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  1. #1
    SitePoint Guru mattymcg's Avatar
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    Meet My New Pal: Drupal

    Notice: This is a discussion thread for comments about the article, Meet My New Pal: Drupal, first published in Issue 237 of Desktop Magazine.
    __________

    When a bunch of web geeks is prepared to give up their entire Sunday to attend a conference about a content management system (CMS), there are only two possible explanations:
    1. that the conference attendees are completely anti-social nerds who have no life, and therefore have no better place to be when the sun is shining;
    2. that the CMS in question really is something worth talking about.

    In the case of Drupal MiniCon, a one-day mini-conference held in February at the Alley Bar in Melbourne, it was definitely the latter (OK, maybe there were a few nerds). Before I give you the run-down on the conference, however, let’s find out a little more about Drupal.

    What is Drupal?

    Drupal is an open source content management system written in PHP. Thousands of high-profile sites are powered by Drupal, including the highly trafficked business websites Inc.com and FastCompany.com, Amnesty International, and more recently, Sony’s MusicBox artist directory.

    Drupal gained some attention in Australia last year when it was used by the Australian team in the FullCodePress international site-in-a-day competition. At present, there is a high demand for web developers with Drupal skills in Australia.

    Of course, there are plenty of other open source, PHP-based CMSes out there, like Textpattern, Wordpress, Joomla, Mambo and others. So why does Drupal stand out above the rest?

    What’s So Great About Drupal?

    Drupal is more than just a hobbyist’s blogging engine. It’s a fully fledged content management system that makes it easy for end users to add and modify content, but doesn’t skimp on features.

    Of course, while the rule of thumb for any web developer should always be “the right tool for the job”, the amount of customization that it offers developers means that Drupal could potentially be used to implement even the wildest design. Combined with a huge variety of add-on modules, Drupal is often well-suited regardless of the features and functionality required for a site. With this combination of flexibility and power, it’s easy to see why Drupal is so popular amongst designers and developers alike.

    One factor which attracted Tim Connell, a front-end specialist from Drupal Talent, to the package is the speed with which a site’s design can be implemented. “I do a huge number of sites, and it takes me about ten hours to do a good one. So we do roughly one every day of the year.”

    Let me repeat that number so you don’t need to scroll your eyes back up the page to do a double take: ten hours to implement a fully functioning site, based on a Photoshop mockup. And we’re not just talking three-page brochureware sites – Drupal has been used to power discussion sites, e-commerce sites, social networking sites and everything in between.

    Of course, Connell lives and breathes Drupal, so it would be unrealistic to suggest that a beginner to Drupal could knock one out that quickly. But it’s certainly a telling indicator of what might be possible once the learning curve has been successfully navigated.

    Then there’s the technical problems that Drupal solves. “There’s a lot to be said for Drupal’s ability to output in different formats,” comments Ryan Cross, a Sydney-based Drupal developer who flew down to attend Drupal MiniCon. “I know of quite a few sites where the back-end is completely driven by Drupal, and the front-end is a completely Flash-based website. I think that says a lot about how flexible and theme-able Drupal is.”

    The appeal extends beyond the quality of the software itself, however – the community that has grown around the package, for example. “The first time someone has to change Drupal’s template file, they might find it a little overwhelming.” cautions Connell. “But there are so many people out there willing to help you! Even in the Melbourne community, it’s starting to pick up a lot.”

    “There are very few things that I’ve come across that Drupal hasn’t been able to do.” says Cross. “And there’s tons of stuff that I’ve come across, where I’ve thought ‘Wow, I never would have thought to use Drupal for that.’” Connell concurs: “I can do anything with it.”

    But surely every software solution has at least some shortcomings?

    Where Does It Fall Short?

    In a room full of Drupal fans, forming an unbiased view of a software product was always going to be a challenge. But being the diligent correspondent dedicated to balanced journalism that I am, I pushed the issue – I asked Connell what he thought the biggest hurdles were for designers and developers working with Drupal for the first time.

    “I remember that I was thrown into the deep end the first time I started using Drupal.” he recalls. “I had no choice, it was ‘Here’s Drupal. Welcome!’ And without any kind of mentor, it was a six-month learning curve to get to the point where I could work with them. It is a bit daunting when you first get into it – there’s so much power, which makes it terrific for the end user and for the designer who doesn’t have to worry about any barriers in their design. They can just do whatever they like, and it’s up to someone like me to make it happen. But it can be a hurdle for the beginner.”

    Cross agrees. “Yeah. I mean, there’s still a kind of weird space that people like my mum fall into – people who might want to set up a web site, but don’t quite know how to install it, and don’t quite understand the terminology to get it up and running. There’s a bit of a learning curve there that’s kind of difficult to bridge, and some of the documentation leaves a bit to be desired,”

    Connell suggests that, as with any craft, having a mentor can help reduce the learning curve immensely. “We had a junior developer come into the office about a year ago now, and I had to train him up in Drupal. I was glad that I could do that, because he was in the same position that I was a few years ago when I was thrown into the deep end. And I think that sitting by my side, watching me do it, working with me to do it, worked reasonably well for him.”

    What Does The Future Hold?

    Another factor that Drupal has going for it is the fact that, unlike many open source projects, it is constantly under active development, and shows no sign of waning. The latest version of Drupal (just released) attempts to address some of the shortcomings for which Drupal has become known, primarily the steep learning curve. Connell explains: “One of the focuses on Drupal 6 is to make it easier for first-time users to jump in there; removing that barrier. This means reducing the amount of PHP a first-time user needs to know.”

    “For designers, Drupal 6 improves things a hell of a lot. There has been a lot of talk about creating a sort-of CSS Zen Garden type of thing for Drupal, with simple semantic markup to which you can link some CSS to apply your design. And there’s been some progress in that. I don’t know whether that’s typical of a real-world application, but it looks really good.”

    About the Conference

    Full credit to the Drupal MiniCon organizers (emspace) for putting on an interesting and varied program. Three presentations, each about an hour in length, were supplemented by drinks, snacks and a catered lunch, with plenty of down time for folks to mingle and share ideas and experiences.

    The highlight of the day, for me, was the Lonely Planet case study presented by Simon Hobbs. Regular readers of this column will be aware of my blatant bias towards accessible, semantic HTML over Flash or table-based layouts. It will come as no surprise, then, that this presentation stood out – Hobbs described the process that his team followed when implementing a stunning visual design using best-practice techniques (clean, semantic markup styled with CSS). The presentation was also a good example of how Drupal can be used to implement a design that was conceived without any knowledge of the technology to be used to implement it – the way it should be.

    Connell confirmed that, while strict separation of presentation and content can take a little more effort, it’s certainly doable. “Folks interested in taking full control of the front-end code generated on their Drupal site should check out the Zen theme. It’s a vanilla theme that people can use to jump into a modern CSS-based layout. It’s actually a really good theme for learning to understand how things work, and how to make Drupal web standards-compliant. On the Drupal site, click “Themes”, and you’ll find the Zen theme right down the bottom.

    Learn More

    If you’re interested in experimenting with Drupal, there are plenty of resources to help you get started. Browse the “Handbooks” page at the official Drupal site, or get involved in the Drupal Australia online group.

    Melbourne and Sydney both have a thriving Drupal community, with regular meetups that supplement an active online community. There are also plans for more Drupal-related conferences to be held in 2008 – a three-day conference in Sydney in May, and possible representation at the Open CeBIT conference occurring around the same time. Keep an eye on the Australian Drupal Group for details.

    Connell summed up the sentiments of those who attended Drupal MiniCon – that for many, it really is a content management system that pleases everyone involved in building a site. “If you do Drupal right, it’s got all of those things – it’s got the designer, the developer, the end user and the administrator covered.”

    Will Drupal be a good fit for you, though? There’s no question that the price is right, so in the end, it’s only a matter of investing a few minutes of your own time to download it, have a play, and make up your own mind.

    Useful Links

    Drupal Official Website: http://drupal.org
    Drupal MiniCon Presentation Slides: http://emspace.com.au/mini-conf-details
    Australian Drupal Group: http://groups.drupal.org/australia
    Last edited by mattymcg; Apr 18, 2008 at 04:32.
    I design beautiful, usable interfaces. Oh, and I wrote a kids' book.
    Follow me on Twitter.
    Read my blog.
    Buy my book, Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine.

  2. #2
    SitePoint Zealot Design By S.L.S.'s Avatar
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    I have a personal and professional love affair with Drupal... It is over a year old and growing stronger by the moment.

    The one thing I have come to love is that at least one hosting company has set it up for a quick installation. What this means is it is literally 3 minutes of typing if you hunt and peck (faster for those who don't) and about 5 minutes waiting time to be able to have the base installation in place. Though it is never the latest release... It is a handy option.

    I love the functionality. I love that you can have an accessible site with a CMS. It really is an amazing option... To the point that I am moving a number of existing sites over to it.

    My problem is that there are SO many options and often times they do similar things or look like they do but the module developers do not clarify what the module is designed for or capable of.

    I need to clarify that the core projects are well documented, the editors, etc. are well documented (and while some might be a bit tricky to learn to install them... it is usually something you can work through).

    It is purely the "add on" modules that can throw a curve ball. I think a lot of that is because they are contributed by users so it has the standard lack of uniformity of the core modules, and no one takes the time to update the hand book regarding those new submissions.

    I wish they had a template structure for module publication and the information that went a bit like this:

    Module name:
    Functions:
    Incompatible with:
    Known issues:
    Installation guidelines:
    Designed by:
    Maintained by:

    Some have this information, some have a portion of information, and some have next to nothing with the assumption that you're going to read the read me file once you download it. The problem is that some of us want to know more before downloading the module.

    Love Drupal. Love the community. Wish for more continuity.

    S

  3. #3
    Team SitePoint santouras's Avatar
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    reason 3 for attending, free drinks?
    my utility belt tells me its to the bar batman

    read the manual then google it then do a search THEN post....

  4. #4
    SitePoint Guru mattymcg's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by santouras View Post
    reason 3 for attending, free drinks?
    Ha ha. No in this case entry to the conference cost AUD $35. Although I guess if you think of that fee covering the cost of venue and equipment hire, the food and drinks were free.

    I didn't stick around to take advantage -- Sunday night usually = family time for me.
    I design beautiful, usable interfaces. Oh, and I wrote a kids' book.
    Follow me on Twitter.
    Read my blog.
    Buy my book, Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine.

  5. #5
    Drupaler bronze trophy greg.harvey's Avatar
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    Drupal rocks my world!


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