It Actually is 2016, Your Site is Running on Drupal 6, Now What? Part 3: the Options

a highway-looking sign with arrows pointing to many possibilities

This is part 3 of a series investigating what to do with your Drupal 6 site as EOL approaches.

The options of operating Drupal 6 after EOL

Though some advisers (solicited or not) might tell you otherwise, you always have options as to what to do with your website if you’re running Drupal. One of them is of course nothing, and the others require more thought.

What is the right thing to do can be a hot-button topic. Some technologists are purists, and believe it sacrosanct to even consider running software beyond EOL. However, we appreciate that although ideally site owners would always have been prepared and budgeted for software upgrades, sometimes life happens, and other business priorities and budget availability don’t perfectly align with timing for a software upgrade.

One end of the spectrum is well captured by the following quotation from the Drupal security team that some (certainly not us 😉 alarmist reaction to one of the most prolific Drupal security vulnerabilities to-date colloquially referred to as “Drupalgeddon.”

You should proceed under the assumption that every Drupal 7 website was compromised unless updated or patched before Oct 15th, 11pm UTC, that is 7 hours after the announcement.

This is of course meant to err on the side of caution, but can also be very anxiety provoking. Similarly, when hearing of the 3 month window for Drupal 6 support after Drupal 8.0.0 was released “Le dendrite” is not wrong to say:

someone please settle my stomach

I was shocked to read this. it might seriously wreck me, i really hope i’m misunderstanding this

will my sites just die?

That entire thread is a pretty good exposé into the various perspectives and preparedness on upgrading Drupal 6 sites. If you’ve got a spare half-day, give it a once-over.

On the other hand, we have had at least two clients in 2015 who continued to run Drupal 5 (not a typo) websites in production successfully.

Neither end is entirely wrong, they just represent difference of opinion and available options.

The primary options for Drupal 6 site owners are:

  1. Do not upgrade your website to a newer Drupal version
  2. Do upgrade your website to a newer Drupal version
  3. Use the time to seriously revision your website altogether

But how do you decide which option is best for you, the site owner?

That decision mostly rests on your organization’s

  • risk tolerance
  • likelihood to be targeted by hackers
  • budget to improve your website

Considerations to not upgrade

Choosing not to upgrade your website is typically dictated by your organization having neither internal technical expertise or sufficient funds to hire a partner. When this is the case, if a small budget can be afforded, a site audit is usually the next best option to have some peace of mind that you’re taking the measures you’re able to mitigate the risk of running outdated, unsupported software. A qualified partner can perform a thorough assessment of risk and make budget-conscious recommendations on how to best harden the site against outside threats short of doing the more costly full-site upgrade.

Primary attack vectors that we focus on lie in custom code, and under-supported contributed modules since core code represents much lower risk having been well vetted by years in the wild.

One other consideration independent of your specific website configuration is your server autonomy dictated by your hosting provider. Running old software is usually tolerated in a shared hosting environment for only so long before upgrades are enforced. Warning emails are often (not always) sent out in advance of server-level upgrades, however, it’s easy to miss those emails, and it hurts to be caught by surprise that some PHP version upgrade renders your site completely useless. Understanding the level of control you as the site owner has over your server is crucial.

Considerations to upgrade

Going through a typical Drupal upgrade (the update.php method) is usually the right option for you if you

  • Want to mostly preserve the site to be upgraded as-is.
  • Have a fairly straightforward site using few, and mainly popular contributed modules .
  • Decide you ought to be using supported software because you
    • have sensitive information within your site that would be disastrous if compromised.
    • have financial transactions or information housed within your site.
  • Have sufficient budget to do the work.

Upgrading a Drupal website is a non-trivial investment. We’ve definitely had conversations with clients to the tune of

oh, upgrading is not a click of a button? Phooey!

which is very understandable. The Drupal community’s stance of not retaining backwards compatibility for the sake of keeping pace with modern web development is solid and quite defensible as well. Acquia does a good job of addressing that in the “Support” section (unfortunately not directly linkable) in this informative article about total cost of ownership of a Drupal site, which is in itself a topic worth a lot of consideration and analysis.

When prospective clients are committed to the time-line and investment of an upgrade, we always advise them to seriously consider a comprehensive rebuild/redesign as it can often present the path of most value. It is uncommon that a client desires to invest significantly to create an exact replica of the site they built 3, 4, or 5 years ago.

In many cases, legacy content, functionality and style has outlived it’s relevancy after 3 years and it becomes more burdensome than valuable, in the same way a poorly maintained house on a nice lot may be less valuable than if the lot were empty.

Another consideration is whether or not Drupal is the right platform for your organization’s needs. The answer to this is usually yes, especially after there is organizational investment and familiarity, but for less complicated sites that are open to revisioning, there are other options that, for example, are free to host and have no upgrade requirements like the static site generator Jekyll from which our own web site is built. An honest consultant will tell you when Drupal is a good fit and when it’s not.

But alas, if you’re determined to stick with Drupal and you’d like to upgrade, the final consideration is what platform to upgrade to, Drupal 7 or 8?


that’s for the next episode!