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Drupal 7: A Coming of Age Story by:


September 1st, 2011

In the fast-paced and ever changing world of open source CMS web development exists an endemic issue of perception versus reality.  Drupal 7, introduced in January nearly one year after the release of its very popular predecessor, Drupal 6, is mired in misconceptions of its readiness and reliability.  D7 conjecture is often blogged, tweeted, and whispered about in office corridors. But the truth about Drupal lies with the real Web Leaders – those of us sitting in the top 20% of the trade – who have ventured into every corner of the system and emerged espousing the benefits of the seemingly boundless Drupal.

Over the last year, D7 has emerged from its infancy as a mature, robust platform. Two major revisions have stabilized the core in a production platform, and allowed module and theme contributors to be much more comfortable porting code to the new API.  Other major improvements have been achieved through the migration of popular and critical third party modules into the core, as well as an improved and efficient file handling system.  These updates have pushed D7 into high demand. In both the private and public sectors, particularly in the Federal web space, the adoption of the D7 CMS is astounding.  WhiteHouse.gov runs on D7, and many of the new members of the House of Representatives are following closely behind.

Listed below are noteworthy features of D7 that emphasize the maturity of the platform. For those who have developed sites in D6 or competing products, these elements of D7 will hopefully serve as the impetus to “Adopt Now.”

Database

Intended to be agnostic and loosely based on PHP PDO, the new object-oriented D7 database ORM contributes greatly to the new functionality of the platform.

Core Modules

In January, 880 of roughly 7,000 total contributed third party modules were ported to D7.  As of this writing, that number has grown to 2,200 of approximately 8,600.   That statistic is misleading though, because nearly 50 of the most often installed and popular modules have been successfully ported into the D7 core, most notably:

  • CCK – Content Construction Kit (custom content fields in content types)
  • Image API/Cache/Field – full support for scaling/resizing of uploaded images
  • jQuery – the popular JavaScript framework with plugin support/API added
  • Permissions API – grant/revoke permissions based on role
  • Cron – run scheduled tasks
  • RDF  – semantic web and SEO, bots/spiders/crawlers can more easily identify/index site content

Third Party Modules and the API

Modules are add-ons written and maintained by third party developers using the Drupal Advanced Programming Interface (API), which has undergone extensive changes in D7.  A few notable third party modules that have advanced greatly in feature and/or performance include:

  • Views 3/CTools – ad hoc query tool to create customized pages/blocks/feeds
  • WYSIWYG – editor
  • IMCE – image/file uploaded
  • AddThis  – for social networking icons/links
  • Token - for string replacement
  • Webform – creation of forms and questionnaires
  • Workbench – advanced content moderation services (workflow, role based)
  • SuperFish – jQuery compatible plugin for menus
  • Dynamic Display Block – dynamic content in a block (i.e. front page slider)
  • Date/Calendar –  Date tools/API and graphic calendar via Views 3/CTools

Note: Numerous modules listed above may still be DEV project status but have been proven stable in a D7 production environment.

The API has consolidated numerous functions, deprecated others, and introduced many new features (but those are beyond the scope of this blog).  For experienced Drupal developers interested in an overview of API changes in D7, I suggest consulting this page: http://drupal.org/node/224333

Theme and Template Support

Themes are a combination of templates and API functions that create the look, feel and style of a Drupal website, independent of the content layer.

D7 themes now have more meaningful CSS ID’s in blocks, the content region is mandatory, and HTML classes and attributes are code generated and available as theming variables.   Alter hooks are available to themes and regions are now displayed via region.tpl.php.  Numerous template overrides and the new render() method to output HTMLified data from content arrays all contribute to design flexibility and customization for serious theme designers and front end developers.  D7 has been out long enough to make numerous commercial themes available by vendors who recognize and smartly capitalize on the recent growth of Drupal.

For experienced Drupal themers interested in an overview of Theme API changes in module development, consult this page: http://drupal.org/node/933976

Social Networking Emphasis

With built-in support and plentiful third party modules or frameworks available, Drupal is on the cutting-edge of social networking integration. For example:

  • RSS – feed aggregation
  • Forum and Comments – both part of core
  • Organic Groups – add relationships
  • Drupal Gardens – pre-built D7 with many popular social networking features and admin tools

Upgrading from D6

Due to the large scope of API/database changes from D6, many shops report in their blogs that for larger or more complex projects they fully develop the D7 version in parallel and migrate the database, i.e. the node data, manually.

With core updates and mature modules/themes now available, Drupal has indeed come of age for web leaders seeking a cost saving yet robust open source platform.  D7 has wiped out the glum predictions and negative feedback frequently following Drupal conventions, and enough time has passed for module and theme developers to absorb the new API and its nuances to produce stable code.  Current D7 sites meet tough W3C validation requirements for XHTML, HTML5, CS3 and Section 508 Accessibility when applicable with emphasis on SEO.  All this, combined with support for enterprise level search engine integration, such as Solr, or compatibility with HTTP accelerators, such as Varnish (fast cache/reverse proxy), prove that D7 is more than able to compete in today’s congested open source marketplace.

Check out the market share growth below (measured by fingerprinting the top 1 million trafficked sites and the percentage of those sites running on Drupal):

The diversity of sites being served by Drupal will only increase as the platform becomes more popular for end users and developers alike. Drupal’s expansive community of devotees (which is truly amazing) will only serve to propel Drupal further into the spotlight as the open source CMS of choice.

If you have any questions about D7, please leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

Tags: Content Management, Technical, , , , ,




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