Drupal multisite configuration problems

Drupal multisite setup configuration

I’ve adopted Drupal for a majority of my online activities in the past year. It has enough of the things I like and is much faster and more stable than previous CMS or forum software I’ve used. However, some documentation seems to be lacking. Multisite configuration with Apache using a single Drupal codebase is one area.

I finally decided to try a project in which I would use a common codebase for Drupal across all of my websites. That is, rather than having a directory for each website that has a Drupal installation in it, I thought I would take advantage of Drupal’s multisite functionality by having one drupal installation (codebase) in a central directory and have all the project websites point to it.

Drupal multisite advantages

The advantages of Drupal’s multisite feature are easy to spot.

First, a common codebase means only one codebase to change during an update – even though drupal requires you to update each websites database separately.
Second, using an intermediary cache like APC for PHP means that you can use less server memory caching files across multiple websites because the core files are the same.

Despite this great feature and its advantages, there is much confusion at the Drupal.org website from patrons as to what is the correct way to set this up. The Drupal install file goes into it pretty good, but leaves out one important detail – the web server configuration. Some purists say that is an Apache issue and we should leave that to the Apache mailing list but hey, PHP does a pretty good job of detailing the Apache configuration in their instructions so Drupal could too.

Most people who administer their own websites would follow a ritual in creating a new website. Create a directory for the new website, create the www subdirectory and then configure the Apache DirectoryRoot directive. With a single codebase used by multiple domains and websites you need a different approach.

The missing multisite ‘key’

The most important thing here is to make sure each website’s DocumentRoot in the Apache configuration points to the common drupal directory. This is an unusual configuration for most people but it works well.

The idea is that Drupal receives information from PHP (and Apache) to tell it which website it is supposed to serve. When it determines that, it will retrieve the correct configuration file (database passwords and URL base) from the Drupal ‘sites/’ subdirectory. That’s how it can determine which website to display.

Here is a quick breakdown.

Install Drupal in a common directory. Here I chose /var/lib/drupal-4.7.4


Some people use a symbolic link to point Drupal to the correct distribution. I’ve done this but I suggest not doing it. Instead install your Drupal installation in a single directory titled according to it’s version number. That is, use the same directory structure and names that Drupal gave when you extracted the zip or tarball.

Why? If you have a couple sites and it comes time to upgrade you can run into trouble. It is easy to just recreate a symbolic link pointing ‘drupal/’ to ‘drupal-4.7.4’ but unfortunately that affects ALL your websites instantly. Not good on a production server. If you have 50 websites this means that you have 50 sites using the new codebase and the same 50 websites awaiting your hand to manually update their databases using Drupal’s supplied script. If any of those 50 are accessed during this wait period you’ll be in trouble.

The other disadvantage of the symbolic link comes if you are using third-party supplied modules. You forgot that 5 out of your 50 websites are using a module that isn’t being maintained on the same schedule as the Drupal project and guess what? It breaks your website. I’ve found that frequently a misbehaving module or even an errant ‘files’ path in the Drupal settings will disable all other Drupal modules. Best to avoid this altogether.

You can save yourself from both of these negative scenarios by simply putting Drupal in the supplied directory name and then adjusting your Apache DocumentRoot directive as you update them. It is an extra step but very easy.

The final advantage of not using a symbolic link is that you can hold a stable website. That is, you can have a couple different versions of Drupal on your server used by different websites. Several hosting providers do this with PHP and that is a very good example. If you upgrade to PHP 6 for one project you’ll find it doesn’t work with Drupal so you need to keep an old version of PHP installed for non-compliant websites. With Drupal I’ve found that once in a while a website gets working just right and I don’t want to update it. Or I quit monitoring it. Or it is an informational content only website with no subscriptions allowed. Or a million other reasons. Basically I will ‘freeze’ that website and not allow anymore code updates. Or, say you have a module that you use but the author abandoned it long ago. It won’t work with Drupal 6 for example. Simply freeze the website and only update your other websites with the new Drupal codebase. Keeping a couple distributions around can be handy but it means that you can’t point them to the codebase with a symbolic link.

Unzip the new codebase in parallel to the old.

# tar zxvf drupal-4.7.x.tar.gz

Backup the database for the website you are about to update.
Exact commands vary with which database you are using.

Edit Apache config file to change one website at a time.

# vi extra/httpd-vhosts.conf


DocumentRoot /var/www/example.com/www
ServerName www.example.com


DocumentRoot /var/lib/drupal-4.7.4
ServerName www.example.com

Restart Apache so the config takes effect

# apachectl graceful

Visit the Drupal supplied database update URL for your website.


Watch for errors and check your logs. Visit the website and check the settings to make sure all modules still show up under the admin -> settings menu.

If successful, continue on with the next website on your server.