Drupal Puppies

Over the years Drupal distributions, or distros as they're more affectionately known, have evolved a lot. We started off passing around database dumps. Eventually we moved onto using installations profiles and features to share par-baked sites.

There are some signs that distros aren't working for people using them. Agencies often hack a distro to meet client requirements. This happens because it is often difficult to cleanly extend a distro. A content type might need extra fields or the logic in an alter hook may not be desired. This makes it difficult to maintain sites built on distros. Other times maintainers abandon their distributions. This leaves site owners with an unexpected maintenance burden.

We should recognise how people are using distros and try to cater to them better. My observations suggest there are 2 types of Drupal distributions; starter kits and targeted products.

Targeted products are easier to deal with. Increasingly monetising targeted distro products is done through a SaaS offering. The revenue can funds the ongoing development of the product. This can help ensure the project remains sustainable. There are signs that this is a viable way of building Drupal 8 based products. We should be encouraging companies to embrace a strategy built around open SaaS. Open Social is a great example of this approach. Releasing the distros demonstrates a commitment to the business model. Often the secret sauce isn't in the code, it is the team and services built around the product.

Many Drupal 7 based distros struggled to articulate their use case. It was difficult to know if they were a product, a demo or a community project that you extend. Open Atrium and Commerce Kickstart are examples of distros with an identity crisis. We need to reconceptualise most distros as "starter kits" or as I like to call them "puppies".

Why puppies? Once you take a puppy home it becomes your responsibility. Starter kits should be the same. You should never assume that a starter kit will offer an upgrade path from one release to the next. When you install a starter kit you are responsible for updating the modules yourself. You need to keep track of security releases. If your puppy leaves a mess on the carpet, no one else will clean it up.

Sites build on top of a starter kit should diverge from the original version. This shouldn't only be an expectation, it should be encouraged. Installing a starter kit is the starting point of building a unique fork.

Project pages should clearly state that users are buying a puppy. Prospective puppy owners should know if they're about to take home a little lap dog or one that will grow to the size of a pony that needs daily exercise. Puppy breeders (developers) should not feel compelled to do anything once releasing the puppy. That said, most users would like some documentation.

I know of several agencies and large organisations that are making use of starter kits. Let's support people who are adopting this approach. As a community we should acknowledge that distros aren't working. We should start working out how best to manage the transition to puppies.

Trying Drupal

While preparing for my DrupalCamp Belgium keynote presentation I looked at how easy it is to get started with various CMS platforms. For my talk I used Contentful, a hosted content as a service CMS platform and contrasted that to the "Try Drupal" experience. Below is the walk through of both.

Let's start with Contentful. I start off by visiting their website.

Contentful homepage

In the top right corner is a blue button encouraging me to "try for free". I hit the link and I'm presented with a sign up form. I can even use Google or GitHub for authentication if I want.

Contentful signup form

While my example site is being installed I am presented with an overview of what I can do once it is finished. It takes around 30 seconds for the site to be installed.

Contentful installer wait

My site is installed and I'm given some guidance about what to do next. There is even an onboarding tour in the bottom right corner that is waving at me.

Contentful dashboard

Overall this took around a minute and required very little thought. I never once found myself thinking come on hurry up.

Now let's see what it is like to try Drupal. I land on d.o. I see a big prominent "Try Drupal" button, so I click that.

Drupal homepage

I am presented with 3 options. I am not sure why I'm being presented options to "Build on Drupal 8 for Free" or to "Get Started Risk-Free", I just want to try Drupal, so I go with Pantheon.

Try Drupal providers

Like with Contentful I'm asked to create an account. Again I have the option of using Google for the sign up or completing a form. This form has more fields than contentful.

Pantheon signup page

I've created my account and I am expecting to be dropped into a demo Drupal site. Instead I am presented with a dashboard. The most prominent call to action is importing a site. I decide to create a new site.

Pantheon dashboard

I have to now think of a name for my site. This is already feeling like a lot of work just to try Drupal. If I was a busy manager I would have probably given up by this point.

Pantheon create site form

When I submit the form I must surely be going to see a Drupal site. No, sorry. I am given the choice of installing WordPress, yes WordPress, Drupal 8 or Drupal 7. Despite being very confused I go with Drupal 8.

Pantheon choose application page

Now my site is deploying. While this happens there is a bunch of items that update above the progress bar. They're all a bit nerdy, but at least I know something is happening. Why is my only option to visit my dashboard again? I want to try Drupal.

Pantheon site installer page

I land on the dashboard. Now I'm really confused. This all looks pretty geeky. I want to try Drupal not deal with code, connection modes and the like. If I stick around I might eventually click "Visit Development site", which doesn't really feel like trying Drupal.

Pantheon site dashboard

Now I'm asked to select a language. OK so Drupal supports multiple languages, that nice. Let's select English so I can finally get to try Drupal.

Drupal installer, language selection

Next I need to chose an installation profile. What is an installation profile? Which one is best for me?

Drupal installer, choose installation profile

Now I need to create an account. About 10 minutes I already created an account. Why do I need to create another one? I also named my site earlier in the process.

Drupal installer, configuration form part 1
Drupal installer, configuration form part 2

Finally I am dropped into a Drupal 8 site. There is nothing to guide me on what to do next.

Drupal site homepage

I am left with a sense that setting up Contentful is super easy and Drupal is a lot of work. For most people wanting to try Drupal they would have abandoned someway through the process. I would love to see the conversion stats for the try Drupal service. It must miniscule.

It is worth noting that Pantheon has the best user experience of the 3 companies. The process with 1&1 just dumps me at a hosting sign up page. How does that let me try Drupal?

Acquia drops onto a page where you select your role, then you're presented with some marketing stuff and a form to request a demo. That is unless you're running an ad blocker, then when you select your role you get an Ajax error.

The Try Drupal program generates revenue for the Drupal Association. This money helps fund development of the project. I'm well aware that the DA needs money. At the same time I wonder if it is worth it. For many people this is the first experience they have using Drupal.

The previous attempt to have added to the try Drupal page ultimately failed due to the financial implications. While this is disappointing I don't think is necessarily the answer either.

There needs to be some minimum standards for the Try Drupal page. One of the key item is the number of clicks to get from d.o to a working demo site. Without this the "Try Drupal" page will drive people away from the project, which isn't the intention.

If you're at DrupalCon Vienna and want to discuss this and other ways to improve the marketing of Drupal, please attend the marketing sprints.

Continuing the Conversation at DrupalCon and Into the Future

My blog post from last week was very well received and sparked a conversation in the Drupal community about the future of Drupal. That conversation has continued this week at DrupalCon Baltimore.

Yesterday during the opening keynote, Dries touched on some of the issues raised in my blog post. Later in the day we held an unofficial BoF. The turn out was smaller than I expected, but we had a great discussion.

Drupal moving from a hobbyist and business tool to being an enterprise CMS for creating "ambitious digital experiences" was raised in the Driesnote and in other conversations including the BoF. We need to acknowledge that this has happened and consider it an achievement. Some people have been left behind as Drupal has grown up. There is probably more we can do to help these people. Do we need more resources to help them skill up? Should we direct them towards WordPress, backdrop, squarespace, wix etc? Is it is possible to build smaller sites that eventually grow into larger sites?

In my original blog post I talked about "peak Drupal" and used metrics that supported this assertion. One metric missing from that post is dollars spent on Drupal. It is clear that the picture is very different when measuring success using budgets. There is a general sense that a lot of money is being spent on high end Drupal sites. This has resulted in less sites doing more with Drupal 8.

As often happens when trying to solve problems with Drupal during the BoF descended into talking technical solutions. Technical solutions and implementation detail have a place. I think it is important for the community to move beyond this and start talking about Drupal as a product.

In my mind Drupal core should be a content management framework and content hub service for building compelling digital experiences. For the record, I am not arguing Drupal should become API only. Larger users will take this and build their digital stack on top of this platform. This same platform should support an ecosystem of Drupal "distros". These product focused projects target specific use cases. Great examples of such distros include Lightning, Thunder, Open Social, aGov and Drupal Commerce. For smaller agencies and sites a distro can provide a great starting point for building new Drupal 8 sites.

The biggest challenge I see is continuing this conversation as a community. The majority of the community toolkit is focused on facilitating technical discussions and implementations. These tools will be valuable as we move from talking to doing, but right now we need tools and processes for engaging in silver discussions so we can build platinum level products.

Many People Want To Talk

WOW! The response to my blog post on the future of Drupal earlier this week has been phenomenal. My blog saw more traffic in 24 hours than it normally sees in a 2 to 3 week period. Around 30 comments have been left by readers. My tweet announcing the post was the top Drupal tweet for a day. Some 50 hours later it is still number 4.

It seems to really connected with many people in the community. I am still reflecting on everyone's contributions. There is a lot to take in. Rather than rush a follow up that responds to the issues raised, I will take some time to gather my thoughts.

One thing that is clear is that many people want to use DrupalCon Baltimore next week to discuss this issue. I encourage people to turn up with an open mind and engage in the conversation there.

A few people have suggested a BoF. Unfortunately all of the official BoF slots are full. Rather than that be a blocker, I've decided to run an unofficial BoF on the first day. I hope this helps facilitate the conversation.

Unofficial BoF: The Future of Drupal

When: Tuesday 25 April 2017 @ 12:30-1:30pm
Where: Exhibit Hall - meet at the Digital Echidna booth (#402) to be directed to the group
What: High level discussion about the direction people think Drupal should take.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post had this scheduled for Monday. It is definitely happening on Tuesday.

I hope to see you in Baltimore.

Drupal, We Need To Talk

Update 21 April: I've published a followup post with details of the BoF to be held at DrupalCon Baltimore on Tuesday 25 April. I hope to see you there so we can continue the conversation.

Drupal has a problem. No, not that problem.

We live in a post peak Drupal world. Drupal peaked some time during the Drupal 8 development cycle. I’ve had conversations with quite a few people who feel that we’ve lost momentum. DrupalCon attendances peaked in 2014, Google search impressions haven’t returned to their 2009 level, core downloads have trended down since 2015. We need to accept this and talk about what it means for the future of Drupal.

Technically Drupal 8 is impressive. Unfortunately the uptake has been very slow. A factor in this slow uptake is that from a developer's perspective, Drupal 8 is a new application. The upgrade path from Drupal 7 to 8 is another factor.

In the five years Drupal 8 was being developed there was a fundamental shift in software architecture. During this time we witnessed the rise of microservices. Drupal is a monolithic application that tries to do everything. Don't worry this isn't trying to rekindle the smallcore debate from last decade.

Today it is more common to see an application that is built using a handful of Laravel micro services, a couple of golang services and one built with nodejs. These applications often have multiple frontends; web (react, vuejs etc), mobile apps and an API. This is more effort to build out, but it likely to be less effort maintaining it long term.

I have heard so many excuses for why Drupal 8 adoption is so slow. After a year I think it is safe to say the community is in denial. Drupal 8 won't be as popular as D7.

Why isn't this being talked about publicly? Is it because there is a commercial interest in perpetuating the myth? Are the businesses built on offering Drupal services worried about scaring away customers? Adobe, Sitecore and others would point to such blog posts to attack Drupal. Sure, admitting we have a problem could cause some short term pain. But if we don't have the conversation we will go the way of Joomla; an irrelevant product that continues its slow decline.

Drupal needs to decide what is its future. The community is full of smart people, we should be talking about the future. This needs to be a public conversation, not something that is discussed in small groups in dark corners.

I don't think we will ever see Drupal become a collection of microservices, but I do think we need to become more modular. It is time for Drupal to pivot. I think we need to cut features and decouple the components. I think it is time for us to get back to our roots, but modernise at the same time.

Drupal has always been a content management system. It does not need to be a content delivery system. This goes beyond "Decoupled (Headless) Drupal". Drupal should become a "content hub" with pluggable workflows for creating and managing that content.

We should adopt the unix approach, do one thing and do it well. This approach would allow Drupal to be "just another service" that compliments the application.

What do you think is needed to arrest the decline of Drupal? What should Drupal 9 look like? Let's have the conversation.

Remote Presentations

Living in the middle of nowhere and working most of my hours in the evenings I have few opportunities to attend events in person, let alone deliver presentations. As someone who likes to share knowledge and present at events this is a problem. My work around has been presenting remotely. Many of my talks are available on playlist on my youtube channel.

I've been doing remote presentations for many years. During this time I have learned a lot about what it takes to make a remote presentation sucessful.


When scheduling a remote session you should make sure there is enough time for a test before your scheduled slot. Personally I prefer presenting after lunch as it allows an hour or so for dealing with any gremlins. The test presentation should use the same machines and connections you'll be using for your presentation.

I prefer using Hangouts On Air for my presentations. This allows me to stream my session to the world and have it recorded for future reference. I review every one of my recorded talks to see what I can do better next time.

Both sides of the connection should use wired connections. WiFi, especially at conferences can be flakely. Organisers should ensure that all presentation machines are using Ethernet, and if possible it should be on a separate VLAN.

Tips for Presenters

Presenting to a remote audience is very different to presenting in front of a live audience. When presenting in person you're able to focus on people in the audience who seem to be really engaged with your presentation or scan the crowd to see if you're putting people to sleep. Even if there is a webcam on the audience it is likely to be grainy and in a fixed position. It is also difficult to pace when presenting remotely.

When presenting in person your slides will be diplayed in full screen mode, often with a presenter view in your application of choice. Most tools don't allow you to run your slides in full screen mode. This makes it more difficult as a presenter. Transitions won't work, videos won't autoplay and any links Keynote (and PowerPoint) open will open in a new window that isn't being shared which makes demos trickier. If you don't hide the slide thumbnails to remind you of what is coming next, the audience will see them too. Recently I worked out printing thumbnails avoids revealing the punchlines prematurely.

Find out as much information as possible about the room your presentation will be held in. How big is it? What is the seating configuration? Where is the screen relative to where the podium is?

Tips for Organisers

Event organisers are usually flat out on the day of the event. Having to deal with a remote presenter adds to the workload. Some preparation can make life easier for the organisers. Well before the event day make sure someone is nominated to be the point of contact for the presenter. If possible share the details (name, email and mobile number) for the primary contact and a fallback. This avoids the presenter chasing random people from the organising team.

On the day of the event communicate delays/schedule changes to the presenter. This allows them to be ready to go at the right time.

It is always nice for the speaker to receive a swag bag and name tag in the mail. If you can afford to send this, your speaker will always appreciate it.

Need a Speaker?

Are you looking for a speaker to talk about Drupal, automation, devops, workflows or open source? I'd be happy to consider speaking at your event. If your event doesn't have a travel budget to fly me in, then I can present remotely. To discuss this futher please get in touch using my contact form.

Wix aren't the Only Ones Violating the GPL

Recently Matt Mullenweg called out Wix for violating the GPL. Wix's CEO, Avishai Abrahami's post on the company blog missed some of the key issues when it comes to using code licensed under the terms of the GNU General Public License. The GPL doesn't require you to only release the changes made to a dependency. If you use a GPL library in your project, then the entire project is deemed to be a derivate work. This is why the GPL is called a viral license, because if one part of your project is covered by the GPL, then it applies to the entirety of your app. Other people more qualified than me have explained this in more detail, more elegantly than I ever could.

This reminded me of a popular platform that is built on a GPL violation. FlightRadar24 allows users to track flights in real time. FR24's data is collected from multiple sources, including the US FAA and a network of volunteers that run tracking equipment. One of the most common tracking setups uses a Raspberry Pi hooked up to a cheap DVB-T USB tuner. librtlsdr is used to tune the USB stick to the right frequency so it can listen to the tracking signals.

The FlightRadar24 software, FR24Feed, is a single binary that includes a statically linked copy of librtlsdr. On multiple occasions I have asked for a full copy of the source code for the FR24Feed binaries that FlightRadar24 are distributing. They have refused.

FlightRadar are under the mistaken belief that they only have to distribute the source for their modifications to librtlsdr. They have made their patched version of the code available on the FlightRadar24 downloads page. FlightRadar24 say they won't release the source to ensure the quality of their data. I'm sorry, but the GPL doesn't include a clause that excuses you from distributing the source code if you have a bad architecture.

It is disappointing to see FlightRadar24 refusing to comply with the terms of the GPL. I still have everything I need to run a tracking station sitting in a drawer. I'll set up my tracking station once FlightRadar24 release all the full source for FR24Feed.

The Road to DrupalCon Dublin

DrupalCon Dublin is just around the corner. Earlier today I started my journey to Dublin. This week I'll be in Mumbai for some work meetings before heading to Dublin.

On Tuesday 27 September at 1pm I will be presenting my session Let the Machines do the Work. This lighthearted presentation provides some practical examples of how teams can start to introduce automation into their Drupal workflows. All of the code used in the examples will be available after my session. You'll need to attend my talk to get the link.

As part of my preparation for Dublin I've been road testing my session. Over the last few weeks I delivered early versions of the talk to the Drupal Sydney and Drupal Melbourne meetups. Last weekend I presented the talk at Global Training Days Chennai, DrupalCamp Ghent and DrupalCamp St Louis. It was exhausting presenting three times in less than 8 hours, but it was definitely worth the effort. The 3 sessions were presented using hangouts, so they were recorded. I gained valuable feedback from attendees and became aware of some bits of my talk needed some attention.

Just as I encourage teams to iterate on their automation, I've been iterating on my presentation. Over the next week or so I will be recutting my demos and polishing the presentation. If you have a spare 40 minutes I would really appreciate it if you watch one of the session recording below and leave a comment here with any feedback.

Global Training Days Chennai

Thumbnail frame from DrupalCamp Ghent presentation video

DrupalCamp Ghent

Thumbnail frame from DrupalCamp Ghent presentation video

Note: I recorded the audience not my slides.

DrupalCamp St Louis

Thumbnail frame from DrupalCamp St Louis presentation video

Note: There was an issue with the mic in St Louis, so there is no audio from their side.

Per Environment Config in Drupal 8

One of the biggest improvements in Drupal 8 is the new configuration management system. Config is now decoupled from code and the database. Unlike Drupal 6 and 7, developers no longer have to rely on the features module for moving configuration around.

Most large Drupal sites, and some smaller ones, require per environment configuration. Prior to Drupal 8 this was usually achieved using a combination of hard coding config variables and features. Drupal 8 still allows users to put config variables in the settings.php file, but putting config in code feels like a backward step given D8 emphasis on separating concerns.

For example we may have a custom module which calls a RESTful API of a backend service. There are dev, stage and production endpoints that we need to configure. We also keep our config out of docroot and use drush to import the config at deployment time. We have the following structure in our git repo:

+- .git/
+- .gitignore
+- config/
|  |
|  +-
|  |
|  +- base/
|  |
|  +- dev/
|  |
|  +- prod/
|  |
|  +- stage/
+- docroot/
+- scripts/
+- and-so-on/

When a developer needs to export the config for the site they run drush config-export --destination=/path/to/project/config/base. This exports all of the configuration to the specified path. To override the API endpoint for the dev environment, the developer would make the config change and then export just that piece of configuration. That can be done by runing drush config-get mymodule.endpoint > /path/to/project/config/dev/mymodule.endpoint.yml.

Drupal 8 and drush don't allow you to import the 2 config sets at the same time, so we need to run 2 drush commands to import our config. drush config-import --source=/path/to/project/config/base && drush config-import --partial --source=/path/to/project/config/dev. The first command imports the base config and the second applies any per environment overrides. The --partial flag prevents drush deleting any missing config. In most cases this is ok, but watch out if you delete a view or block placement.

Best practices are still emerging for managing configuration in Drupal 8. While I have this method working, I'm sure others have different approaches. Please leave a comment if you have an alternative method.

Update 11-Mar-2016:Removed --partial from base import. This prevented old configuration being removed during updates.

Internal Applications: When Semantic Versioning Doesn't Make Sense

Semantic Versioning (or SemVer) is great for libraries and open source applications. It allows development teams to communicate to user and downstream developers the scope of changes in a release. One of the most important indicators in versioning is backwards compatibility (BC). SemVer makes any BC break clear. Web services and public APIs are another excellent use case for SemVer.

As much as I love semantic versioning for public projects, I am not convinced about using it for internal projects.

Libraries, be they internal or publicly released should follow the semantic version spec. Not only does this encourage reuse and sharing of libraries, it also displays good manners towards your fellow developers. Internal API endpoints should also comply with SemVer, but versioning end points should only expose major.minor in the version string. Again this will help maintain good relations with other devs.

End users of your application probably won't care if you drop jQuery in favour of straight JS, swap Apache for nginx or even if you upgrade to PHP 7/Python 3.x. Some users will care if you move a button. They won't care that the underlying data model and classes remain unchanged and so this is only a patch release. In the mind of those users, the button move is a BC break, because you changed their UI. At the end of the day, users don't care about version numbers, they care about features and bug fixes.

Regardless of the versioning system used, changes should be documented in a changelog. The changelog shouldn't just be a list of git commits streamed into a text file. This changelog should be something a non technical user can get their head around. This allows all stakeholders to clearly see the incremental improvement in the system.

In my mind SemVer breaks down when it comes to these types of (web) applications. Without a doubt any of the external integration points of the app should use semantic versioning. However the actual app versioning should just increment. I recommend using date based version numbering, such as 201512010 for the first release on 1 December 2015. The next release on that same day, if required, would be 201512011 and so on. If you release many times per day then you might want to consider a 2 or 3 digit counter component.

The components that make up your application such as the libraries, docker base images, ansible playbooks and so on should be using SemVer. Your build and test infrastructure should be able to create reproducible builds of the full stack if you reference specific versions or dependencies.

Instead of conditioning end users to understand semantic versioning, energy should be expended on teaching users to understand continuous delivery and deployment. The app is going to grow and evolve, tagging a release should be something a script can do. It shouldn't need 5 people in the tea room trying to work out if a feature can go in or not because it might be considered a BC break.

When building an application, get the code written and have people using it. If they're not happy, continue to iterate.