Today Drupal 6 reaches retirement, or end of life (EOL) which means the Drupal community and security team will no longer officially support active development, security and bug fixing for the platform. We instead must focus our resources on maintaining Drupal 7 and 8.
Of course, since Drupal is open source software, even though EOL for Drupal 6 is today, some organizations will continue to operate their live websites on Drupal 6 for some time. Upgrading to a current, supported version of Drupal is recommended, but whether Drupal 7 or Drupal 8 is the best fit for your needs, is conditional. Drupal 8 provides enhanced multi-lingual capabilities, responsiveness out-of-the-box, improved UX with WYSIWYG out-of-the-box, in-place content editing, improved UX AND DX (developer experience) with staging and deployment improvements to name just a few advantages over Drupal 7. However, there are cases in which Drupal 8 may not be able to satisfy your organization’s needs cost-effectively in the short-term, before the community has matured around it. You may liken this comparison to deliberating on your next car purchase: a Tesla vs. the Honda Civic you’re accustomed to. The Tesla promises new and shiny features, but you may have to adjust to things like refueling with electricity, not gas, and automatic steering. With the Civic, you know you’re getting a reliable, solid machine that will get the job done, though it may not turn heads. Drupal 7 is the Civic; Drupal 8, the Tesla.
Having said that, we’ll share the main factors to weigh in deciding which platform makes the most sense for your organization.
Top considerations in selecting Drupal 7 or 8
How familiar with OO PHP is the development team?
The mantra of Drupal 8 is getting off the island which means leveraging well-vetted systems and processes that already exist in the broader PHP and web development community. This is in contrast to the preceding Drupal approach which relied on custom, esoteric design decisions familiar only to the Drupal community, contributing to the steep learning curve for Drupal development. To that end, Drupal 8 was rewritten in object oriented PHP, a major architectural change. Although this point may be a bit Greek to non-technical site owners it is important to know how versed the team working on the upgrade is in object oriented programming, and is worth asking when vetting prospective development teams.
How complex is the site?
One of Drupal’s greatest strengths is its extensibility, and robust design to facilitate writing and maintaining custom code for specific client needs. Relatedly, the very large contributed module repository (33,289 as I write this) enables developers a wide array of “plug-and-play” functionality for free which enables fairly complex sites at a relatively low cost.
If your site has fairly complex functionality, it is likely that the development team(s) who have worked on it have installed many contributed modules, and/or written custom modules themselves.
A quick peek into your Drupal website files should shed some light on this:
Ideally previous developers would have had the foresight to distinguish directories between community contributed modules and custom modules written by them with the by implementing this simple directory structure:
E.g. Tilthy Rich Compost
The fewer modules in those directories, the more you should lean toward Drupal 8 as the stronger candidate. If there are many, which there often are, the decision gets more complicated. You’ll likely need an estimate from a development team on the custom module functionality and you’ll want to consider if the previous customization you’ve requested is still relevant. In general, upgrading is a good time to trim the fat and focus on true organizational needs to simplify the process and limit future costs.
As far as contributed modules go, the reality is in the early months of Drupal 8 the quality and coverage of contributed modules will lag Drupal 7. The good news is there are public resources that can help you understand the status and availability of each module you require for your site which will help you make the determination of Drupal 8’s readiness for your needs.
Here are a few
In some cases a mission critical contributed module will not have an official Drupal 8 release, which may force the decision for Drupal 7 for budget reasons. We recently bid on a project that we recommended Drupal 7 since the project heavily relied on the Salesforce suite which Kosta has played a role in the development of.
The shibboleth authentication module is another module that some universities rely on, which has no official Drupal 8 path at the moment partially due to how complex the module is.
A final important point is that some of the most popular contributed Drupal 7 modules have been folded into Drupal 8 core. Therefore, a much higher threshold of sophistication can be achieved by out-of-the-box functionality with Drupal 8 than was previously possible with Drupal 7
What is my timeline to upgrade?
If you take the security concerns of unsupported software seriously, you want to upgrade as soon as possible. However, sometimes website upgrades are more beholden to internal budgeting than security threats. A general rule of thumb is the more time that goes by from today, the more you should lean toward Drupal 8. The contributed module community will continue to improve in the weeks, and months to come, and you’ll want to take advantage of the more mature and modern platform that is Drupal 8. Don’t forget, Drupal 7 was released in early 2011 so its foundation is over 5 years old as I write this.
What are my future website goals and budget?
The less your organization will budget for future site improvements, the stronger the pull for Drupal 8 to ensure your maximizing the time before you have to read an article like this again. The truth is, by the time we’re honestly talking about Drupal 10 (that which would phase out Drupal 8 if things continued as they have thus far) the upgrade path for a Drupal site, and the web in general will look very different. Predicting the web 5-7 years ahead of time is a tall task. Having said that, the total cost of ownership, and specifically upgrade burden for Drupal projects is something the community is looking at closely. A Drupal 6 to Drupal 8 upgrade path does exist and a lot of thought has been given to simplifying the release cycle which should ease the upgrade process as well. If your typical redesign cycle is within 2 to 4 years, you’re likely safe with a Drupal 7 site for at least that long.
Should I even be using Drupal at all?
A worthy partner should be knowledgeable enough to know when Drupal is not the right fit, and honest enough to share that information for you. We pride ourselves on being one of those. As broadly applicable as the Drupal platform is for modern web projects, it isn’t always the right choice. It’s worth asking the question of prospective teams if you should even be on Drupal.
Where does that leave me?
Ultimately, site owners should communicate clearly their needs and desires for the new and improved vision of their website, and lean on their web partner to guide them in the right direction with open and honest conversations. On new site builds leading up to and after the official release of Drupal 8.0.0 we have deferred the decision to the tail-end of our discovery phase. We have found making the most informed decision requires thorough analysis which takes time. I encourage you to take some time with your partners weighing the pros and cons