Darren Mothersele

Software Developer

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Untangling Drupal

Jul 30, 2013


I presented yesterday at the July edition of the “Untangle the Web” meetup being held at the Google Campus in London. When I was invited to speak, I was asked to give an introductory talk about Drupal and what kind of things it’s good for. To do this, I decided to talk about how I was introduced to Drupal, how it’s developed over the years, metadata and future-friendly content, and a preview of what’s coming in the next version of Drupal.

Early History

Drupal started life as a message-board, and the source code was first released to the world as open-source software in 2001. At this stage Drupal was a bit like a “slashdot” clone.

My first introduction to Drupal was in 2003. I was building a community site for an event/record label I was involved in. Thanks to the Wayback Machine here’s a grab of this early Drupal v4.3 website:

Screenshot of International Bastard Website

I found Drupal while comparing a few solutions and it seemed like a perfect fit. I needed something between a blog and a forum, plus it had modules like “event” which allowed me to quickly get an events calendar up and running. None of the other systems I compared allowed me to do this as easily, and Drupal also had some nice moderation features and user management.

After this, I left Drupal alone for a few years as I went off to do other things. I was co-founder of a startup providing digital services to record labels. It was while doing this that I realised the importance of metadata.

I heart metadata badge

We built a fully bespoke CMS and digital asset management system, which transcoded audio and delivered it to online music services. We were delivering audio and metadata to all kinds of servies for various uses, and the quality of our metadata was the key thing that allowed us to do this.

I had learnt the value of metadata, and also the folly of building a CMS from scratch!


I was away from Drupal for a few years, and during this time some key developments had happened in the Drupal community.

“Drupal 4.7 … changed the way that Drupal worked; not Drupal core, but Drupal the meta-project.” Larry Garfield

The change that Larry refers to here is the appearence of key modules like CCK and Views. This is when Drupal started to abstract functionality and was a turning point in Drupal’s development.

Before this stage you would build up your site by adding on modules that provided new node types, and some predefined functionality, then customise the site to fit your exact needs. But with the introduction of the Form API, CCK, and Views, you would now build up the exact functionality you needed from component parts.

Early screenshot from Radar Music Videos

I went freelance towards the end of 2007, and the first interesting project that came along was to build a prototype for a music video filmakers community. I remembered that Drupal had some nice community features, so I went back to see how it had developed.

The ease of creating different types of content, custom pages listing content, and the array of extra functionality that was now available as contributed modules really blew me away. I had a lot to learn, very quickly, so I started reading every book, blog, and tutorial I could find. Attending the local Drupal user-group events was also invaluable.

Almost everything I’ve done since then has been Drupal. Either developing for Drupal, or working with the complimentary technologies in the Drupal stack. Over the years I’ve been doing this I’ve come to realise that Drupal is three things:

Drupal is a CMS out-of-the-box, and with the various additional modules it can be a powerful, enterprise level CMS. When viewed as a set of APIs, Drupal provides a rapid-application development environment in which to build websites (or apps). And, one of the differenciating factors, is the community.

There’s a saying in Drupal that you “come for the code, stay for the community”. This is definitely true for me. One of the great things about Drupal is that it’s a really good place to have a problem. Having been involved in developing a bespoke CMS, where you are pretty much on your own when you encouter issues, this is not the case with Drupal. When you have an issue, perhaps two modules don’t work together quite as easily as you expected, there’s usually someone else trying the same thing, or you can turn to the issue queues. The issue queues are full of great advice, useful patches, and other developers willing to help when they can.

Drupal 7

The current version of Drupal is v7. The biggest change in v7 was the move to everything being an entity, and what was previously CCK moving into the core of Drupal as “Fields in Core”.

Users, taxonomy and content are now all based on the same API, and they’re all fieldable. So, with functionality in Drupal core, you can create different types of content, add fields to them, but now also add fields to users, taxonomy etc. Which gives a really flexible content model:

## There’s a module for that

Periodic table of Drupal modules
Amazee Labs

On top of a flexible content model, there’s a huge array of modules to add extra functionality. Two indispensable modules are Views and Panels.

Views gives the site builder power through the admin interface to define custom lists of content. It’s a visual query builder that lets you build up custom queries against your content, and configure how it is displayed.

Panels is a layout builder. It allows you to override internal paths, and create custom pages. Then, select a layout and assign what content appears in each region of that layout. You can also create layout variants with selection rules to decide which variant a user will see. For example, showing a different layout or content for users on mobile devices, or having a different set of content for logged in users.

Flexibility comes at a price

All this flexibility comes at a price, which is why Drupal is not the best solution to every problem, and may not be the right technology for some people.

The image gallery is a classic example. Other systems might provide a nice image gallery, or have an add-on that provides all the functionality you need to get up and running with an image gallery. Drupal moved away from these fully featured modules, to more abstract components. Hence, the best you’re going to get when search for an image gallery is a 7 or 8 step tutorial that shows you how to build it yourself out of component parts.

Distributions help bridge this gap. Drupal core itself doesn’t come with very much, and out-of-the-box doesn’t really showcase the full potential of Drupal. There’s a wide variety of “distributions” available that pre-configure Drupal for specific use cases. If you’re just starting out with Drupal it’s a good idea to see if there’s a distribution that meets your needs, or at least provides some of the functionality you need. That way you will not have to configure it all yourself.

A custom Drupal CMS is not a proprietary CMS

A bespoke CMS is by definition a proprietary CMS. Even if you get the code, there’s still a degree of vendor lock-in because of the custom nature of the code. Drupal allows you to build a custom CMS, but because it’s built from components that are in use of 1000s of other Drupal sites, you’re not alone. You can build a fully bespoke content model and workflow, and provided you follow best practises, you can tap into the huge Drupal community when you need help and support.

Why custom CMS?

But why would you want a custom CMS when it’s more work to put together than using something like Wordpress that comes fully featured out-of-the-box? The issue with one-size-fits-all CMSs is that you essentially get a web-page editor.

So you edit your content like this:

Screenshot of wysiwyg editor

Which looks like this on your website:

Screenshot of website template

But you can’t guarantee where your content will be viewed:

Screenshot of broken layout on mobile

This is covered in A List Apart 345, in an article called Future-Ready Content:

we need to relinquish control of our content as well, setting it free from the boundaries of a traditional webpage to flow as needed through varied displays and contexts.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher (A List Apart)

Or more directly:

get your content ready to go anywhere because it’s going to go everywhere. Brad Frost

I heart metadata badge

This brings me back to my earlier comments about metadata. When I was delivering music assets to various services, the quality of the metadata we had about each of the assets we were managing meant we could do more with it. This is true for all organisation that want to make their content future-friendly. Having good metadata, i.e. Structured content, is essential.

COPE - Create Once Publish Everywhere

This idea comes from an initiative by NPR to create a system that allows them to create content once and plan for reuse. Having well structured data, and good metadata opens up lots of possibilities:

But it’s not just about what you can do now. It’s getting your content ready for whatever the future will bring:

Technology will change. Standards will evolve. But the need for understanding our content — its purpose, meaning, structure, relationships, and value — will remain.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher (A List Apart)

Metadata is a love note to the future

## Metadata

Descriptive metadata allows you to catalogue and classify your content. Administrative metadata is useful in the workflow, for example, publishing status, flagging content for review prior to publising, or marking content for translation. I’ve also encounted workflows that have needed licensing data to control where content is allowed to be distributed.

The Future…

Drupal 8 is the future. Here are some of the main improvements to look forward to:


I hope that gave a good overview of Drupal, and why you might want to use it. This was my first time at an “Untangle the Web” event. The other presentations were really interesting, and I look forward to attending the next one.