Oct 22 2014
Oct 22

Along with Malcolm and other colleagues from the Capgemini Drupal team, I attended the recent Drupalcon in Amsterdam. And as well as admiring the Dutch attitude to cycling and its integration in the city (btw London, blue paint on the road != a cycle superhighway), we also caught up on the state of Drupal and its future. So here a few reflections from Drupalcon Amsterdam.

Drupal In The Enterprise - A Key Component In The Wider Web

I’ve been to a few Drupalcons now, and compared to previous years, use of Drupal in the enterprise (or more generally at scale) seems much more commonplace. Dries Buytaert’s (Drupal founder) keynotes have made reference to Drupal’s ability to integrate with other systems as a key strength, and in these types of projects, Drupal is not used as the all-in-one solution that maybe was more commonplace a few years ago.

Partly this is also due to the way the web has moved far beyond the idea of ‘a thing you use on your desktop computer’, and Drupal has shown itself to be adaptable to this. For example, the idea of Headless Drupal was a well covered topic this year. Of course, previous ‘cons have had talks on uses of Drupal with other technologies (e.g. node.js talk from London 2011) but whereas it seemed more an interesting edge case then, now there are many successful real-world projects adopting these ideas.

The Sessions

Based on my not-entirely-comprehensive memory of the subset of sessions I attended from past Drupalcons, this year there seemed to be many more talks which could have easily been at a frontend or PHP specific conference. Drupal 8’s use of Symfony 2 components and shift to making use of components Proudly Found Elsewhere is part of this.

A few talks that those of us who attended would recommend (not an exhaustive list). I won’t go into too much detail (that’s all in the slides and the video) but these are worth checking out.

Automated Frontend Testing

The types of frontend testing which can be automated, covering performance (Phantomas), CSS (Wraith) and end-to-end (CasperJS) and integrating this into your build workflow. Slides Video

Models & Service Layers; Hemoglobin & Hobgoblins

I think the PHP track is a welcome addition to Drupalcon. When developing custom functionality on projects here at Capgemini, we often write the business models and logic as separate classes to Drupal which are then ‘glued’ via hooks which implement those classes. That kind of separation has advantages with portability, testability and some amount of simplification in that Drupal isn’t a dependency. Video

Cory Doctorow’s Keynote

Very interesting talk on how open-source is (in some ways) critical to our individual freedom in the modern world. In an age where “a modern house is a computer that you co-inhabit”, if a system went down - or arguably worse, were controlled by overzealous authorities - it can become uninhabitable. What do we do in this case? Is the Apple iTunes/U2 debacle merely the thin end of the wedge? Interesting viewing for anyone who contributes or uses open source. Video

Drupal 8 And The Future

As Drupal 8 entered beta during the conference, it was an opportunity to check out the changes. The plugin system for extending functionality looks interesting. In Drupal projects at Capgemini we have adopted approaches such as abstracting business logic and objects into standalone libraries and classes, called from hooks and callbacks where we need integration with Drupal. This approach allows us easier unit-testing and portability of classes. D8’s plugin system looks like a good way of achieving those advantages while implementing a Drupal API.

Having spent a lot of time on projects wrestling with the various methods of deploying and updating configuration, the CMI (Configuration Management Initiative), which imports and exports YAML files to update and dump site configuration is a very welcome addition.

In the frontend, I’m looking forward to using the Twig templating. The idea of having cleaner PHP-free templates yet still with the flexibility to have filters and basic logic is going to help improve separation between the theme and module layer. It’ll be new to me (as will other things) but as with other components, they have been successfully used in other PHP projects so there is documentation and examples already out there. There are some smaller changes too - removing drupal.js’s dependency on jQuery (thereby gently encouraging use of native JS), updating the versions of included libraries (and committing to keeping them up-to-date during D8’s lifetime) and including no JavaScript by default are good steps to optimising the frontend.

Where things may be more challenging is the APIs which have both new object-oriented components and retain the hook and callback system in some combination (for example, declaring widgets via hook_element_info). To take an example from a core module, the file module’s managed_file widget functionality is spread across a number of callbacks as well as its own FileWidget class. It’s not the most straightforward development flow to follow. Where this has some advantages is that existing modules will not need a complete OO rewrite just to be compatible with D8 - a module author could do a simple port at first before rewriting to take advantage of the new APIs. But some care is need to ensure that the advantages of encapsulation, increased unit-testability and extendability that the OO patterns introduce are not compromised by dependencies on a particular hook or callback.

Taking The Leap

Finally, as Drupal 8 progressed from alpha to beta during Amsterdam Drupalcon, it does seem now that it can be realistically considered for projects coming up on the horizon. Obviously there will a lot more work going into the project to fix bugs and improve performance and so forth. But now the major API decisions and changes have been made. But with this iteration of Drupal incorporating many more features from the contrib world (Views, WYSIWYG, etc) and PHP (Symfony2 components), it looks to be a healthy position for use when that 8.0.0 finally lands.

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