.php and .htaccess files. It's not as tedious as it sounds, but these steps constitute a sufficient enough barrier to prevent unsuspecting users from stumbling across the multisite feature.

When I updated my testbed from WordPress 2.9.2 to 3.0, I was told that the subdirectory option was only available to new installs. Unfortunately, my hosting plan was not set up to use subdomains, which requires adding a wildcard subdomain to your DNS records. The choice between subdirectories and subdomains is given only once, and there's no easy way to switch between them afterward.

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