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Dec 17 2020
Dec 17

argument-open-source

Recently, Drupal has been on an update rampage. The introduction of the oh-so-beautiful Drupal 9 core has spurred a chain reaction of upgrades across the Drupal platform. Just this week, we’re getting a new default theme (which is hyper-minimalist and easy-on-the-eyes), a 20% reduction in install times, and automated lazy load for images. But let’s talk about the juiciest UI/UX update that came with Drupal 9 — the standardization of Drupal’s Layout Builder.

If you’ve built a pre-Drupal-9 website over the past few years, you probably dabbled with Panels/Panelizer, WYSIWYG templates, or even custom coding to set up your UX/UI. And that works. We did it for years. But you can throw that worn-out Panelizer module in the trash. The times, they are a-changing. Drupal’s new Layout Builder module combines the core functionality of Panelizer with an out-of-the-box WYSIWYG engine.

First hinted at in 2017, Drupal Layout Builder officially left the onerous Drupal testing pipeline last year as part of Drupal’s 8.7 updates. Despite circulating for a year now, the chaos of 2020 has overshadowed this potent and flexible tool. So, let’s talk about it. Here’s what you need to know about Drupal’s Layout Builder.

What is Layout Builder?

Layout Builder is a WYSIWYG page editing engine that lets you manipulate back-end features via an easy-to-use drag-and-drop interface. It’s difficult to overstate just how valuable Layout Builder is when it comes to time-savings. You can create templates in minutes, immediately preview and create content changes, and tweak page-by-page UI/UX features to create more cohesive and on-the-fly websites and landing pages.

At its core, Layout Builder is a block-based layout builder. You can create layouts for either a single page or all content of a specific type. In addition, you can jump in and create rapid-fire landing pages based on your existing design theme. There are three “layers” that Layout Builder operates on to help you build out holistic websites.

  1. Layout templates: You can create a layout template for all content of a specific type. For example, you can make a layout template for your blog posts or a layout template for every product page. This template will be shared across all pages, so you don’t have to go in and rebuild for each content type.
  2. Customized layout templates: You can also go in and make granular changes to a specific layout template. So, if you want a certain product page to be different than the layout template, you can make granular changes to just that page.
  3. Landing pages: Finally, you can create one-off pages that aren’t tied to structured content — like landing pages.

Important: Founder of Drupal — Dries Buytaert — dropped a blog post with some use cases for each of these layers.

To be clear, Layout Builder isn’t a WYSIWYG template. It uses your existing template. Instead, it allows non-developers (and lazy-feeling developers) to quickly make per-page changes to the website without diving into code. But these aren’t just simple changes. You can create a layout template for every page type (e.g., creating a specific layout for all the shoes you sell), and you can also dive into each of these layout pages to make custom changes. So, it really lets you get granular with your editing without forcing you to completely retool and redesign pages for each type of content. This gives Layout Builder a massive advantage over WordPress’s Gutenberg — which requires you to go in and re-lay elements for every page individually.

Here’s the kicker: you get a live-preview of all changes without bouncing between the layout and the front-end. Every block and field you place and every change you make to taxonomies or content is visible the second you make the change. The entire process takes place on the front-end, and changes are instantly visible. Remember, Layout Builder is part of Drupal’s Core, so you don’t need to implement new entity types of dig into third-party elements. It’s an out-of-the-box experience.

Advantages of Layout Builder

Last year, we got a gorgeous, picture-perfect demo of how Layout Builder would work. It’s beautiful, fast, and packs a punch that other leading layout builders are indeed missing. So, to help unpack the value of Layout Builder, let’s look at some of the advantages of Layout Builder:

Customization

Beyond Layout Builder’s incredibly powerful and customizable block-based design engine, it offers customization in usage. Let’s say you want to create an amazing landing page. You can start with a blank page that’s untied to structured content, drop in some hero images, a few pieces of text, some content, and a video. Suddenly, you have a custom landing page (complete with modules, blocks, and taxonomy) that exists in a separate ecosystem from your website.

Simultaneously, you can create a template for every blog post, then dive into a specific blog post and make on-time changes to just that page while still being tied to your structured content. Remember, you can make these changes nearly instantly, without touching code. And you’ll see a live preview of every change immediately without switching between interfaces.

Accessibility

Drupal is committed to accessibility. The second principle of Drupal’s Values & Principles page reads, “build software everyone can use,” and this rings true. Layout Builder meets Drupal’s accessibility gate standards (i.e., conforms to WCAG 2.0 and ATAG 2.0, text color has sufficient contrast, JavaScript is keyboard-usable, etc.)

Ease-of-use

Like many WYSIWYG editors, Drupal Layout Builder is all about “blocks.” But these aren’t your run-of-the-mill blocks. There are inline blocks, field blocks, global blocks, and system blocks. Each of these has its own use case, and you can combine these block types to create stellar pages in minutes. For example, global blocks are used to create templates, and inline blocks are used to create page-specific changes that don’t impact the layout. The combination of these block types makes Layout Builder a hassle-free experience.

Additionally, there are plenty of ease-of-use features built into the core. Layout Builder works with the keyboard, has plenty of usability features that tie to Drupal’s value statements, and allows nit-picky setups for customized workflows.

Creating a Drupal Website is Easier Than Ever

With Layout Builder, users can generate valuable content and pages without needing to patch together various WYSIWYG tools or Panel/Panelizer. At Mobomo, we’re incredibly excited for our clients to dive into Drupal Layout Builder and make actionable and memorable changes to their templates based on their in-the-moment needs and experiences.

But Layout Builder isn’t a replacement for a well-designed and well-developed website. We can help you build your next world-class website. Once we’re done, Layout Builder gives you the freedom to make substantial changes without the headaches, back-and-forth, or unnecessary touchpoints. Are you ready to create a customer-centric, experience-driven digital space? Contact us.

Apr 01 2020
Apr 01

argument-open-source

Back in 2013, when I first joined Mobomo, we migrated NASA.gov from a proprietary content management system (CMS) to Amazon Cloud and Drupal 7. It goes without saying, but there was a lot riding on getting it right. The NASA site had to handle high traffic and page views each day, without service interruptions, and the new content management system had to accommodate a high volume of content updates each day. In addition to having no room for compromise on performance and availability, the site also had to have a high level of security. 

Maybe the biggest challenge, though, was laying the groundwork to achieve NASA’s vision for a website with greater usability and enhanced user experiences. If NASA’s audience all fell into the same demographic, that goal probably wouldn’t have seemed so intimidating, but NASA’s audience includes space fans who range from scientists to elementary school kids. 

Our mission was to create a mobile-first site that stayed true to NASA’s brand and spoke to all of the diverse members of its audience. A few years later, we relaunched a user-centric site that directed visitors from a dynamic home page to microsites designed specifically for them.

Making Space Seem Not So Far Away

NASA.gov includes data on its missions, past and present. To make this massive amount of data more user-friendly, we worked with NASA to design a site that’s easily searchable, navigable, and enhanced through audio, video, social media feeds, and calendars. Users can find updates on events via features such as the countdown clock to the International Space Station’s 20th anniversary. NASA.gov users can also easily find what they need if they want to research space technology, stream NASA TV, or explore image galleries. 

The NASA.gov site directs its younger visitors to a STEM engagement microsite where students can find activities appropriate for their grade level. The site also includes the NASA Kids’ Club where students can have some fun while they’re learning about exploration. For example, they can try their hands at virtually driving a rover on Mars, play games, and download activities. 

Older students with space-related aspirations can learn about internship and career opportunities, and teachers can access lesson plans and STEM resources.

How to Make it Happen

To successfully achieve NASA’s goals and manage a project this complex, we had to choose the right approach. Some website projects are tailor-made for a simple development plan that moves from a concept to design, construction, testing, and implementation in a structured, linear way. The NASA.gov project, however, wasn’t one of them.

For this website and the vast majority of the sites we develop, our team follows DevOps methodology. With DevOps, you don’t silo development from operations. Our DevOps culture brings together all stakeholders to collaborate throughout the process to achieve:

Faster Deployment

If we had to build the entire site then take it live, it would have taken much longer for NASA and its users to have a new resource. We built the site in stages, validating at every stage. By developing in iterations, and involving the entire team, we also have the ability to address small issues rather than waiting until they create major ones. It also gives us more agility to address changes and keep everyone informed. This prevents errors that could put the brakes on the entire project.

Optimized Design

NASA.gov has several Webby Awards, and award-winning web design takes a team that works together and collaborates with the organization to define the audience (or audiences), optimize the site’s navigation and usability, and strike a balance between the site’s primary purpose and its appeal. 

Mobile-First

Because NASA.gov users may be accessing the site from a PC, laptop, tablet, smartphone, or other device, it was also pivotal to use mobile-first design. Mobile-first starts by designing for the smallest screens first, and then work your way up to larger screens. This approach forces you to build a strong foundation first, then enhance it as screen sizes increase. It basically allows you to ensure user experiences are optimized for any size device. 

Scalability

NASA.gov wasn’t only a goliath website when we migrated it to Amazon Cloud and Drupal. We knew it would continue to grow. Designing the site with microsites that organize content, help visitors find the content that is most relevant to their interests, and enhance usability and UX informed a plan for future growth. 

Efficient Development Processes

DevOps Methodology breaks down barriers between developers and other stakeholders, automates processes, makes coding and review processes more efficient, and enables continuous testing. Even though we work in iterations, our team maintains a big-picture view of projects, such as addressing integrations, during the development process. 

Planned Post-Production

DevOps also helps us cover all the bases to prepare for launch and to build in management tools for ongoing site maintenance. 

What Your Business Can Learn from NASA

You probably never thought about it, but your business or organization has a lot in common with NASA, at least when it comes to your website. Just like NASA, you need a website that gives you the ability to handle a growing digital audience, reliably and securely. You’re probably also looking for the best CMS for your website, one that’s cost-effective and gives you the features you need.

Your website should also be designed to be usable and to provide the user experiences your audience wants. And, with the number of mobile phone users in the world topping 5 billion, you want to make sure their UX is optimized with mobile-first design. 

NASA’s project is also an illustration of how building your website in stages, getting input from all stakeholders, and validating and testing each step of the way can lead to great results. You also need a plan for launching the site with minimal disruption and tools that will make ongoing management and maintenance easier. 

You probably want to know you are doing everything you can to make your content appealing, engaging, and interactive. You may think NASA has an advantage in that department since NASA’s content is inherently exciting to its audience.

But so is yours. Create a website that showcases it. Not sure where to begin? Click here and we’ll point you in the right direction.

Mar 12 2020
Mar 12

argument-open-source

If you engaged in a word association game, one of the first things people would respond when you say “open source” is that it’s free. If any of those people are in the position of purchasing software licenses for a business or organization, that makes open source (a.k.a., free) definitely a benefit worth exploring. Open source has the potential to save thousands of dollars or more, depending on the software and the size of the organization. 

Even though eliminating a budget line item for licensing costs may be enough to convince some organizations that open source is the way to go, it’s actually only one of several compelling reasons to migrate from proprietary platforms to open-source architecture. 

In a debate on open-source vs. licensed platforms, the affirmative argument will include these four, additional points: 

Development Freedom

When businesses provide workstations for their employees, they choose (often inadvertently) the framework on which their organizations operate. For example, if a business buys Dell computers, it will operate within the Microsoft Windows framework. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A business with limited IT and development resources won’t have to worry about how to keep its operating system working or whether business applications or security solutions are available. Microsoft has a line of solutions and partnerships that can provide what they’re looking for. 

With a system built on an open-source platform, on the other hand, it may take more resources and work to keep it running and secure, but it gives developers the freedom to do exactly what the end user needs. You aren’t limited by what a commercial platform enables you to do. 

In some markets, foregoing the status quo for developmental freedom sounds like risk. It’s a major reason that government users lag behind the commercial space in technology. They’re committed to the old systems that they know are robust, secure, and predictable at budget time — even though they’re outdated. When those organizations take a closer look, however, they quickly realize they can negate development costs through greater visibility, efficiency, and productivity that a platform that specifically supports their operations can provide. 

Open-source platforms are also hardware agnostic, giving organizations more latitude when it comes to the computers, mobile devices, and tools they can use, rather than being locked into limited, sometimes expensive, options for hardware. 

Moreover, development freedom delivers more ROI than merely decreasing current costs. Open-source platforms give developers the freedom to customize systems and innovate. If your system enabled you to expand your reach, better control labor costs, and support new revenue streams, what impact could that have on your business?

Interoperability

Enterprises and manufacturers have traditionally guarded their proprietary systems, which gave them an edge in their markets and control over complementary solutions and peripherals end users needed. Those same proprietary systems, however, could now be a business liability. Many markets are moving toward open source to provide greater interoperability, and businesses continuing to use proprietary platforms will increasingly be viewed as less desirable partners. 

Military avionics is a prime example. This industry is migrating to the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) Technical Standard. Administered by the FACE Consortium, this open standard aims to give the U.S. Department of Defense the ability to acquire systems more easily and affordably and to integrate them more quickly and efficiently.  

You’ll also find a preference for open-source architecture in some segments of the tech industry as well, such as robotics. The Robot Operation System (ROS) is a set of open resources of tools, libraries, and conventions that standardizes how robots communicate and share information. ROS simplifies the time-consuming work of creating robotic behaviors, and ROS 2 takes that objective further by giving industrial robot developers support for multirobot systems, safety, and security. 

As Internet of Things (IoT) technology adoption grows, more operations are experiencing roadblocks connecting legacy equipment and enabling the free flow of data — which open-source architecture can overcome. Furthermore, IoT based on open-source components allow networks to expand beyond the four walls of a facility to connect with business partners, the supply chain, and end users. The Linux Foundation’s Zephyr Project, for example, promotes open-source, real-time operating systems (RTOS) that enables developers to build secure, manageable systems more easily and quickly. 

Faster Time to Market

Open source projects can also move more quickly than developing on a proprietary platform. You may be at the mercy of the vendor during the development process if you require assistance, and certifying hardware or applications occur on their timelines. 

That process moves much more quickly in an open source community. Additionally, members of the community share. Some of the best developers in the industry work on these platforms and often make their work available to other developers so they don’t need to start from scratch to include a feature or function their end user requires. A modular system can include components that these developers have created, tested, and proven — and that have fewer bugs than a newly developed prototype. 

Developers, using prebuilt components and leveraging an open source community’s expertise, can help you deploy your next system more quickly than starting from ground zero. 

Business Flexibility

Open-source architecture also gives a business or organization advantages beyond the IT department. With open source, you have more options. The manager of a chain of resorts facing budget cuts, for example, could more easily find ways to decrease operating expenses if her organization’s system runs on an open-source platform. A chain that operates on a commercial platform, however, may have to find other options, such as reducing staff with lay-offs.  

Open source architecture also decreases vendor lock-in. In a world that’s changing at a faster and faster pace, basing your systems open-source architecture gives you options if a vendor’s company is acquired and product quality, customer service, and prices change. It also gives you flexibility if industry standards or regulations require that you add new features or capabilities that your vendor doesn’t provide, decreasing the chances you’ll need to rip and replace your IT system.

The Price of Open Source

To be perfectly honest in the open source vs. commercial platform debate, we have to admit there is a cost associated with using these platforms. They can’t exist without their communities’ contributions of time, talent, and support. 

At Mobomo, for example, we’re an active part of the Drupal open-source content management system (CMS) platform. Our developers are among the more than 1 million members of this community that have contributed more than 30,000 modules. We also take the opportunity to speak at Drupal community events and give back to the community in other ways. 

Regardless of how much we contribute to the community, however, it’s never exceeded the payback. It’s enabled lower total cost of ownership (TCO) for us and our clients, saving millions of dollars in operating expenses. It has ramped up our ability to create and innovate. It’s also allowed us to help build more viable organizations and valuable partnerships. 

The majority of our industry agrees with us. The State of Enterprise Open Source report in 2019 from Red Hat asked nearly 1,000 IT leaders around the world how strategically important open source is to an enterprises’ infrastructure software plans. Among respondents, 69 percent reported that it is extremely important, citing top benefits as lower TCO, access to innovation, security, higher-quality software, support, and the freedom to customize. 

Only 1 percent of survey respondents said it wasn’t important at all. 

Which side of the open-source vs. commercial platforms argument do you come down on?

Contact us to drop us a line and tell us about your project.

Jul 07 2010
Jul 07

Alfresco wants to be a best-in-class repository for you to build your content-centric applications on top of. Interest in NOSQL repositories seems to be growing, with many large well-known sites choosing non-relational back-ends. Are Alfresco (and, more generally, nearly all ECM and WCM vendors) on a collision course with NOSQL?

First, let’s look at what Alfresco’s been up to lately. Over the last year or so, Alfresco has been shifting to a “we’re for developers” strategy in several ways:

  • Repositioning their Web Content Management offering not as a non-technical end-user tool, but as a tool for web application developers
  • Backing off of their mission to squash Microsoft SharePoint, positioning Alfresco Share instead as “good enough” collaboration. (Remember John Newton’s slide showing Microsoft as the Death Star and Alfresco as the Millenium Falcon? I think Han Solo has decided to take the fight elsewhere.)
  • Making Web Scripts, Surf, and Web Studio part of the Spring Framework.
  • Investing heavily in the Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS) standard. The investment is far-reaching–Alfresco is an active participant in the OASIS specification itself, has historically been first-to-market with their CMIS implementation, and has multiple participants in CMIS-related open source projects such as Apache Chemistry.

They’ve also been making changes to the core product to make it more scalable (“Internet-scalable” is the stated goal). At a high level, they are disaggregating major Alfresco sub-systems so they can be scaled independently and in some cases removing bottlenecks present in the core infrastructure. Here are a few examples. Some of these are in progress and others are still on the roadmap:

  • Migrating away from Hibernate, which Alfresco Engineers say is currently a limiting factor
  • Switching from “Lucene for everything” to “Lucene for full-text and SQL for metadata search”
  • Making Lucene a separate search server process (presumably clusterable)
  • Making OpenOffice, which is used for document transformations, clusterable
  • Hiring Tom Baeyens (JBoss jBPM founder) and starting the Activiti BPMN project (one of their goals is “cloud scalability from the ground, up”)

So for Alfresco it is all about being an internet-scalable repository that is standards-compliant and has a rich toolset that makes it easy for you to use Alfresco as the back-end of your content-centric applications. Hold that thought for a few minutes while we turn our attention to NOSQL for a moment. Then, like a great rug, I’ll tie the whole room together.

NOSQL Stores

A NOSQL (“Not Only SQL”) store is a repository that does not use a relational database for persistence. There are many different flavors (document-oriented, key-value, tabular), and a number of different implementations. I’ll refer mostly to MongoDB and CouchDB in this post, which are two examples of document-oriented stores. In general, NOSQL stores are:

  • Schema-less. Need to add an “author” field to your “article”? Just add it–it’s as easy as setting a property value. The repository doesn’t care that the other articles in your repository don’t have an author field. The repository doesn’t know what an “article” is, for that matter.
  • Eventually consistent instead of guaranteed consistent. At some point, all replicas in a given cluster will be fully up-to-date. If a replica can’t get up-to-date, it will remove itself from the cluster.
  • Easily replicate-able. It’s very easy to instantiate new server nodes and replicate data between them and, in some cases, to horizontally partition the same database across multiple physical nodes (“sharding”).
  • Extremely scalable. These repositories are built for horizontal scaling so you can add as many nodes as you need. See the previous two points.

NOSQL repositories are used in some extremely large implementations (Digg, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Shutterfly, Etsy, Foursquare, etc.) for a variety of purposes. But it’s important to note that you don’t have to be a Facebook or a Twitter to realize benefits from this type of back-end. And, although the examples I’ve listed are all consumer-facing, huge-volume web sites, traditional companies are already using these technologies in-house. I should also note that for some of these projects, scaling down is just as important as scaling up–the CouchDB founders talk about running Couch repositories in browsers, cell phones, or other devices.

If you don’t believe this has application inside the firewall, go back in time to the explosive growth of Lotus Notes and Lotus Domino. The Lotus Notes NSF store has similar characteristics to document-centric NOSQL repositories. In fact, Damien Katz, the founder of CouchDB, used to work for Iris Associates, the creators of Lotus Notes. One of the reasons Notes took off was that business users could create form-based applications without involving IT or DBAs. Notes servers could also replicate with each other which made data highly-available, even on networks with high latency and/or low bandwidth between server nodes.

Alfresco & NOSQL

Unlike a full ECM platform like Alfresco, NOSQL repositories are just that–repositories. Like a relational database, there are client tools, API’s, and drivers to manage the data in a NOSQL repository and perform administrative tasks, but it’s up to you to build the business application around it. Setting up a standalone NOSQL repository for a business user and telling them to start managing their content would be like sticking them in front of MySQL and doing the same. But business apps with NOSQL back-ends are being built. For ECM, projects are already underway that integrate existing platforms with these repositories (See the DrupalCon presentation, “MongoDB – Humongous Drupal“, for one example) and entirely new CMS apps have been built specifically to take advantage of NOSQL repositories.

What about Alfresco? People are using Alfresco and NOSQL repositories together already. Peter Monks, together with others, has created a couple of open source projects that extend Alfresco WCM’s deployment mechanism to use CouchDB and MongoDB as endpoints (here and here).

I recently finished up a project for a Metaversant client in which we used Alfresco DM to create, tag, secure, and route content for approval. Once approved, some custom Java actions deploy metadata to MongoDB and files to buckets on Amazon S3. The front-end presentation tier then queries MongoDB for content chunks and metadata and serves up files directly from Amazon S3 or Amazon’s CloudFront CDN as necessary.

In these examples, Alfresco is essentially being used as a front-end to the NOSQL repository. This gives you the scalability and replication features on the Content Delivery tier with workflow, check-in/check-out, an explicit content model, tagging, versioning, and other typical content management features on the Content Management tier.

But why shouldn’t the Content Management tier benefit from the scalability and replication capabilities of a NOSQL repository? And why can’t a NOSQL repository have an end-user focused user interface with integrated workflow, a form service, and other traditional DM/CMS/WCM functionality? It should, it can and they will. NOSQL-native CMS apps will be developed (some already exist). And existing CMS’s will evolve to take advantage of NOSQL back-ends in some form or fashion, similar to the Drupal-on-Mongo example cited earlier.

What does this mean for Alfresco and ECM architecture in general?

Where does that leave Alfresco? It seems their positioning as a developer-focused, “Internet-scale” repository ultimately leads to them competing directly against NOSQL repositories for certain types of applications. The challenge for Alfresco and other ECM players is whether or not they can achieve the kind of scale and replication capabilities NOSQL repositories offer today before NOSQL can catch up with a new breed of Content Management solutions built expressly for a world in which content is everywhere, user and data volumes are huge and unpredictable, and servers come and go automatically as needed to keep up with demand.

If Alfresco and the overwhelming majority of the rest of today’s CMS vendors are able to meet that challenge with their current relational-backed stores, NOSQL simply becomes an implementation choice for CMS vendors. If, however, it turns out that being backed by a NOSQL repository is a requirement for a modern, Internet-scale CMS, we may see a whole new line-up of players in the CMS space before long.

What do you think? Does the fundamental architecture prevalent in today’s CMS offerings have what it takes to manage the web content in an increasingly cloud-based world? Will we see an explosion of NOSQL-native CMS applications and, if so, will those displace today’s relational vendors or will the two live side-by-side, potentially with buyers not even knowing or caring what choice the vendor has made with regard to how the underlying data is persisted?

About Drupal Sun

Drupal Sun is an Evolving Web project. It allows you to:

  • Do full-text search on all the articles in Drupal Planet (thanks to Apache Solr)
  • Facet based on tags, author, or feed
  • Flip through articles quickly (with j/k or arrow keys) to find what you're interested in
  • View the entire article text inline, or in the context of the site where it was created

See the blog post at Evolving Web

Evolving Web