Drupal 8: Should you upgrade? Yes! Well...no. Maybe?

It’s going to happen. We’re not exactly sure when, but it is likely (or at least possible!) that Drupal 8 will have a full release in the final quarter of 2014. With any major version update we typically get calls from at least a few panicked clients wondering what they need to do. “do we have to upgrade?”, “will my version continue to be supported?” or “IS MY SITE GOING TO EXPLODE?”

Before we get into the implications of the coming release of Drupal 8 as it relates to your current Drupal site, I wanted to touch on some of the great new features you can expect.

What Drupal 8 promises

While there are some paradigm shifts in Drupal 8 that may prove to be a challenge for some developers (shifts our team is excited about!), the good news is that for end users, Drupal will see significant improvements and will make managing content more flexible, efficient and enjoyable.

Drupal 8 will boast the addition of over 200 new features. I won’t/can’t cover them all here, so here are a few of the highlights that may be particularly important to Drupal 6/7 website administrators, content creators and those looking at building a new project with Drupal.

Improved content editing/authoring experience

While infinitely flexible and configurable, Drupal has long been critiqued by it’s users for lacking the ease of use of that of it’s competitors (namely WordPress). Especially frustrating to some was the lack of a WYSIWYG editor in Drupal core. Of course there were contributed modules that allowed for decent WYSIWYG editing when configured properly, but getting this right for the non-technical editor has always been tricky in Drupal. Drupal 8 sets out to solve some of these issues with a WYSIWYG editor in core that promises to be a much more successful experience. You will also be treated to features like:

  • In-place editing! meaning you will now be able to edit content from the front-end of your website instead of having to go to the back-end edit form to make changes to your site.
  • A much improved content creation page designed to make creating new content less overwhelming.
  • Better handling of images for responsive websites.

Mobile-friendly & Responsive out of the box

Ever tried to update content on your Drupal 6 or 7 site with a mobile device? If you have you’ll know that it’s possible, but not at all optimized for your editing pleasure. The Drupal 8 Mobile Initiative has a mandate to make Drupal a leading mobile CMS platform and are ensuring that all Drupal 8 core themes will be responsive! This means that administrating your Drupal site from a tablet or smartphone will be a much more effective experience.

Another focus of Mobile initiative has been to improve performance which is especially important for mobile users. So in addition to better a better site administration experience, you will also be treated to better front-end performance in Drupal 8 across all devices. Efficient caching of entities, responsive images & smarter javascript loading are some of the features that will prove to serve up pages faster in Drupal 8.  

Better for multilingual sites

While we’ve built several multilingual sites with Drupal 6 and 7 it was never that easy for developers to configure or intuitive for content creators to manage. Previous versions of Drupal were really English-centric. For Drupal 8, the team behind the Drupal 8 Multilingual Initiative (D8MI) has worked tirelessly to make Drupal 8 core better out of the box for creating and managing multilingual and foreign language websites. Gábor Hojtsy’s article series is a great place to learn about the multilingual features and enhancements in Drupal 8.

Sounds great!

Some of these features will no-doubt sway fence-sitters with new projects in the hopper to decide on Drupal 8, but site owners with existing Drupal 6 or 7 sites will need to make a potentially tough decision on when to upgrade.

Enter panicked calls from our clients.

What does this mean for my Drupal 7 site?

Don’t panic. Grab a beer and stretch out on the couch. Drupal 7 is as solid as it’s ever been and will most likely be supported by the community until at least 2017. There is no requirement for upgrade and your site will continue to function, but ambitious clients salivating over Drupal 8’s new features might want to jump in as early adopters. Additionally, if you’re considering a rethink of functionality or a redesign of your Drupal 7 site, it might be worth waiting for Drupal 8 depending on your timeline for the project.

Deciding on whether or not to upgrade depends quite a bit on the type of site you are running and how reliant on contributed or custom modules your site is. I say this because it always takes time for modules maintainers to upgrade their contributions to work with a new version of Drupal. For the most part modules are maintained and ported over to new versions on a volunteer basis and these volunteers have lives to live and jobs to work. The realities faced by module maintainers dictate the relative speed at which modules get ported.

When Drupal 7 was first released, for example, we didn’t feel confident upgrading to or even building any new projects on it for several months after its release when the bulk of the modules we use on a regular basis had been ported from Drupal 6 to 7.

Additionally, if your site relies heavily on custom modules (that is, modules that have been custom built by your developer to facilitate unique functionality), you need to understand that these will need to be ported to Drupal 8 by your developer. This could take a substantial chunk of time depending on their complexity.

If you have a simple site that can rely on Drupal 8 core without the help of too many obscure modules and you want to have the latest & greatest then Drupal 8 might be for you in the near future.

So…the answer to this question is highly dependent on the type of site you run and your business goals, but for most of our clients on Drupal 7 we wouldn’t encourage an upgrade until they plan on a substantial re-envisioning of their website.

What does this mean for my Drupal 6 site?

You might want to sit down with this. Grab a cup of strong caffeinated tea. Your Drupal 6 site owners are faced with a more imminent decision. With official security support ending with the release of Drupal 8, there are some risks to not upgrading your Drupal 6 site. In fact, the Drupal Security Team will likely urge D6 site owners to upgrade ASAP as they did with D5 owners when Drupal 7 was released.

While in reality your D6 site will probably not be in imminent danger of being hacked or EXPLODING, it’s days should be numbered. The question should not be “should I upgrade?” but rather “should I upgrade to Drupal 7 or 8?” It’s time to start planning and budgeting for your upgrade now and not after Drupal 8 has been released.

Many of the same arguments for or against a Drupal 7 to 8 upgrade would apply here. If your Drupal 6 site is relatively simple and is due for a redesign or overhaul, we would likely recommend upgrading to Drupal 8, but probably not until it matures a little. If you’ve got a more complex site reliant on contributed modules that may not have Drupal 8 versions on the horizon then you might want to look at an upgrade to Drupal 7. If your typical web overhaul cycle is 3-4 years, then it might be a good strategy to upgrade to a mature Drupal 7 and then to Drupal 8 just prior to the release of Drupal 9.

This strategy could be likened to car buyers that only buy a new car in a new model rollout year. ie. you know the new generation of Toyota Corollas are rolling off the assembly lines this year and you like the new styling, the new features, the better fuel economy, but potential issues with the new generation have yet to be identified. There are risks associated with buying an unproven vehicle. The idea here is that after the 4 or so years a specific model has been around, that the car has reached a state of maturity where all the issues of that generation of vehicle have been worked out. You reduce risk by investing in a proven and reliable vehicle, but at the cost of forgoing the benefits of the new model.

If recent release cycles are any indication, Drupal 7 will be supported for another 3-4 years after the release of Drupal 8, so if you aren’t necessarily swayed by the new features and want to opt for the most mature, reliable option, staying with or developing on Drupal 7 might be your best bet.

I should also note that there have been ongoing discussions within the Drupal community & Drupal Security Team about the viability of continuing support for Drupal 6 for an additional 12 months after the release of Drupal 8. This could buy some Drupal 6 site owners (an estimated 20% of all Drupal sites are version 6) some time while popular contributed modules are ported to Drupal 8. Having this additional year of support could influence your decision on what version to upgrade to. It would make Drupal 6 to 8 upgrades much more viable with that extra year to work with. Stay tuned for a decision!

How painful will an upgrade be?

One of the great new features of Drupal 8 is a vastly improved migration path from previous versions of Drupal. A migrate module will now ship with Drupal core which is exciting as it helps us automate otherwise tedious tasks. While we have this and some other tools at our disposal to help automate version upgrades and content migration, it can still get a little complicated, especially if your site uses modules that don’t have an equivalent in the version you are upgrading to.

The fact is that some more obscure, custom or lesser used & supported modules will never get ported over to the latest version of Drupal. Because of this, at least some of your site may need to be rebuilt as part of an upgrade process.

Whether the pain will require an aspirin vs. triple bypass surgery all depends on the condition of the patient.

So what should I do?

The short answer is: every Drupal site is different and needs to be considered on a case by case basis. If you have a good relationship with your web developer and are confident in their knowledge of Drupal, I would recommend they be your first stop in determining a course of action. If you’ve done that and you’re looking for a second opinion then we’re here to help!

Drop us an email at info@fuseinteractive.ca and we’ll see what we can do to make your decision easier.