Drupal is one of our key areas of expertise here at O8, let's talk about it.
In this week's edition of "O8 On", Seth Viebrock, founder and CEO of O8, and Tyler Schroeder, Director of Customer Success and Strategy, discuss Drupal, the migration process of D7 to D8, the importance of planning your migration in terms of timeline and cost, and more. Leading the discussion is Hadley Hirsch, Manager of Marketing and Business Relationships.
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Hadley Hirsch: So first things first, what is Drupal, and what's so great about it?
Tyler Schroeder: Drupal is a really great open-source content management system that is ready to support organizations and enterprises that have needs that really oftentimes exceed those of WordPress or other “what you see is what you get” or WYSIWYG site style builders. It really supports content that's highly structured, and large pools of that content across bigger organizations, much better than some of those other alternatives can do.
Seth Viebrock: It's a true framework. I compare it to scaffolding for a building or architecture, it's something that is really malleable and extensible. It doesn't make a lot of assumptions out of the gate, so it's very flexible for building more complex or, you know, very custom solutions.
Hadley Hirsch: Drupal has been releasing a lot of updates. Do we know how many institutions are still on Drupal 7, or even an older version of Drupal?
Tyler Schroeder: As of the taping of this, there are approximately 700,000 Drupal 7 sites out there, according to Drupal.org, out of a total of about 1.1 million Drupal sites. That accounts for between 60 to 70 percent, depending on which numbers you're looking at, of all Drupal sites that are still on Drupal 7, which is an astounding number. That's a lot of sites that need to get moved over relatively quickly before they fall out of support in November 2021.
Hadley Hirsch: So could I just keep my site on seven or an older version, or do I really need to go through this intimidating upgrading process?
Tyler Schroeder: You certainly could leave it on Drupal 7. There's going to be a paid extended support period with Drupal 7 that goes beyond November 2021. Still, generally, those programs are really best for just extending timelines for migrations that take longer than you had initially planned for. They're not great for just keeping your site on Drupal 7 long term. While technically you could continue to pay that extended support fee, what you're going to see over time, is the usefulness, that utility of the site that you rely on, slowly becomes degraded. That means that developers are going to shift their attention from supporting the Drupal 7 plugins, modules, those types of things, that your site relies on. Support for those is going to slowly dwindle away over the coming months and especially looking into 2021. So it'll be really important if you want to maintain the functionality of your site, you know, assuming that you have anything beyond vanilla Drupal, which most Drupal sites do. You'll definitely want to start planning now to make the switch to Drupal 8 or Drupal 9.
Seth Viebrock: And I would just add that at this point, most sites on Drupal 7 have gone through a lot of rework, a lot of menu changes, content changes, the business has grown and changed design patterns, and the industry has changed. So now think of it as an opportunity to refresh your site, that's going to be needed and going to set you up for a lot of success in the future. We might talk about this later, but once you get to that Drupal 8 standpoint, you will be able to upgrade much easier to Drupal 9. And really, this is a great opportunity to get you into a more agile marketing mindset, you know, let's always keep it up-to-date, let's always change, innovate on the fly. So it's a really good opportunity for businesses that don't see the technical side to think about it as a business opportunity as well.
Tyler Schroeder: That's a really great point, Seth. A lot of our clients, as you said, they've had that kind of build-up of both content and functionality over the years. Oftentimes, supporting that legacy content and functionality comes at great expense. These re-platforms, these upgrades, are a great opportunity to really take a look and say, “What's actually serving our business well? What's providing value to the business and our users? Let's focus our efforts on that and let some of these other pieces fall away from where we can”. Over the course of the initial rollout to Drupal 8 or 9, there's gonna be effort involved in that, but that's going to save you dollars in the long term, especially in the support and maintenance realm.
Hadley Hirsch: As someone in business relationships, I find myself coming across a lot of leaders, particularly Chief Information Officers, that are pretty intimidated by this process. They're making it a major focus, why do you think that is? Is it a lack of resources, time, cost? What do you think?
Tyler Schroeder: It’s all of the above. A redesign, or a re-platform like this is no small feat. That's not to say that there aren't things that you can do to smooth it out, but it does take a significant amount of time, resources, and dollars to execute well. Over time, moving back to the idea that these sites have built up lots of functionality over the years, some organizations are a little skittish, or even afraid to start pulling away at some of that just because so many of their core business processes may be running on it. It's scary to have to re-platform that, especially when it's such a vital part of your business. So that's where it really becomes important to work with a partner that has done lots of these, and they have a good track record of success, and really making sure that you're putting in the time up front to make sure that your planning, that foundation that the whole rest of that project is going to run through, is really rock solid.
Seth Viebrock: Absolutely. And I would just add that you're still migrating from Drupal to Drupal. Drupal 8 is definitely different in many ways, but this isn't some totally alien system. There are modules to help you upgrade a Drupal 7 module that's not already on 8 if you have something custom, for example.
Tyler Schroeder: So I think the other big piece here is the skills gap or a perception of a skills gap. While there are major differences between Drupal 7 and Drupal 8, including the core templating engine, Twigg, a lot of management teams perceive that this change is something that’s going to take lots of time and energy to get them up to speed with those new changes. Especially because they're so central to the content management system. Again, another benefit of working with experienced partners, is that your internal teams are going to be able to learn from those partners. In a true partnership, you’ll work together to help bring up the skill set of that internal team, help them to feel more comfortable and supported not only through the migration, but actually through the launch and into the long term maintenance and support of that new site.
Seth Viebrock: Drupal 8 is going to be a better version of what you have if you do it right. For example, the configuration management initiative— we can deploy changes more easily from dev to staging to production. That sets you up for a more enterprise workflow if you care about things not breaking as easily when developers push updates. Also, the admin user experience is better, and like Tyler said before, this is where all of the innovation is happening in the Drupal community. So an upgrade might seem a little daunting, but it's the same language, same ecosystem, same community. So working with an experienced partner, it really should not be that daunting at all.
Tyler Schroeder: And in the long term, I think those changes, because they're helping to bring Drupal more in line with the “modern content management system,” they’re going to make finding and onboarding resources much easier. You're not going to have to find a developer that knows the Drupal way, so to speak. So long as they're familiar with PHP templating engines, like Twig, they're going to be able to jump in Drupal with relatively little ramp up time. Same thing with the content contributor experience, because that has been overhauled so drastically, it's really going to help folks who are new, coming into the CMS, to really decrease that Drupal learning curve in the future.
Hadley Hirsch: Since Drupal 9 beta 1 was released this week, can I just wait and save the money, save the time, and migrate straight to D9?
Seth Viebrock: My opinion is that you can do it now, if you have an experienced enough level of Drupal on your staff, or you're working with an intelligent partner who knows what they're doing. Make sure you have enough lead time so that Drupal 9 will get out of beta by the time you get to Drupal 9, the pristine version. But that's definitely for much longer projects, and I wouldn't recommend it in most cases. Sometimes it makes people feel better if they're already online, but really, you get to 8, you start declaring your modules as compatible for both, and the actual flip over to 9 is going to be just like a minor version of 8, like 8.1, 8.2. So really for 95% of projects, I would say it makes the most sense to just get over to 8 and by the time 9 is all buttoned up, maybe even wait until another major version comes depending on how things go, but get to 8 and then the flip to 9 should be super easy. That's my opinion right now. What do you think, Tyler?
Tyler Schroeder: Yeah, definitely, I agree. Trying to develop a site that's going to go into production while core is still in beta and a lot of the modules that you're going to rely on are still in alpha oftentimes, or maybe they haven't even started making a switch, that really increases the cost for your project. That’s just because you're trying to pin the tail on a moving donkey here. Whereas stuff like you were saying, waiting until there's a stable version of nine and then maybe even a version into that when a lot more those vital modules have rolled over and become stable out of alpha or beta, that's really going to be your best bet —going to 8, waiting for those things in 9 to stabilize, and then continuing your upgrade path, which should be quite seamless with Drupal 9.
Hadley Hirsch: So this sounds like the smart thing to do for any organization, to go ahead and begin the migration. But what does that migration process entail when I come to a partner like O8? How do you determine cost, timeline, things like that?
Tyler Schroeder: For us, planning is really vital. Starting the migration process with a really in-depth inventory of all the content that the CMS is going to be dealing with, as well as any of those integrations that are vital to your business, that's going to be super important so that you can make sure that you have a clear path, even on the field by field basis. This is necessary if you're going to try and do a programmatic migration to make sure that this goes smoothly for you. This process also helps you to begin the mapping on the “before” and “after” version. If you're going to be making any changes to your paths or your information architecture, which hopefully you've learned some things from your site over the years and from your analytics, and you're going to make those improvements or enhancements, it'll help you to ensure that you have a clear map to preserving the “link juice”, so to speak, from an SEO perspective. This is to make sure that this redesign and migration doesn't have a negative impact on your SEO efforts.
Seth Viebrock: Absolutely. And with anything, that's going to require a decent amount of effort, kind of like we've been saying. This is your chance to really drive those business goals, marketing goals, KPIs, whatever they are. This is the time to do things right as far as with your current business. Things have changed over the last year, so this is your time to do things right, get up-to-date, and really build something that's a digital marketing machine. Also, on a new technology, it gets you up to date. But thinking at a business level, you want to do this the right way.
Tyler Schroeder: And once you go through that planning process to put your project on the right path, then we move into the actual development. That’s building out the skeleton, the framework of the new site, then starting the theming process to kind of flesh out the look and feel around that skeleton. And then from there we go through a process where we create what are called stubs, or just a blank entry for each of the pieces of content, to help with the migration process and allow the interlinking of content that makes websites what they are. And then from there you go through and you can either programmatically import or manually import the individual page contents into those blank stub files. Then you essentially have your whole tree from there. Of course, throughout that process we're doing testing and QA and things like that, but then we can begin to dig into the integrations and really put all of the fancy parts onto the site, digging into the analytics, implementation and things like that to make sure that you have the data moving forward. That's going to allow you to make intelligent, data-informed decisions about your site and your marketing efforts. As far as cost and timeline go, those two are really variable based on the size of the site, the complexity, the functionality, and the number of integrations and the depth at which those integrations are required to really hook into core Drupal data. These processes can run anywhere from six months up to a year plus, depending on the size and complexity. So it's really important to start the planning process, like yesterday, to make sure that you're giving yourselves enough time to then actually execute on that. Oftentimes, because the website is such a central piece to your business, there are going to be factors outside of the actual project that are going to need to be considered — like training folks, and making sure that your new marketing pieces are aligning the future pages and landing pages, and pads and things are all lining up. So it's really important to start that planning process early so that you can ensure a smooth rollout when the site is actually ready to go live.
Seth Viebrock: And of course, let's not forget about user experience, even though everyone should always be thinking about it. This is an opportunity for your admins, some of them may be based on how your Drupal 7 site is put together from the admin experience. Maybe it's not desirable, or it's a little hard for them to use. Now is the time to do that right. And then, of course, thinking about your site users, ensuring that we're looking at the data from the old site and not just building a new site just because we can. Look at the data from the old one and see “Ok, there are some problem areas here, this is how we can do better on the user experience with the new site,” as well.
Tyler Schroeder: Absolutely. Looping back to one of the original questions about “can we wait and stay on Drupal 7 a little longer,” you certainly can with that safety net of the paid extended support. But again you're just, at that point, really increasing the costs for something that you're going to have to do anyways, which is this migration. We're big fans of starting early and leaving yourselves time so that you aren't running up against that cliff, and then just ending up increasing your costs for this migration by needing to buy into that extended support offering.