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May 06 2015
May 06

In a world where your page load speed is critical to success…

I couldn’t resist. With Drupalcon in Tinsel Town, I’m going to start most of my conversations with “in a world…” [Ed. note: Only if you use the Don LaFontaine voice every time.]

My session for Drupalcon LA is a partner session with Forum One client Mercy Corps. We’ll team up to show you how we maximized the performance of mercycorps.org. Maximizing Site Speed with Mercy Corps will take a tour of specific measures we used to make their critical fundraising platform blazing fast. Come see me, John Brandenburg, and Drew Betts, lead User Experience Designer at Mercy Corps, as we tag team on subjects like measuring user engagement, debugging Drupal caches and measuring performance. We will even discuss some quick tips that every Drupal site manager should use to maximize the performance of their own site.

Why come to this session?

Perhaps because Google itself ranks your site on speed. Or perhaps increments in site speed can demonstrably increase conversion rates. Or perhaps you are tired of hearing the groans of your own digital staff about the performance of your public site. After the session, we will have a Q&A where you can learn from the experts and ask questions about improving the performance of your own sites. In the meantime you can also check out my more detailed blog post on Drupal site speed.

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Apr 28 2015
Apr 28

Lately, I have found myself involved in several discussions on improving the performance of Drupal sites. This can be a deep subject, with many different ways to approach it. In this blog post, I want to highlight three very simple methods to boost the speed of your site and share some raw data to show how much of a boost these measures can provide.

In a nutshell: Use Views Caches, the Page Cache, and CSS/JS Aggregation for better site performance. If you work in Drupal development every day, you know this all too well, but for some actual, benchmark comparisons, read on.

Before I go on, I will recognize that this is a fairly well-covered subject. People talk a lot about site performance. Perhaps it’s because at least one study has demonstrated that a 2-second delay in site load times can increase abandonment rates from 67% to 80%. The reason to bring these three methods up, however, is that they are such simple measures, they are often overlooked. It could be that no one remembered to turn these settings on, or perhaps developers were debugging an issue at one point and disabled something during their investigation, which they never re-enabled. It happens. What I would like to drive home is the importance of these simple measures, backed up by hard data. Also, for these reasons, I recommend using modules like Prod Check, or Site Audit, which will alert you when your Drupal site is not as well optimized as it should be.

For the analysis below, I used a tool called Apache Benchmark. It is well known in the development community, and can simulate large volumes of traffic visiting a site. One option the tool provides is the ability to output results in a csv file that provide a range of percentages (0-99) with a corresponding number of milliseconds (ms). This means that for each percentage, that percentage of requests were served under the corresponding time. These graphs are cumulative, e.g. 20% were served in 500 ms or less, 60% were served in 800 ms or less, and so on. I enjoy using this tool so much, I’ve incorporated it into a script I am developing to provide a consistent suite of tests to evaluate a site’s performance. In each of the following examples, I’ve simulated 1,000 requests, with 10 concurrent requests at a time.

 If you are running a Drupal website, you are almost certainly using the Views module. Views provides a lot of options for building and rendering lists of content. However, probably the most overlooked option in Views is its caching ability. By default, caching in Views is disabled.Turning it on gives you two options: (1) caching the query results and (2) caching the rendered output. You should use whichever timing you are comfortable with. Be aware that longer cache times will delay the appearance of new posts in the View. One helpful module to get around this is the Views Content Cache, which will expire cached views whenever similar content is updated. This might be often if your site is really active, so consider simply being at peace with semi-stale content. Your site will perform a lot better and your users will be happier for it.

So what kind of boost does this provide? Let’s compare three views. In a clean install of standard Drupal, I’ve created 1,000 article nodes through devel_generate and created three different views — one view with the default 10 items per page, another with 100 items per page, and a third with 1,000 items per page. Here is the result comparing each page with no caching whatsoever and versions using the cached views (using Views Content Cache, not that this matters).


The 10 items per page saw a decent decrease in response time. The actual means were 1,626 ms for no cache and 1,407 ms for the views cache, a 219 ms decrease. The effect is significantly more pronounced as we raise the number of items rendered on the page.


The change here in mean request time was from 3,741 ms to 1,483 ms, a 2,258 ms difference. Note the spike at the end represents early requests made before the cache was “primed.”  Better still, look at the effect when we have 1,000 items per page.


When we talk about caching, we usually talk about caching in layers. If one layer of the cache is bypassed, then the layer below is always available to catch it. If you want to take the deep dive in caching in Drupal, here is a great video from DrupalCon 2014. A layer above the Views cache would be the Drupal page cache. This is the mechanism that will actually store the rendered page in a database, which Drupal will serve to the next user until the page expires or the cache is cleared. Let’s just look at the effect of the 100 items per page.


We managed to cut down the mean response rate to 178 ms, a 1,637 ms difference or a 90% decrease in response time! You probably can see that I forgot to clear all the caches prior to the Page Cache test run as it’s priming started at the level of the views cache.

If you have enabled the page cache and don’t feel like you are getting any improvement, you can look at your http headers to confirm that it’s working. Remember, this will only work for anonymous users. If you see:

X-Drupal-Cache: Hit

Then you are hitting the page cache! But if it says Miss, then something may be amiss (see what I did there?). A quick note to developers: if you ever use the $_SESSION global variable in Drupal, then users, including anonymous ones, will be given a session cookie, which means that pages will not be cached for that or any user with a session. A full code review of a site can turn up any usages of this.

Thus far, we’ve focused on improvements that can be described as “back-end enhancements.” They alter the way the software behaves to reduce the time it takes to render the page, which shortens what we call the “time to first byte.” This signifies the point at which the end user begins receiving data from the site. This value is critically important, because it is the initial request that will initiate all the other assets your end user will still need to download, including CSS, javascript, images, fonts, animated gifs of cats, and whatever else you might need to deliver to the user. Each of these items also has its own time to first byte, but until the initial page begins to download, your browser won’t even know to go fetch those items.

Another point to consider is that most browsers only download five to eight assets at a time. So if your page has 80+ items that need to be downloaded, they will need to wait in turn until all assets before them have been downloaded and an asset download slot is available. This means that pages with a lot of assets can take a while to download. Which brings us to the next absurdly simple way you can increase site speed.

Aggregation is the act of taking several of the assets used on a page, combining them into one file, and directing the user to download that file instead of the source version. In Drupal, if you look at the page source, without aggregation, you will see that it includes something like this:

 <script type="text/javascript" src="http://localhost:8080/misc/jquery.js?v=1.4.4"></script>

With aggregation turned on, it will change to something like this:

<script type="text/javascript" src="http://localhost:8080/sites/default/files/js/js_xAPl0qIk9eowy_iS9tNkCWXLUVoat94SQT48UBCFkyQ.js"></script>

With much fewer of these individual references. Now here is where we run into issues with the tools we are using to measure performance. The benchmark tool we have been using doesn’t actually download secondary resources like the javascript and css assets we are aggregating. In general, getting consistent, reliable, benchmark data is pretty difficult. So in my attempt to demonstrate what aggregation can actually do, I need to turn to more anecdotal evidence.

The Procedure

In my own browser, I’ve opened up the developer tools network tab, performed five hard refreshes, and recorded the load time for each. I performed this same procedure for both an un-aggregated and an aggregated page.

Without Aggregation

The Data: 232, 254, 310, 236, 216

Average Page Load: 249.6 ms

With Aggregation:

The Data: 209, 247, 188, 194, 213

Average Page Load: 210.2 ms

It appears that on average, my test site provided a 39.4 ms reduction in total load time, or 15.79%. So there you have it, we started with a page requiring over 1.5 seconds to load and brought that down by nearly 90% with just the simple tools available by default in Drupal. Do you know when it gets even better? When Drupal successfully serves a cached page, the visitor will then start using the “If-Modified-Since” header, so future requests aren’t even downloaded. Average load time for these types of requests was around 130 ms.

It’s 2015, so we can’t talk about Drupal without talking about Drupal 8. What’s new in the world of performance in the next big release of Drupal? The promise is faster loading across the board, thanks to the symfony framework. As far as the configuration options, like the ones we described above, are concerned, all the same tools are still available. The new exciting feature here is tag-based caching available, by default, in Views. This has the potential to provide functionality, like the Content Cache to core, to Drupal 8 views, but in a much more sophisticated way. Cache-based tagging will allow tagging of cache entries with arbitrary values, e.g. a node id, or a language to a view. This allows us to clear the caches later when appropriate, without clearing unrelated caches. This blog post by Dries summarizes the strategy perfectly.

These three suggestions, which anyone with administrative access can do, can make the difference between your site handling a few simultaneous users to handling hundreds and possibly even thousands at once. The above are just the basic, quick wins that any site administrator can perform, with some data on just how much of a boost the three steps can provide. If you are a developer looking for more advanced techniques on improving your site’s performance, below are a few additional ideas. If you aren’t sure how to go about these, get in touch with us, and we can talk about what Forum One can do for you.

  • Optimize images/reduce number of images used
  • Reduce number of social media widgets
  • Enable compression
  • Disable database logging or use syslog instead
  • Keep software up to date
  • Change backend cache to Memcache or APC
  • Use the Entity Cache (which complements the above suggestion nicely)
  • Use a reverse proxy caching tool like Varnish
  • Lazy load images
  • Defer javascript loading
  • Use a CDN
  • Configure webserver to serve serve static assets directly, i.e. avoid routing requests for images and javascript files through Drupal.

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Aug 02 2013
Aug 02

After you've been working with Drupal profiles for a while, the line between what functionality is a part of core Drupal and what comes from contributed modules tends to blur, but it is important to step back every once in a while and examine these distinctions. I recently had a wheel-spinning moment over the difference between two formatters for file fields: Generic files and Rendered files. Specifically trying to answer the question: Why don't custom Display Suite fields to show up, or why can't I select Display modes (e.g. Default, Teaser, Full content), when a file is formatted with the Generic file formatter? The short answer is because the Generic file formatter does not render a file as an entity. And here is why…

I wanted to use the Display Suite module to show an extra field that I had attached to a file entity (In this case, it was a custom display suite code field to show the file size). Here you see where I am already relying on contributed functionality in Drupal. In out-of-the-box Drupal, files are not entities. You must to use the File Entity module to allow files to become entities and gain the benefits of an entity, like being field-able or using display modes. Once the file entity module is installed, you now have access to the Rendered file formatter for file fields, which can then display the fields attached to a file entity because the formatter's view function constructs a renderable array that is passed to drupal_render(), a very dynamic method for generating markup compared to a very set theme. Otherwise, when you use the Generic file formatter, you are dedicated to using the theme file_link provided by core's File module. This theme formats fields in a very basic manner; as a link and an icon. Here is what the theme's function returns:

return '' . $icon . ' ' . l($link_text, $url, $options) . '';

Which definitely is not as dynamic as how a rendered entity might be output. No fields, no display modes, just the file's basic information as a link (You could give it access to display modes though by making those available in the formatter settings hook, Then you would be responsible for handling those settings in whatever theme you use to render the field).

In the end, I did not use the Display suite code field at all. It relies on PHP code in the database, which presents issues around security, and also, as a colleague of mine pointed out, PHP code from the database is not cached, so there is a performance hit as well. Instead, I implemented my own Display suite formatter (Which is really just allows DS to use any standard Drupal field formatters) with a theme that re-implements file_field, adding the file size as a part of the display.

So in short: Generic files and Renderend files share the fact that they are both field formatters, but Rendered file > Renderable array > Rendered entity, while Generic file > file_like theme. It all makes perfect sense now.

Jul 01 2013
Jul 01

Although the Drupal Kaltura module (6.x-2.0-beta2) is great for most video play, it doesn’t always play nice with Organic Groups. Recently I was tasked with using the module on an existing Drupal 6 Commons site. The problem was that Kaltura media nodes do not automatically inherit the group association, when created in a group context. In other words; when there is a GET parameter for a group id (gid) present in the node add page for kaltura_entry content types, Kaltura content would not be associated with the group like other group post content types. This is because the module relies on notifications from the Kaltura service before a node is actually created, at which point, the parameter has no relevance. So all we needed to do was pass some data to Kaltura and have Kaltura pass it right back to us.

After some extensive research, I finally came across this documentation page. The section "Passing Partner Data to the KCW Widget" (KCW = Kaltura Contribution Wizard) explains that we do have a partnerData key in the variables passed to the Contribution Wizard widget and then on to Kaltura. In fact, the module already does something similar to pass the user ID. All we had to do was plug the gid in there then handle the returned data. This does require a bit of patching to the contributed module.

First, plugging in our group id. This required adding the following to line 47 of kaltura/kaltura_client/kaltura_helpers.php

if(array_key_exists('gids', $_GET)){

$flashVars["partnerData"] .='|[email protected]'. filter_var($_GET['gids'][0], FILTER_SANITIZE_NUMBER_INT);  


Note that the values are delimited by pipes, and paired with an @. Next, we had to figure out how to handle the returned data. This required modifying the kaltura_notify_node_entry_add() function in kaltura/includes/kaltura.notification.inc to assign the node to a group during node construction. I was not entirely sure how to do this off the top of my head, so I relied on the suggestions in this Drupal stack exchange post and dropped the following code in around line 206 right before node_save($node).

if(array_key_exists('gid', $partner_data)){

$node->og_initial_groups[0][$partner_data['gid']] = $partner_data['gid'];

$node->og_groups[0] = $partner_data['gid'];

$node->og_public = 0;

$gnode = node_load($partner_data['gid']);

$node->og_groups_names[0] = $gnode->title;


As always, when modifying a contributed module, I saved these changes in a patch file in the repository so they can be tracked and re-applied in the event that we upgrade the module later (if the patch is not already applied by then).

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