Drupal 8: Re-architecting for world domination

Drupal 8 will be the open-source project's "boldest release to date", according to Drupal's creator, Dries Buytaert. The new version of Drupal is due at the end of the year or "whenever it's ready" and includes significant behind-the-scenes changes, such as the incorporation of elements of the Symfony2 Web framework.

Buytaert, who is also the founder of Drupal services firm Acquia, has ambitious goals for Drupal, as it continues to shift away from purely a content management system towards a unified Web platform that organisations can standardise on to build Web-based services, for both internal and customer-focussed sites.

We're really ready to compete hard with the proprietary software vendors

These can range from delivering an organisation's key corporate websites to intranets, smaller-scale sites built for one-off events and other public and internal Web tools.

"Ten years ago, most organisations had one website or no websites," Buytaert told Computerworld Australia.

"But nowadays, most organisations have dozens of websites. We have some customers that have 800 Drupal sites, and then another one has thousands of Drupal sites. It's very common; even at a small company like Acquia we have probably 30 websites — intranet, our main website, some event websites that we do."

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Buytaert said that organisations have frequently ended up using point solutions for different websites, ending up with multiple platforms to deliver a corporate website, an intranet, a blog and a community portal, for example.

"A lot of organisations that we talk to, they're in this giant mess where they have 12 platforms to run a hundred sites and they're different technology stacks — some are in Java, and .NET and PHP," Buytaert said.

"There's a real desire in the market right now to simplify that and standardise on newer systems."

Enter Drupal. Buytaert sees this as a real strength of the project: being able to use the same core platform to build multiple sites, sometimes wildly different in style and purpose, for an organisation. A particular strength in this regard is the growth of distributions of Drupal: re-packaged versions of Drupal that 'out of the box' are designed to fulfil the needs of particular sectors.

For example, aGov, a distribution of Drupal produced by development shop PreviousNext is designed to offer a complete Web solution for Australian government departments and other organisations.

It ensures that sites will comply with the Web Guide produced by the Australian Government Information Management Office, which sets out a series of mandatory requirements for the websites of federal agencies, addressing issues such as accessibility.

"We find more and more organisations say we're just going to standardise on Drupal," Buytaert said.

"It's more efficient because there's no licence fee, but also because instead of having all of these different engineers that have different skillsets, we can just make a Drupal team and they can maintain all of our websites."

Buytaert cited the example of multinational pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which has standardised on Drupal as its Web platform.

Distributions are a key part of competing with companies that offer proprietary Web experience management products like Adobe. Buytaert said one of the issues faced by Drupal is that Adobe and Sitecore can offer complete, all-encompassing solutions out of the box.

"I think they sell solutions," Buytaert said. "Drupal is not a solution out of the box. It's a great platform to build things with, but where Adobe differs is that they have a solution. They've packaged up what they have to fix a specific problem and they speak the language of a business owner versus a developer."

Dries Buytaert

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Living in harmony with Symfony

At the inaugural DrupalCon Sydney earlier this year, Buytaert outlined his lofty ambitions for the Web platform. Drupal currently runs 2 per cent of the world’s websites, Buytaert told the conference, but there’s no reason the community shouldn’t aim for it to run 10 per cent of them.

Many of the world’s biggest websites still rely on proprietary Web experience management solutions from vendors such as Adobe, and Buytaert said that there was an opportunity for Drupal to replace these systems.

Buytaert told Computerworld Australia that Drupal 8 was a key step in this direction.

"If you look at the history every major release of Drupal we doubled [the user base]," Buytaert said. He doesn't expect Drupal 8 to be an exception.

"I think Drupal 8 is kind of our boldest release to date. [There are] just so many big changes and I think so many big changes that people really want," Buytaert said.

"Developers want those changes. Site builders want those changes. And so I look at Drupal 8 and I think it's going to be a really great release... To be honest, if you compare us with the propriety alternatives like Adobe CQ5 or Sitecore, I really think we can say we've built the best CMS for enterprise systems. I really think so."

Although Drupal has already made strong inroads into many large organisations, particularly in the government and education sectors, and in Australia notably in the finance and insurance sector, when it comes to the enterprise version 8 will still represent a coming of age for the platform.

Along with enhancements for site builders and content creators, such as WYSIWYG editing integrated into core, behind the scenes, significant changes have been made to Drupal's architecture for version 8, incorporating elements drawn from the Symfony2 Web framework.

"Drupal is 12 years' old and we started when PHP didn't really support object oriented [programming]. And obviously Symfony is, from the ground up, completely object oriented," Buytaert said.

"So while the concepts are very similar, [Symfony is] written in a more modern way and they have a few architectural choices that they do differently. But I don't think it's completely different to Drupal."

"They use a modular architecture which is pluggable and so we have modules and they have components and bundles. So there's a core and then there's all of these bundles that allow you to extend Symfony in many different ways," Buytaert said.

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Buytaert believes that the combination of Symfony and Drupal will end up living side-by-side in many enterprises. He's met developers who have moved from Symfony to Drupal, either because Drupal can speed development by offering more high level components or because they are dealing with an increasing number of websites. But he expects to see organisations deploy both in harmony,

"They can use Drupal for probably most of their websites, but then they can use Symfony for their very unique, custom Web applications," Buytaert said.

"It's interesting because it kind of allows them to do everything they want to do with those two platforms, and Drupal being built on Symfony only makes that better."

However, Buytaert admitted that these changes in Drupal 8 will result in a learning curve for some developers.

"I think there are two kinds of developers — I'm generalising — in the Drupal world," he said.

"There's the self-taught Drupal developer and Drupal is how they learn to program. There's a lot of those people, because people download Drupal, they install it, they use it as a user, and then it's 'I need to make a change, so now I need to learn PHP' and then they become really good at programming. There's a lot of these people.

It's pretty hard to compete with the Adobe sales and marketing force... They're really optimised to talk to, say, a CMO versus we speak really well to developers

"And then there are the professionally trained developers as a second category that went through college or had some sort of training...

"I think for the first category, the switch to Symfony is going to be a shock in a way, but for the second category, for people who have used other frameworks, people who have trained in computer science, it's going to be very natural."

"Certainly there's a lot of these people in the first category and we need to train them," Buytaert said.

"So we'll write articles, we'll do videos, we'll do sessions at DrupalCons [and] we'll have professional training for people."

Re-architecting for world domination

Buytaert said his focus is now squarely on the enterprise and on competing with companies like Adobe and Sitecore.

"I think we do a lot of replacements from Vignette and Interwoven. We [also] compete a lot with Sitecore and Adobe CQ5 and we beat them. And sometimes we lose. It depends really. But I think with Drupal 8 we will close some of these gaps, and in [some] areas we'll leapfrog them even..."

The "sweet spot" for Drupal is larger sites rather than smaller ones. "I think when people think big websites, they usually think Drupal, and when they think small blogs or limited small websites in complexity then they think WordPress," Buytaert said.

"At Acquia we never compete with WordPress. We don't see them ever. I'm sure the smaller Drupal shops run into them, but in the enterprise we never run into WordPress."

"I think with small sites I'm not willing to give up on them but I think we just need to say we're more about big sites and less about small sites, but then the small sites are still very useful to get people into the community," Buytaert said.

Along with the need to offer integrated solutions out of the box, the problem with competing in the enterprise is that Drupal is not always on the radar of CMOs.

Drupal often gets a foot in the door in enterprises through developers. "They build a site, the site is successful, they build another site, and it kind of spreads through the organisation," Buytaert said.

"Where sometimes, we don't really lose but where we're not in the game, is where, say, the CMO of a company says, 'Well we need a new platform for our website' and it's a top-down decision versus a grassroots, bottom-up thing.

"That's where we lose, because Drupal doesn't always have the visibility with these people. And even when it does, it's pretty hard to compete with the Adobe sales and marketing force. Because they have a lot of them and they have slick MOs. They're really optimised to talk to, say, a CMO versus we speak really well to developers. "

Drupal's future

Drupal 8 "will determine Drupal's future for the next five years," Buytaert said. "So it's a big deal."

"That doesn't mean Drupal 9 won't be released for five years," he added, "but even when we release Drupal 8, if we were to release it tomorrow, it would still take a little time for people to go with it because some of the contribute modules need to get ready and all of these things.

"So there's an overlap phase. But I think Drupal 8will fuel Drupal's growth for a couple of years. That's why we need to get it right."

"I really think we can say we've built the best CMS for enterprise systems," Buytaert said. "I really think so. Best architecture, most modern design. And I think we should claim that position. And I think we finally get there with Drupal 8... We're really ready to compete hard with the proprietary software vendors."

Rohan Pearce is the editor of Techworld Australia and Computerworld Australia. Contact him at rohan_pearce at idg.com.au.

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p


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