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Using less Drupal

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Lately, I’ve had various frustrations with Drupal which have moved me away from using it for various things. I’d like to go through where I’ve moved away from Drupal, why I’ve made those changes, and my future Drupal decisions.

WordPress rather than Drupal blog

To begin with, this blog is now on WordPress rather than Drupal – and I have to say that I’m loving it… and so are my non-geeky colleagues. It ticks all the right boxes. Its *really* user friendly. Its much easier to add photos (and videos) to posts. And it’s hardly taken long at all to setup.

So where did Drupal go wrong with this? Well, I guess its the ‘kitchen sink’ approach back-firing. In trying to be something to everyone, Drupal runs the risk of being less than perfect to to any one specific task too. WordPress, on the other hand, has the ability to focus on being the very best blogging software out there, and nothing else gets in the way of that or deters it from its ultimate goal.

But also, we needed to seaparate the business end of our website (the creation of yearbooks, using tens of thousands of nodes) from the nodes and users to do with the blog, partly because around this time every year we flush out the old site and start a new. So we were either going to have a separate Drupal install for the blog or use WordPress. We chose WordPress.

Form theming frustrations

Have a look at the form here and let me know how you’d create it using FAPI (we’re on Drupal 6.4). I’m talking specifically about the theming of the form. Yes, its a very simple form. A search form. But let’s have a look at what’s going on with it and discuss the Drupal way versus the way we ended up doing it.

In FAPI, you’d probably have a ‘textfield’ element for the search box and a ‘submit’ element for the ‘Go’ button. Easy enough, one minute of code. But what about the title ‘Name of your school or group’? Probably a title for the textfield element, no? But then how do we get it centred above both the textfield and the submit button? And what about the text under the two fields? A description, right? Again… how do we get it to appear *exactly* where we want it? The look and feel of the form are to me absolutely crucial. I don’t just want a textfield’s title (with annoying colon after it), a textfield, a description, and then a Go button all one on top of the other.

The Drupal solution? Using a theme hook. We define the form in our implementation of hook_form() and then theme that form separately. The ‘programmer’ cares about the functionality of the form but not the visual design of the form. The ‘designer’ doesn’t care about the functionality and instead works on how it looks. But I’m both the programmer and the designer here, and I want my work to be as easy as possible! So, let’s say i go down this route (I tried, I really did). I need to register my theme function in hook_themes(). Okay, I know why, it saves extra code running on every page load. But its still annoying. Now I create my theme function… urgh. You’ve got to really know your FAPI stuff to get this to work. I try for a while but then I give up. It just feels so messy with some code somewhere, some in another place, and then when I ask my colleague to have a look so he can learn how to do it he’s disgusted… doesn’t know what’s going on… starts bad-mouthing Drupal. So we build our own massively simple FAPI instead in about half an hour that does just what we want it to do.

So now we’re using our own super-basic FAPI for this form. Not all forms, just the ones we want complete control over, visually. Rather than using hook_form() and defining a form array, we just hard-code the HTML for the form. Some of you may be in complete horror now thinking about this but its just by far and away the easiest way to get forms to do exactly what you want. Like a forename and surname field side by side rather than one on top of the other, sharing the title ‘Name’ which is a label for the forename field.

We’re sticking with the idea of a validate() and submit() hook though. I like that one. But we’re doing it slighly differently and more simply, so that any new coders we might hire can quickly and easily pick it up.

Going nodeless

I don’t always like nodes. I really, really don’t. I don’t need revisions, and if I did I’d do them in my own way, just the right way for me, rather than a way that kind of works for everyone but not quite perfectly for anyone in specific. I don’t like the way that as uid=1 I get all the extra bits like ‘Authoring information’ which I never touch. Node hooks and the nodeapi which I once loved are now a higgeldy-piggledy mess that’s a real pain for my new hire. I try to explain to him what’s going on when I save a node. “So this function deals with the submission. But not the core node stuff, Drupal deals with that. And if we want something used for all nodes, we put it in here instead. And we can also override this specific bit here.”… he looks on in amazement, totally baffled by what’s going on and why. It would be so much easier for him (and me) to understand if everything’s just in one place.

So what do we gain from nodes? Umm… not much really. We don’t use contributed modules any more because they never do exactly what I want and always do stuff which I don’t want them doing which just make them less efficient. We put all our code in our own one module instead. A massive, hefty module with a dozen or so include files.

We gain the ability to always do $node->nid and use node_save() and other handy things. But we don’t really need nodes, and it frustrates me having to do the extra INNER JOINs on node_revisions etc. So we’re trialing not using nodes at all for one of our content types – our customers. We just have a simple ‘id’ field now in one single table. We no longer need to INNER JOIN node and node_revisions. We haven’t had any problems so far, but the new hire is finding it much easier to code now, without the ‘baggage’ of Drupal.

The future

Our current plan is to gently migrate away from Drupal, perhaps altogether. We like the idea of building our own framework again, one that does exactly what it needs to do for our site. Its not something we can do overnight. Ours is a yearly cycle, following the academic year, and the current plan is to fork the codebase in around January/February and that would mark the beginning of our own framework if we still feel that way then.

In the meantime, we’ll continue using nodes for most of our content types (if simply because migrating away from them would be a long and arduos task with little reward) and we’ll continue to use FAPI for most our forms. But I see us using our own simple FAPI for more and more forms where we need complete control over them, and I see us extending this FAPI to help us reduce using the same code multiiple times.

I think I still like Drupal. I definitely appreciate the vibrant community. But sometimes I thoroughly hate Drupal and get massively frustrated by it. But I still like it in theory at least. One framework for all my websites. But whilst I just work on one massive website it just has so much less use to me.

You’re more than welcome to urge me to stay with Drupal. In fact, I highly hope someone can manage this. I’ve put a lot of time over the last few years into learning Drupal, and it would be a great waste and a shame to lose all that.

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