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DrupalCon 2010 Trip Report Day 1

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Hello from San Francisco! I was waylaid in Chicago and missed the morning presentations, but I wanted to share what I’ve learned so far at DrupalCon. First, a quick bullet point summary for those who don’t want to dive into the details:

  • Drupal now powers over 1% of the total websites, closely tied with Joomla. Wordpress powers about 8.5%.
  • Drupal 7’s forms will allow us to add conditional form fields that appear for the user without requiring a postback to the server. See the (very relevent for us) example here: http://d7.drupalexamples.info/form_example/states
  • Drupal 7’s User Experience (UX) team has made improvements to the interface that on our site is called the “Edit Console”. You can read more about their project at their website: http://www.d7ux.org/content/
  • We can improve our site performance by moving functionality out of the template files and into theme functions. Basically, the way we currently do things, we have to read a file off the server’s disk every time anyone loads anything on the site. By using theme functions instead of template functions we avoid this disk read and dramatically improve performance.
  • You can watch many of today’s presentations at http://sf2010.drupal.org/conference/schedule for free! Many of those without video have their slides up. The presentations from Monday are at the bottom of the page since, at the time I’m posting this, they’ve already happened and aren’t as interesting to the conference attendees.
  • Monster Menus, the module the Amherst developed that lets you add sub-pages and manage permissions is a few weeks away from being refactored to eliminate any Amherst-dependent code. The version we’re currently running assumes that Amherst’s version of Banner exists, which we’ve had to work around. The new version will make this easy for us and open MM up for other schools to use.

All of the sessions I attended today focused on the improvements coming in Drupal 7. Currently, Drupal 7 is in “feature freeze” with 114 critical bugs left to resolve before it is released. At the keynote presentation today, Dries projected that Drupal 7 would likely be released some time between June and October of this year. Even so, and even with the large number of improvements it offers, we will not move to Drupal 7 when it is released. Our challenge is that the system we rely on to provide our site editors the ability to add sub-pages and manage permissions for their site is not part of “core” Drupal – it is provided by a module that is only used by us and Amherst College. I had an opportunity to speak with the developers from Amherst today and our projection is that, at best, we will be able to move to Drupal 7 for the start of Fall Semester 2011.

Even that timeline will be challenging, but I will provide a quick synopsis of each of the sessions I attended below, focusing on how they will impact our site if and when we make the move to Drupal 7.

The State of Drupal

http://sf2010.drupal.org/conference/sessions/state-drupal

The meat of this presentation was defining a framework for thinking about the future growth of Drupal. Right now the project is at a crossroads where it can continue to add features to satisfy the “enterprise” users of large organizations and compete with commercial CMSs like Microsoft Sharepoint, or it can aim to reduce the number of features and compete for the low end of the market with WordPress, aiming at people who just want a simple site with a few pages that is easy to manage. Dries seemed to believe that the Installation Profile system, of which there are now 19 releases, will allow Drupal to target specific low-end markets while core continues to add features to satisfy enterprise needs, but he seemed unsure of his own assertion that Drupal could do both.

This will be an interesting discussion for Middlebury as it continues in the Drupal community. We are one of those places that has an “enterprise” need that is not satisfied by Drupal core: the need to organize our site as a tree that allows our editors to add to that tree and manage fine-grained permissions in that tree. To that extent, Monster Menus is like our own installation profile of Drupal since we know that it imposes limitations on what Drupal can do since modules need to be changed to intergrate with it. We will have to see what features get added for Drupal 8 and how well they align with our needs.

The Rest

I had actually planned on diving into the details of the afternoon presentations I attended, but have run out of time before this morning’s round of sessions. Today, by the way, seems to be offer a lot more for the people currently running Drupal in production. Monday’s sessions were all about all the cool new features in Drupal 7, which is fun, but not something I’ll be working with for over a year. Today I’m attending sessions on search integration, search engine optimization, cloud computing integration and database optimization. These are topics closer to my day-to-day work.

Here are links to the sessions I attended on Monday. If you’re interested in hearing more, be sure to ask in the comments.

AJAX and JavaScript in Drupal 7

D7UX How to integrate the core Drupal 7 usability improvements with your module

Default theme implementations

Monster Menus

After the sessions, I had a good conversation with Dan and Victor from Amherst about the future direction of Monster Menus. Dan is close to being done with the “revamp” branch of Monster Menus that removes the Amherst-specific code from their system. We’ll want to convert to this and try it out when he’s done since there are some features of our implementation that don’t work right now because the module assumes that it will be able to talk to Amherst’s version of Banner on the backend.

Other interesting things from this meeting:

  • They are working on a way to move course sites (which are currently pages in their website – everything Amherst does on the web is in Drupal including their LMS) from one semester to the next while preserving associations like page permissions. This is tricky since you might assign permissions on a page in your course site to one student who won’t be in the course the next time it is taught.
  • We should be able to theme the RSS page content type without much trouble (this solves a request that I currently have with Communications to improve the way news items in the Newsroom are displayed), but we will probably never be able to theme the actual menu in the fashion that Drupal expects because of the processing overhead on generating that menu.
  • Amherst runs the Google Search Appliance to manage their search services. They allow the GSA to crawl their site as an administrative user and have a Drupal module that filters the search results based on the permissions of the currently logged in user. This is a requirement because their site also includes their LMS which they need to search with admin permissions. They are interested in seeing what we do with faceted search, an area they’ve wanted to look into but haven’t yet had the chance.

We had a lot more discussion about the minutiae of various modules and parts of Monster Menus, but those are the major points. I’ll post again this evening with a roundup of today’s sessions and on Wednesday after I meet with the guys from White Whale.