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The Drupal 8 Decision

From time to time, we all face big life choices. Should I attend this college? Should I take this job? Should I marry this person? Yet few life choices loom larger for you and your organization in the next year than “When should I upgrade to Drupal 8?”

Drupal 8 Logo

Well… perhaps the Drupal 8 decision doesn’t quite rank with the others, but for mission-driven organizations, the decision to adopt this major new release is a significant one, with implications for your digital communications for years to come. For most organizations, the upgrade represents a substantial investment that must be planned, scheduled, and budgeted.

In this article, I’ll provide a rapid overview of the promise and challenge of Drupal 8. Then, I’ll lay out the choices you are facing as a current user, or potential Drupal adopter.

The Promise of Drupal 8

Drupal 8, the first major new release in four years, represents a substantial technological departure from previous versions. (More on what constitutes a major Drupal upgrade.)

For marketers and communications professionals, there’s a lot to like. There are over 200 new features and improvements, including a mobile-first approach, in-place editing, and improved accessibility.

For technologists, Drupal 8 offers improved development techniques, as well as including improved APIs and built-in Web services. But D8 also comes with a learning curve. It has an entirely new architecture and methodology. It will take time for your developers to become comfortable with the new Symfony2 components. Drupal 8’s Object-Oriented Programming approach brings increased flexibility for those with the hardcore computer science skills necessary to exploit it.

This infographic (PDF) from the Drupal Association summarizes Drupal 8’s key features.

Drupal Inforgraphic

The Challenge of Drupal 8

One challenge for Drupal users is that the release timeline is still unknown. Certainly, we’re getting close. The beta version was released in October 2014, and it’s anticipated that it will be released sometime in 2015.

Historically, migrations from one major version to another are straightforward, but not always non-trivial. Every Drupal website is a conglomeration of the “core” Drupal software as well as typically dozens of add-on “modules” that extend or improve the software’s functionality. For example, the module that runs your fancy homepage carousel in one version may not be updated or tuned for the next version. And while Drupal 8’s upgrade process is improved, timelines and costs for Drupal upgrade projects are as varied as the websites themselves.

It’s important to realize that once Drupal 8 is released, support for previous versions will flag. If you are currently on Drupal 7, with no immediate plans for a major redesign, the issue is less pressing. But for those on earlier versions, you must be planning and budgeting for an upgrade now.

The challenge for digital communication planners depends on your existing situation. Let’s look at the possible approaches — one situation at a time.

Your Website is on Drupal 5

If you are using Drupal 5, your plan is simple. You must upgrade to Drupal 6 as soon as you possibly can.

Drupal 5 was released in 2007 and superseded by Drupal 6 a year later. If your website is running Drupal 5, it hasn’t received any security patches in four years, and is likely already compromised. It’s probably serving as jumping off point for spamming and other nefarious activities. Improving a Drupal 5 site now is difficult, and few reputable consultancies would agree to improve a Drupal 5 site without first upgrading it.

Once you are on Drupal 6, you then must consider upgrading to Drupal 7 or 8 within the next year, as described in the sections that follow.

Your Website is on Drupal 6

If your website is on Drupal 6, you need to plan for an upgrade to Drupal 7 or 8 within the next year. Once Drupal 8 is released in 2015, official support for Drupal 6 core and modules will cease within three months. This means that as security vulnerabilities are discovered, hackers are highly likely to compromise your website for their evil ends, and you will be powerless to plug the holes.

This means that Drupal 6 sites should be planning and budgeting NOW to upgrade to at least Drupal 7 in 2015. You want to be ready to move quickly once Drupal 8 is released. Three months of support is not a long time.

Your Website is on Drupal 7 (Or you are considering Drupal for Your Next Project)

If your site is currently on Drupal you can breathe easier. Drupal 7 has been out for four years, and nearly a million sites are running Drupal 7 core — far more than all previous versions combined.

Drupal core project usage

It will soon be time for these sites to transition to Drupal 8, but the community will continue to support D7 until Drupal 9 is released, which is surely at least two years away.

Therefore, if you are happy with your existing website and are planning only minor improvements to the design or functionality in the near term, you can sit back and do nothing for now. You should, of course, start planning for upgrading to Drupal 8 the next two years.

If you are currently considering building a new site on Drupal — or contemplating a major redesign in the next six months — the decision is more complicated. You have two options.

The first option is to redesign on Drupal 7 now. That’s what thousands of projects are doing as we speak. At Forum One, every new major Drupal project currently starts with Drupal 7, and will likely continue to do so for several months following Drupal 8’s release. The software is mature, stable, widely-supported, and well understood by our staff.

The second option is to postpone your Drupal project until after Drupal 8 is released. Early adopters of D8 will get the maximum value from the new software, as their finished solution will live on Drupal for the longest period. They likely won’t need to consider a new Drupal upgrade until sometime in 2017 at the earliest. And given that the community will continue to support Drupal 8 even once Drupal 9 is released, you would be able to sleep easy knowing that your site will be able to stay patched and secure for the next four to five years.

However, at this writing, there are distinct trade-offs with waiting for D8. You are tying your project timeline to the D8 release schedule, which is community-driven and not guaranteed. Even once D8 is released, it will be a few months before skilled developers are ready to start new projects on 8. While savvy technologists are already experimenting with the D8 beta, it will take some time for modules, processes, training materials, and hosting environments to become tuned for this substantially-new platform.

Here’s another important consideration: Are you the type of product owner who can afford to be on the cutting edge? Early technology adopters typically pay more for the technology than those who follow. Later adopters benefit from the lessons of early adopters. Still, this may be an acceptable premium for your organization if Drupal 8 improves your efficiency, reduces long-term costs, or gives you a competitive advantage in achieving your goals.

Decide to Plan

Like all software, the lifespan of every major Drupal version is limited. Drupal 5 is end of life, Drupal 6 is very near end of life, and — after a good run — Drupal 7 will enter its golden years in the next twelve months.

While the Drupal 8 decision may not have the gravity of other life choices, you have an obligation to ensure that the core software for your site is, secure, stable, and well-supported.

Your most important decision is to decide to plan. Drupal 8 is coming. Are you prepared?

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