Drupal Book Review

10 comments | Posted: 27 September 06 in Books, by Nathan Smith

Drupal book Drupal: Creating Blogs, Forums, Portals, and Community Websites is a nice compact guide to the community oriented CMS Drupal. David Mercer has done a great job of covering everything you would want to know about this system in a concise guide. Like so many successes, Drupal started small. It all began in the college dorm room of Dries Buytaert and Hans Snijder at the University of Antwerp. They started out by offering other students shared ASDL over a wireless bridge, but that grew into something much bigger.

Their interest in wireless networking increased to the point that they started an online bulletin board, allowing people to discuss various aspects of the technology. Eventually this community of networking enthusiasts took on a life of its own, and the bulletin board became more of a gathering place, and less driven by a specific topic. The site was initially going to be called Dorp, the Dutch word for village, but due to a typo the domain Drop.org was registered. The software developed around this community site was eventually released as Drupal, which is close to the Dutch pronunciation of druppel, water droplet.

So, now that the confusingly obscure history of the name is out of the way, what can this system actually do? Quite a bit, as it turns out. It offers the ability to run a multi-author site, with those authors doubling as forum administrators. It lets you assign different user permissions based on your own criteria. For instance, you could have a community driven news site, in which freelance writers are able to submit their stories. These stories could in turn be approved by an editor with higher privileges before they appeared on the site.

Some of the more popular Drupal driven sites, other than the system itself, are Spread Firefox and Murmurs. Spread Firefox is of course dedicated to getting the word out about the Firefox browser. Murmurs is the longest running fan site for the band REM. For a more extensive list, check out DrupalSites.net. One of their currently featured sites is a Sojourn Church, which is good to see.

The nice thing about Drupal is that there is no reason to learn any proprietary templating language, since it is all driven from raw PHP. Of course, you don’t necessarily need to know PHP to use Drupal, but if you do it makes things a whole lot easier to repurpose it to your liking. This aspect, along with the ability to cache pages and database queries, made it the CMS of choice for the IBM Corporation – read their recent article here. Drupal is also a Top 5 Finalist in the Open Source CMS Awards, being put on by Packt Publishing.

Probably my one and only qualm with Drupal, aside from the sparse admin interface, is that when upgrading to a new version, it is recommended that you roll-back to the default theme / skin, lest any of the changes break your current layout. To me, this seems like ineffective separation of presentation and the system itself, and is in general one of the drawbacks of any include() based systems. Textpattern, on the other hand, stores your templates in a database, so it is impossible to overwrite them by uploading any actual PHP files.

While that is a minor concern, but I thought I should at least address it, lest you think that any system is perfect. That being said, I think Drupal is an excellent solution for running community driven websites, and this book is of course the only one of its kind, dealing exclusively with Drupal. I would recommend it to anyone looking to build a site where user submitted content is the focus.

Discuss This Topic

  1. 1 Nate Klaiber

    I looked at drupal last year sometime when we were looking at different CMS’s. It definitely stood out as a great system, but really wasn’t what we were looking for at the time. I have heard nothing but good things about it.

    And, I am with you – I really wish the separation could be made from the views – so you can have templating regardless of the business logic or models. However, I do know that some changes would need to be rolled over to the templates – but rolling back and forth all the time can be frustrating. I know there are other options, but I wish the templating thing could be easier sometimes (no, not smarty).

    Nice review by the way.

     
  2. 2 Nathan Smith

    Nate: Yeah, I know what you mean. CMS upgrades shouldn’t affect the layout of a site, which is what has kept me from looking at Drupal more seriously in the past. That, and the admin interface isn’t super client-friendly, in that I wouldn’t want to build a site with it for a non-geek to manage.

     
  3. 3 Eric Atkins

    I really don’t get what you guys are talking about when it comes to an upgrade to Drupal breaking a layout. With Drupal you should create a new folder under the /themes dir to hold your custom themes. I guess if you are developing off a core theme, then you might overwrite a core theme with a new update of Drupal. However, most of the time core themes aren’t changing. The only time an upgrade will break a theme is when a patch to Drupal core changes the theming hooks. And that rarely happens, especially if you are using one of the more popular themeing engines. shrugs//

    One of Drupal’s greatest powers is its themeing capabilities. I am just beginning to see how powerful and practical they are. I thought the old MovableType (back in the free days) themeing system was simple yet powerful. I think Drupal’s themeability is the same.

    Drupal IS likely to break during an upgrade though. It’s won’t be due to themes. It’ll be due to modules.

    Besides the dozen or so core modules, contributed modules are created and maintained by the community. Few modules have a dedicated team of people working to keep them in check with the latest Drupal CVS. Not only do those modules have to stay in check with CVS, but they need to play well with all the other modules (which probably are contributed) at the same time. I’ve gotten stuck many times waiting for a niche module to get patched to run with the latest version of Drupal. It has delayed a couple of sites launching by months. Staying in sync is a matter of contributors using the proper Drupal _hooks and that’s a matter of people stopping what they are doing and reading the Release Notes and recoding old modules.

    Still, I have found Drupal to be the most extendable and powerful CMS out there. If you can’t tell, I’m a fanboy. : /

    Here is my list of favorite Drupal-powered sites. I think it shows off the power of Drupal as well as its expendability.

    http://www.zimmertwins.com (insane design)
    http://www.theonion.com
    http://www.mtv.co.uk
    http://www.philwickham.com (Drupal + Flash + music site)
    http://www.twit.tv (Leo!)
    http://www.usmagazine.com (US Weekly)
    http://www.projectopus.com (music driven)
    http://gallery.menalto.com/forum (whole site, but forums look great)
    http://new.savannahnow.com/know/ (city portal)

    Thanks for writing an article about Drupal. I really think a lot of ministries can benefit from it but they may be a little turned off by its technical hurdle. IBM found this hurdle when evaluating which CMS would be best for them.

    My advice to any potential Drupal user is to dig around in the Drupal handbooks found online at Drupal.org. For 2 years I felt intimidated by them. However, after reading through them, my eyes were opened. I’m still intimidated, though.

    Also, thanks for the shoutout to Sojourn Church. It’s getting a little better by the week.

     
  4. 4 Nathan Smith

    Eric: Thanks for the clarification. As I alluded to, I’m not a Drupal expert, but am certainly intrigued by the its capabilities. Thanks for the URL’s too. It’s always good to hear from an “insider” about the benefits and quirks of a system. I hope you stick around Godbit and join in the forum discussions.

     
  5. 5 sepeck

    One other point I’d like to mention. Rolling back to a default (core) theme is really only needed for major release version updates. Not minor point release updates.

    Once a given version is ‘frozen’, the core api is in fact frozen. This causes some consternation with some who want to add features and such to the current stable release but the iron clad rule is that people need a stable api to develop against and with each major next version willing to throw out and rewrite whole sections of code to improve funtion, security and performance, the current stable has to be stable. So point releases are bug fix and security only updates.

    See the version update considerations in the best practices guide for the basic steps.

    If churches are you interest, then you should know that there are a lot of churches using Drupal. Beyond core they are often using scripture filter, event, event repeat, event volunteer, minutes, and finally Views and Panel module I mention in a quick start reading on my site.

    Drupal is huge and deceptively simple. I tell people three weeks to three months to begin to come up to speed depending on their skillset and goals. This initial timeline generally holds true for a variety of skill levels.

    I will mention that the admin interface isn’t spare so much as it is integrated into the entire site. Drupal 5.0 redesigned this a lot and now has a task based ‘landing page’ at the /admin link that should warm the hearts of those who like a launching spot to start from.

    Good review

    -sepeck

    references
    http://www.blkmtn.org/Good-reading-for-those-starting-out-with-Drupal
    http://drupal.org/project/event
    http://drupal.org/project/eventrepeat
    http://drupal.org/project/volunteer_timeslots
    http://drupal.org/project/minutes
    http://www.geeksandgod.com/ :Drupal based

     
  6. 6 Nathan Smith

    Sepeck: Wow, another very thorough reply in defense of Drupal. It is easy to see why this system is in the final running for the top CMS award – very passionate users. Thanks for that point of clarification. It is good to know that point releases won’t break anything. That’s been one of my frustrations with Textpattern in the past, as it’s come out of alpha and become more stable. Also, thanks for those links. They will be invaluable as people build church sites.

     
  7. 7 sepeck

    Happy to help, though I prefer to think of it as clarification and expansion then defense. People will use the CMS that suits and meets their needs.

    Drupal has a reputation of a having a steep learning curve. It certainly has a learning curve, steepness varies by individual but many feel it’s worth it. It is one that sometimes new comers don’t account for. So we’re happy that people use Drupal but we also don’t want people to enter unprepared time-wise. Drupal has some fundamental assumptions that are different from other CMS’s and that tends to trip a lot of people up.

    I will also mention two other bits of interest. One, porting this site’s theme over to Drupal would be fairly easy :D (content not included) and two JQuery has been added to Drupal core for the next release of 5.0 (I mention this because I saw the JQuery article).

    I leave you with two additional references that can be important when evaluating a CMS for your use.
    http://drupal.org/mission + http://drupal.org/principles

    And a note, Drupal aggregates rss feeds where mention of items of interest occurs such as mention of Drupal. This is why when you blog about Drupal, you often get Drupal folks stopping by to offer additional notes and bits of information. :D
    http://drupal.org/talk
    http://drupal.org/planet

    Best of luck and have fun.

     
  8. 8 Nathan Smith

    Sepeck: Yeah, I heard about jQuery being ported over, because ThickBox went with it. My former coworker Cody Lindley (also a contributor to this site) wrote it, and I did the loading icon. So, a tiny piece of my work is standard in Drupal now, yay! That’s cool about the feed aggregation, I wasn’t aware of that before.

     
  9. 9 Tim Bednar

    I’m very interested in this review and book; it looks like I’m going to use Drupal for 2 upcoming projects. So we’ll see.

     
  10. 10 Nick Shelton

    Thanks guys,
    I’ve been questioning using Drupal for my Christian social networking site. We had a custom script done, but we’ve been thinking that Open Source would give us a lot more flexibilty in our growth. Plus the apps and modules that they have to chose from would help us tremendously with the development costs of making our site more Web 2.0-friendly.

    Do any of you know of any Social Networking Sites that have taken advantage of Drupal? I’ve been doing a lot of research (including the links you guys have provided), but haven’t come across one.

    I guess I’ll read over the book and see if it will work for us.

     

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