What Drupal 8 Means for Higher Ed

Posted: January 12, 2016


As one of the most widely used content management systems in the higher ed landscape, Drupal is a popular choice for many of our client partners. Because of our experience with Drupal 6 and Drupal 7, we were eager to learn about all the new features coming with Drupal 8. During our research on this new upgrade, we found both potential opportunities and challenges that we feel are worth sharing for those of you interested in either moving your current Drupal site to Version 8, or for those of you looking for a new CMS.

Introducing the Drupal CMS and It’s Newest Version

Drupal was first released in 2001 and has had 15 years of successful prominence in the CMS market. It is an open source platform (essentially meaning it is free to use, modify, and distribute) with a thriving community of developers committed to its success.  As a testament to its popularity in the higher ed community, 71 out of the top 100 higher ed institutions in the world choose Drupal as their CMS.

The release of Drupal 8 marks the largest rebuild in Drupal history, complete with over 200 new features and improvements. These changes include a simpler site administration and authoring experience, significant improvements to the front-end, the entities, menu handling, media management, and more. In this article, we will be focusing on the changes that have the greatest impact on higher education.

A New Future for Higher Ed’s Digital Landscape

Throughout our years of experience working with technology in the higher ed landscape, we’ve found that many institutional websites are divided across a variety of platforms. It’s not unusual for every major division of the institution (admissions, athletics, academics, student services, alumni, etc.) to have its own CMS, its own webmaster and a host of different users. There is little to no uniformity across a distributed architecture such as this, often resulting in a range of different problems with limited resources to help solve them.

In some cases, divisions across an institution happen with differing versions of Drupal, such as Drupal 6 and Drupal 7. The good news is that Drupal 8 provides an alternative. Instead of the “distributed” architecture described above, there is now a “centralized” option. Every site utilizes the same “core” (the set of modules, themes, and other system files that come with a default installation). This way, all of the varying sites across campus can access the same user accounts, the same data to be displayed in different ways, etc.

From a maintenance perspective, it is much easier to manage multiple sites housed under this centralized multi-site model. If all of the sites need to be updated from Drupal 8.0.0 to 8.0.1, this can be done once for all of the sites rather than each site requiring their own individual update. This is because, under the multi-site model, they all share the same core files. While multi-site has existed in previous versions, Drupal 8’s implementation of this functionality saves more space and yields greater efficiencies than it did in the past, making it far more beneficial and worthy of consideration.

Further Benefits Drupal 8 Brings to Higher Ed

Previously optional modules (Views, Bean, and others) have now been included in the core of Drupal 8. This is a considerable improvement to Drupal’s core when you consider all that is involved with these modules. It also adds a great efficiency to have them available with every default installation.

Multilingual functionality now comes with Drupal 8, meaning no additional modules need to be installed for translation to work properly. Everything required comes with a fresh install of Drupal 8. All of the various blocks, menus, views, comments, etc. are translatable. You can even choose the default language to use when you first install Drupal 8. All translations are generated automatically.

One of the most exciting movements happening within the Drupal community is the large push to “decouple” the front-end entirely away from the CMS. Traditionally, the front-end (what the browser uses to render output to a user, as opposed to the back-end and server) is always “coupled” within any given CMS, limiting developers to the constraints determined therein. By decoupling the front-end away from Drupal, developers can have complete control over the user experience and leverage leading JavaScript frameworks such as AngularJS, Backbone, and Ember. Dries Buytaert, the creator of Drupal, wrote a wonderful article about decoupling Drupal and it’s potential:

“… the use of client-side frameworks helps developers give websites application-like behavior with smoother interactivity (there is never a need to hit refresh, because new data appears automatically), optimistic feedback (a response appears before the server has processed a user’s query), and non-blocking user interfaces (the user can continue to interact with the application while portions are still loading).”

There are many other benefits to Drupal 8 including nine security improvements, six significant improvements to performance and scalability, and four great improvements to block management alone. Review the entire changelog for yourself to see the numerous advantages gained by switching or upgrading to the latest version of Drupal.

The Challenges Drupal 8 Presents to Higher Ed

Many users will need to migrate their Drupal 6 site over to Drupal 8 as Drupal 6 will no longer be supported. The 3-month extended support policy ends on February 28th, which will mean end-of-life (EOL) for Drupal 6. Drupal 7 users won’t have to worry about support running out until Drupal 9 is released, but are still highly encouraged to migrate and leverage the newest updates and features.

In terms of design, Drupal 8 has replaced PHPTemplate with Symfony2’s Twig framework, a template engine which comes complete with its own syntax and features. While this makes the implementation of custom designs a more seamless and pain-free process for developers, it presents a learning curve to those new to the framework.

Development-wise, the biggest challenge facing Drupal 8 and its users is the porting over of “Contrib” modules available to previous versions. This community effort is still a work in progress, and a lot of the modules available to Drupal 6 and 7 have yet to be updated to accommodate the new version. This will impact the number of early adopters and the pace at which users migrate proportionally to the number of projects that hinge on utilizing modules that are currently only available to previous versions.

Overcoming the Challenges Drupal 8 Present to Higher Ed

Like many problems, the challenges detailed above can be solved with careful planning. If you’re currently using a previous version of Drupal, the Migrate module now comes with core and there are other options such as Drupal Upgrade. Drupal 6 is a greater challenge which is actively being addressed. Developers can view the community documentation on migrating to Drupal 8 here.

If you’re on Drupal 6, you may want to consider an upgrade to Drupal 7 first. As with any major software release, there will be a lot of patches applied as Drupal 8 becomes more widely adopted and more bugs are discovered. An upgrade to Version 7 is a safe option since Drupal 6 will no longer be supported and Drupal 8 is still working out some kinks. Going from 6 to 8 might be significantly more costly and challenging, but it may be worth it to some to be on the bleeding-edge and to have the peace of mind that this version’s support lasts until Drupal 10’s release (estimated at 6 to 10 years from now).

Make sure your developers have enough lead-time to become accustomed to the changes introduced by the new version. A strong Drupal 7 developer should only take a month or two to get up to speed. Twig has great documentation to follow along with. It may be in a developer’s best interest to become familiar with the Symfony2 framework in general since Drupal 8 ships with ten of its components built into the core files.

Looking Forward with Drupal 8 in Mind

Weighing the costs and benefits to adopting Drupal 8 is a challenge in-and-of itself. Hopefully, you found this article helpful in informing your decision. This release is an opportunity that can mean everything from simple security fixes to a complete restructuring of how your institution approaches building websites.