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Adventures in Wagtail

13 May 2020

Caltech goes multisite with Wagtail

How one of the world’s most prestigious universities addressed the gnarly challenge of site proliferation.

will torchbox.jpg

Will Heinemann

Torchbox New Business Director

Caltech goes multisite with Wagtail.jpg

Universities are complex beasts. Academic divisions, faculties, colleges and student bodies all want their own web presence (uniquely branded, with maximum control of content and structure). Universities can end up creating hundreds of satellite sites. This can cause some pretty big challenges - a sprawling digital estate, lots of different technologies in the mix, no central support or hosting agreements, security issues and so on.

The California Institute of Technology (better know as Caltech), faced this challenge on a big scale. Despite the best efforts of Caltech's web team to centralise their digital estate, over the course of ten years the team were faced with 120 effectively disconnected sites, built on a range of technologies, including Drupal and Rails.

The old world

When the web team were asked to ‘spin up a new site’ for a Caltech department or faculty, they charged a fee. Why? Because each time round they needed to create a new Drupal instance (with a new database), and this needed lots of developer time.

Over time, the Drupal theming framework led to the creation of thousands of page types for pages with different layouts. These sites lacked coherent branding and many were unrecognisable as offshoots of Caltech.

Wagtail powers 200 sites

The Caltech team wanted things to change. They needed a solution that would be flexible but also efficient and simple. A Python-based CMS with enterprise features. They found Wagtail.

Fast forward a year and the Caltech team have already built 200 sites, all powered by a single Wagtail instance. They’ve reduced their servers from nine to two, meaning the Caltech team are now able to make new sites for free across the whole range of programmes.


The team used Wagtail as a multisite system. The Super Admin (in this case, the Caltech developer team) has permissions to make changes and restrictions across all sites. Creating a new site is as simple as entering a new site URL into the admin - something that can be done by non-technical staff.

The benefits:

  • Central management - multiple sites can be accessed and managed (including publishing content to one or more sites) directly via the Wagtail admin UI.
  • Flexible management - the Caltech team can create new sites with their own page trees, assign specific editorial permissions to these groups and modify the look and feel on a site-by-site basis.
  • Shared central document and image handling - i.e. the ability to share assets and content between sites (or to limit them to specific sites, if desired)
  • A powerful, shared search engine - results can be filtered to each site, or aggregated across all sites.
  • Shared performance improvements.
  • Shared benefits from regular, frequent Wagtail feature releases.
  • Reduced ongoing support and maintenance costs.

Above all, Caltech were able to create modern looking, flexible, and easy to build websites with a unified theme, and a simple and structured way to manage them. Wagtail even powers their digital signage.

What’s next?

Caltech continue to shift their remaining Rails and Drupal sites to Wagtail, and are on the road to greater integration of timetabling and student systems into their main site.

We hope other large .edus will follow suit and follow some of these principles to simplify their digital estates.