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  • MediaWiki

Wikipedia's distinctive layout and styling is a direct result of MediaWiki, the software used to power it. MediaWiki is a free, open source wiki application that many web hosting companies offer on their plans. If you need to set up a wiki for a project, MediaWiki should be on your list of potential solutions.

What is MediaWiki?

MediaWiki was originally released specifically for Wikipedia in 2002, after the site had launched. The online encyclopaedia found that its original platform, UseModWiki, was slowing down as it scaled up, and it needed a better way to host the huge number of articles it held.

The third, stable version of the MediaWiki application took around a year to bring to the fore. The main developer was Magnus Manske, who switched from Perl to PHP and used MySQL as the backend database. The code was soon rewritten by Lee Daniel Crocker and released to the public in 2003.

Its foundations have stood it in good stead, since it was designed to handle massive amounts of content and huge visitor numbers. MediaWiki has essentially been tested by one of the busiest and most demanding sites on the planet, and it shows. Thousands of customers are confident in its abilities; it is used by the US government and WikiLeaks, to cite two very diverse clientele.

The software is free and open source. It is developed and patched by a large number of volunteers and a small team of development staff and continues to be updated and improved.

Use Cases

Aside from Wikipedia, MediaWiki has been used for other projects developed under the Wikimedia brand, including Wiktionary. It supports specialised content, such as mathematical formulae, hieroglyphs and media galleries, making it suitable for practically any purpose. Thousands of other users run their own wikis on the web, on internal intranets and in schools.

Permissions can be granted for users or groups, and users can automatically be added to a group when their behaviour fits a particular pattern. For example, a user that edits articles frequently could be promoted to a group with more rights than a casual editor. Admin users have ultimate permissions, including the ability to change the way the wiki software looks.

Editing Features

MediaWiki uses a particular type of markup, known as MediaWiki syntax. This is different to HTML code, yet follows similar conventions. It's designed to be easy to use for non-technical editors, and was designed specifically to be readable. Despite this, users will almost certainly need a cheat sheet to create formatting and insert images. There's also a toolbar that makes it much easier to quickly format text without typing the syntax by hand.

Links are the primary method of navigation, and MediaWiki automatically detects broken links so that users are prompted to fill in blanks and expand the content. Users can also put their topics into categories and sub pages, and there's a search box to find articles fast.

MediaWiki also has sophisticated tools that make it easier to control edits in real time. If two users go into a topic and edit it, MediaWiki recognises the potential clash and tries to combine the edits into one. The application audits edits and lets users review them and potentially reverse them. Users can flag particular topics as 'watched' to keep a close eye on edits performed by others.

Customising MediaWiki

Like many PHP applications and scripts, MediaWiki's flexibility is enhanced by its plugin library, which currently contains more than 2,000 different extensions. These extensions add new features, or change the functionality of the core application. Users can write their own.

MediaWiki also has hundreds of options in its settings pages, and has been translated into more than 300 languages. Its appearance can be controlled with CSS and scripting. All edits to the themes are carried out within the wiki software, although the permissions should be locked down to admin users only.

Note: in MediaWiki, templates do not refer to the appearance of the page layouts. Templates are snippets of content that can be planted into pages and automatically displayed.


MediaWiki should cope with small and large databases alike, but it will be limited by the type of hosting account you have, should it begin to tax the server. You will need sufficient resources to cope with the traffic you're getting, and you may need to liaise with your host if you exceed reasonable limits.

To install the application, PHP is a must, as is MySQL compatibility. You'll need Apache or IIS on Windows, with MySQL, PostgreSQL or SQLite.

MediaWiki Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is MediaWiki?

    MediaWiki is a free open source software application used to create online wikis: encyclopedia-like websites that allows collaborative editing by their users. It was first created specifically to run Wikipedia, but is now available for public use.

  • Who develops the MediaWiki software?

    MediaWiki was first developed in 2002 by Wikipedia editor Magnus Manske to run the Wikimedia Foundation’s websites, including,, and Wikimedia Commons. The software is now maintained by the Wikimedia Foundation, with its Chief Technical Officer now responsible for managing its development and the release of updates about every three to eight months. In addition to Wikimedia Foundation paid staff developers, there is a large active community of developers who contribute to the project.

  • What is MediaWiki used for?

    MediaWiki was originally created specifically to run Wikipedia, and its main application is to create wiki-style websites. However, MediaWiki lends itself to many other uses for structuring website content. It has been used to manage knowledgebases and documentation; to create news sites, blogs, or personal websites; collaborative educational group projects; internal company sites; and for rapid document prototyping. Notable websites that use MediaWiki include wikiHow, WikiLeaks, Conservapedia, Scholarpedia, and the United States Intelligence Community’s Intellipedia.

  • Is MediaWiki free?

    Yes, MediaWiki is available as a free download from the official MediaWiki website. It’s open source and licensed under the GNU General Public License, version 2.

  • What is MediaWiki written in?

    The MediaWiki software is written in the PHP programming languages and can store its information in a MySQL, PostgreSQL, or SQLite database.

  • Is MediaWiki scalable for growing projects and websites?

    Since it was developed to run Wikipedia, a huge, high traffic website, MediaWiki has optimized for performance and scalability throughout its development. It uses many different methods to improve its performance, including various caching and data compression tools.

  • What are some of the key features of MediaWiki?

    MediaWiki has many features that make it a popular choice for creating wiki sites. It has a strong focus on multilingualism, making it ideal for sites in multiple languages. MediaWiki uses a lightweight markup system designed to be simpler than HTML, making it easy for non-technical users to contribute. There are many options for tracking edits, including the ability to see all the edits of a specific user, or the ability for individual users to add pages to a watchlist and be notified of any future edits. MediaWiki also has many features that make it easy to structure and navigate around large amounts of information. The MediaWiki software is also very adaptable via thousands of extensions, or PHP hooks for developers.

  • Are there any drawbacks to using MediaWiki?

    About a quarter of MediaWiki users surveyed have cited having technical trouble using the editor interface, making it difficult to participate in editing the wiki. Since no formal MediaWiki syntax has been defined, there are no WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editors available for MediaWiki.

  • Is support available for MediaWiki?

    Support for MediaWiki emphasizes a DIY approach to problem solving. There’s a support desk on the official MediaWiki website where you can ask for help, but they encourage users to search through the documentation before you post a request for support. There’s also an official mailing list, called Mediawiki-l, and there are several prints and online books about MediaWiki administration.

  • How does MediaWiki compare to Confluence?

    Confluence is a team collaboration software application written in Java. It’s proprietary software developed and sold by Atlassian, and is targeted for and used mainly by businesses. Confluence has some features MediaWiki lacks, such as a WYSIWYG editor and integration with MS Office. Because Confluence is paid software, there’s a support ticket system for customers. Businesses who have the budget may want to consider investing in Confluence, although with time MediaWiki could be adapted to many business needs.

  • How does MediaWiki compare to TWiki?

    TWiki is a wiki application written in Perl, and mainly developed for the management of technical projects and educational papers. Like MediaWiki, TWiki is free and open source, licensed under GPL, and its functionality is also extendable via plugins. While they share many features, MediaWiki has a reputation for being more intuitive and easy to use than TWiki.

  • What are the installation requirements for MediaWiki?

    In order to install MediaWiki on your web server you'll need, at minimum, an Apache (or similar) web server; PHP version 5.3.2 or later (though it’s recommended you use at least version 5.3.5); and either MySQL 5.0.2 or later, PostgreSQL 9.0 or later, or SQLite. If your chosen hosting plan doesn't already include MediaWiki, you may want to contact your hosting company to make sure your plan meets the minimum requirements.

  • Does MediaWiki recommended any hosting companies or plans?

    MediaWiki does maintain a list of hosts on their website, but they're careful to note that they don't guarantee or endorse any of the hosts on the list.

  • Do any web hosting companies specialize in MediaWiki?

    Yes, several web hosting companies provide plans optimized for running MediaWiki sites. Many of them come with MediaWiki pre-installed, or offer easy one-click installation of the MediaWiki software. Some offer extra features like .wiki domain registration and automatic updates. There are also sites that offer free MediaWiki hosting for specific subjects, such as Gamepedia, where you can start your own gaming related wiki for free, or Biowikifarm, which specializes in biology projects.

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