University of St Andrews has hosted its own WordPress multisite for a long time. Myself, along with countless other faculty members and researchers have found the multisite to be a wonderful tool for disseminating research results, collaborating with others in our respective fields of study and sharing information from the university with the outside world.   

As a content management platform, WordPress has been a big part of the multisite’s success. As it is so user-friendly, we’ve found that contributors are able to quickly create a website or blog and configure and administer it without needing specialist programming knowledge. Over time, this ease of use has allowed more than 200 research groups and other university organizations to create sites within the content management system.

However, as that list of contributors has continued to grow, so has the responsibility of keeping the platform up to date and secure. We found this ongoing maintenance to be an increasingly burdensome task and a couple of years ago, we began looking for an outside partner that could take on the responsibility of providing the university with a more secure and stable environment.

THE SEARCH BEGINS

We began looking at various providers and the costs associated with each, which varied tremendously. We were looking for a professional level of service that included a high level of support, but a number of the companies we looked at (all solely U.S. based) weren’t able to offer support in the UK due to the time zone difference.

Around the same time, I met WP Engine’s Senior Sales Rep in the UK, Jon Bird, at an institutional web management workshop in Liverpool. He provided me with a demo of WP Engine’s Digital Experience Platform which was quite impressive, and the level of 24/7/365 support he offered was great. WP Engine also had experience supporting higher education institutions and Jon assured us that our data would be kept in servers located in the UK, alleviating concerns about privacy and data protection.

After we had established that WP Engine could meet all of our WordPress requirements and satisfied our Procurement Office, we decided that they were an ideal partner for Digital Communications at St Andrews. The next step was to migrate over all of our existing WordPress sites onto the WP Engine platform!

THE GREAT MIGRATION

We migrated over in March of 2018 and the process was seamless. One of the only issues we needed to tackle was how we were going to manage user logins using the university’s single sign-on service.

To remedy this, we used the WordPress Authorizer plugin which allowed users to authenticate their identity using the university’s Client Access Server (CAS). Configuring the plugin was relatively easy, but we had issues with users needing to repeatedly log in in order to manage their sites. Ultimately, our WP Engine support team helped us resolve the issue by forcing all links to go over https.  

Following the migration, we had a few additional, minor issues with some missing images on certain sites, but again, these were quickly resolved by our WP Engine support team.

The homepage for University of St Andrews’ WordPress multisite, powered by WP Engine

EFFECTIVE CUSTOMER SUPPORT

In general, WP Engine’s customer support has been excellent and we have 24/7/365 access to WordPress technicians via email and online chat. Using the chat function, we’ve found that support staff is consistently available within minutes of initiating an online chat session. We’ve also been able to resolve most of our issues this way, with only one or two issues being transferred to a support ticket that is handled using a separate system.

If you prefer troubleshooting an issue on your own before engaging with WP Engine’s support team, they also offer an impressive archive of support topics online. While we have been more than satisfied with our chat support interactions, this archive has also proven to be extremely useful.

STAGING, BACKUPS AND NO MORE LOST WORK

Another WP Engine feature we’ve been pleased with is the staging function, which is available on the platform but not always taken advantage of (or even known about). A staging site allows users to perform testing that is independent of the parent site, and it benefits from not having any caching so it’s ideal for development purposes. Many of our multisite users have enjoyed using this function to test out new plugins, try out new themes and generally improve their sites in different ways.

WP Engine also provides its customers with backups every day and keeps those backups for up to 30 days. Further, creating a manual backup point prior to updating a plugin or a new theme is also very easy to do.

While both the staging environment and daily backup functions may seem trivial, they have been invaluable for many of our multisite users. Hard work that may have been previously lost due to outages, plugin compatibility issues or other incidents are no longer a worry, and our researchers can continue to focus on their research rather than fret about how it will live on WordPress.  

AUTO UPDATES = PEACE OF MIND

Finally, one of the biggest advantages we’ve experienced with our shift to WP Engine has been the automatic updates they provide for every WordPress account.

Prior to moving to WP Engine, we would spend a lot of time providing updates to WordPress core. The process would typically involve manually copying content from the production server to the test server and then updating the test install before eventually updating the live install. Due to the sheer amount of time this would take, we were always behind the latest version of WordPress. Having WP Engine take care of these updates for us has been a huge relief.

All in all, it’s been this partnership—knowing someone is looking after us at all times— that has been the most valuable part of our WP Engine experience. We can continue to do what we do best, our research and academic work, while WP Engine does what they do best: WordPress.  

See also:

University of St Andrews digital communications blog