After much hard work over years by the Drupal community, Drupal users rejoiced when Drupal 8 came out late last year. The system has been completely rewritten and does a lot of great stuff–but can it do what we need Drupal websites to do for libraries? The quick answer seems to be that it’s not quite ready, but depending on your needs it might be worth a look.
For those who aren’t familiar with Drupal, it’s a content management system designed to manage complex sites with multiple types of content, users, features, and appearances. Certain “core” features are available to everyone out of the box, but even more useful are the “modules”, which extend the features to do all kinds of things from the mundane but essential backup of a site to a flashy carousel slider. However, the modules are created by individuals or companies and contributed back to the community, and thus when Drupal makes a major version change they need to be rewritten, quite drastically in the case of Drupal 8. That means that right now we are in a period where developers may or may not be redoing their modules, or they may be rethinking about how a certain task should be done in the future. Because most of these developers are doing this work as volunteers, it’s not reasonable to expect that they will complete the work on your timeline. The expectation is that if a feature is really important to you, then you’ll work on development to make it happen. That is, of course, easier said than done for people who barely have enough time to do the basic web development asked of them, much less complex programming or learning a new system top to bottom, so most of us are stuck waiting or figuring out our own solutions.
Despite my knowledge of the reality of how Drupal works, I was very excited at the prospect of getting into Drupal 8 and learning all the new features. I installed it right away and started poking around, but realized pretty quickly I was going to have to do a complete evaluation for whether it was actually practical to use it for my library’s website. Our website has been on Drupal 7 since 2012, and works pretty well, though it does need a new theme to bring it into line with 2016 design and accessibility standards. Ideally, however, we could be doing even more with the site, such as providing better discovery for our digital special collections and making the site information more semantic web friendly. It was those latter, more advanced, feature desires that made me really wish to use Drupal 8, which includes semantic HTML5 integration and schema.org markup, as well as better integration with other tools and libraries. But the question remains–would it really be practical to work on migrating the site immediately, or would it make more sense to spend some development time on improving the Drupal 7 site to make it work for the next year or so while working on Drupal 8 development more slowly?
A bit of research online will tell you that there’s no right answer, but that the first thing to do in an evaluation is determine whether any the modules on which your site depends are available for Drupal 8, and if not, whether there is a good alternative. I must add that while all the functions I am going to mention can be done manually or through custom code, a lot of that work would take more time to write and maintain than I expect to have going forward. In fact, we’ve been working to move more of our customized code to modules already, since that makes it possible to distribute some of the workload to others outside of the very few people at our library who write code or even know HTML well, not to mention taking advantage of all the great expertise of the Drupal community.
I tried two different methods for the evaluation. First, I created a spreadsheet with all the modules we actually use in Drupal 7, their versions, and the current status of those modules in Drupal 8 or if I found a reasonable substitute. Next, I tried a site that automates that process, d8upgrade.org. Basically you fill in your website URL and email, and wait a day for your report, which is very straightforward with a list of modules found for your site, whether there is a stable release, an alpha or beta release, or no Drupal 8 release found yet. This is a useful timesaver, but will need some manual work to complete and isn’t always completely up to date.
My manual analysis determined that there were 30 modules on which we depend to a greater or lesser extent. Of those, 10 either moved into Drupal core (so would automatically be included) or the functions on which used them moved into another piece of core. 5 had versions available in Drupal 8, with varying levels of release (i.e. several in stable alpha release, so questionable to use for production sites but probably fine), and 5 were not migrated but it was possible to identify substitute Drupal 8 modules. That’s pretty good– 18 modules were available in Drupal 8, and in several cases one module could do the job that two or more had done in Drupal 7. Of the additional 11 modules that weren’t migrated and didn’t have an easy substitution, three of them are critical to maintaining our current site workflows. I’ll talk about those in more detail below.
d8upgrade.org found 21 modules in use, though I didn’t include all of them on my own spreadsheet if I didn’t intend to keep using them in the future. I’ve included a screenshot of the report, and there are a few things to note. This list does not have all the modules I had on my list, since some of those are used purely behind the scenes for administrative purposes and would have no indication of use without administrative access. The very last item on the list is Core, which of course isn’t going to be upgraded to Drupal 8–it is Drupal 8. I also found that it’s not completely up to date. For instance, my own analysis found a pre-release version of Workbench Moderation, but that information had not made it to this site yet. A quick email to them fixed it almost immediately, however, so this screenshot is out of date.
I decided that there were three dealbreaker modules for the upgrade, and I want to talk about why we rely on them, since I think my reasoning will be applicable to many libraries with limited web development time. I will also give honorable mention to a module that we are not currently using, but I know a lot of libraries rely on and that I would potentially like to use in the future.
Webform is a module that creates a very simple to use interface for creating webforms and doing all kinds of things with them beyond just simply sending emails. We have many, many custom PHP/MySQL forms throughout our website and intranet, but there are only two people on the staff who can edit those or download the submitted entries from them. They also occasionally have dreadful spam problems. We’ve been slowly working on migrating these custom forms to the Drupal Webform module, since that allows much more distribution of effort across the staff, and provides easier ways to stop spam using, for instance, the Honeypot module or Mollom. (We’ve found that the Honeypot module stopped nearly all our spam problems and didn’t need to move to Mollom, since we don’t have user comments to moderate). The thought of going back to coding all those webforms myself is not appealing, so for now I can’t move forward until I come up with a Drupal solution.
Redirect does a seemingly tiny job that’s extremely helpful. It allows you to create redirects for URLs on your site, which is incredibly helpful for all kinds of reasons. For instance, if you want to create a library site branded link that forwards somewhere else like a database vendor or another page on your university site, or if you want to change a page URL but ensure people with bookmarks to the old page will still find it. This is, of course, something that you can do on your web server, assuming you have access to it, but this module takes a lot of the administrative overhead away and helps keep things organized.
Backup and Migrate is my greatest helper in my goal to be someone who would like to at least be in the neighborhood of best practices for web development when web development is only half my job, or some weeks more like a quarter of my job. It makes a very quick process of keeping my development, staging, and production sites in sync, and since I created a workflow using this module I have been far more successful in keeping my development processes sane. It provides an interface for creating a backup of your site database, files directories, or your database and files that you can use in the Backup and Migrate module to completely restore a site. I use it at least every two weeks, or more often when working on a particular feature to move the database between servers (I don’t move the files with the module for this process, but that’s useful for backups that are for emergency restoration of the site). There are other ways to accomplish this work, but this particular workflow has been so helpful that I hate to dump a lot of time into redoing it just now.
One last honorable mention goes to Workbench, which we don’t use but I know a lot of libraries do use. This allows you to create a much more friendly interface for content editors so they don’t have to deal with the administrative backend of Drupal and allows them to just see their own content. We do use Workbench Moderation, which does have a Drupal 8 release, and allows a moderation queue for the six or so members of staff who can create or edit content but don’t have administrative rights to have their content checked by an administrator. None of them particularly like the standard Drupal content creation interface, and it’s not something that we would ever ask the rest of the staff to use. We know from the lack of use of our intranet, which also is on Drupal, that no one particularly cares for editing content there. So if we wanted to expand access to website editing, which we’ve talked about a lot, this would be a key module for us to use.
Given the current status of these modules with rewrites in progress, it seems likely that by the end of the year it may be possible to migrate to Drupal 8 with our current setup, or in playing around with Drupal 8 on a development site that we determine a different way to approach these needs. If you have the interest and time to do this, there are worse ways to pass the time. If you are creating a completely new Drupal site and don’t have a time crunch, starting in Drupal 8 now is probably the way to go, since by the time the site would be ready you may have additional modules available and get to take advantage of all the new features. If this is something you’re trying to roll out by the end of the semester, maybe wait on it.
Have you considered upgrading your library’s site to Drupal 8? Have you been successful? Let us know in the comments.