June Meeting Recap: Drupal – All the cool kids are doing it

Drupal is an open source content management solution that is being used by a growing number of high profile web sites. Refresh-Detroit was lucky to get three Drupal experts to tell us more about it.

Brad Czerniak, Digital Resources Developer at Canton Public Library, started off with a lighthearted overview of what Drupal is… the answer to a lot of web problems including:

  • Building powerful web sites
  • Building sites that can have more features added later
  • A solution that has technical support
  • A site where different users are allowed to do different things
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“It’s the flexibility and the ability to do complex things without code that sets Drupal apart from other solutions”, said Brad.

Brad discussed briefly how Drupal’s content types, nodes, Content Construction Kit and taxonomy work. Using over 5,000 available modules you can extend Drupal’s functionality even further. A powerful feature of Drupal is its built in user management. It has the ability to create users that have “roles” or permissions to make changes to specific parts of the site and do other things that other site users can’t do.

He then discussed themes, which allow you to define how you want your content to be displayed. Drupal’s powerful “views” feature lets you further refine how your want your content filtered and displayed.

Brad pointed out that are a lot of high profile Drupal web sites including the White House, Mensa, Beyoncé, Duke University, InfoWorld, Mattel and more.

The support community for Drupal is great. There’s good documentation online, a great forum, user groups, published books, firms you can hire to build or fix Drupal sites and more.

The slides from Brad’s presentation are available at http://bit.ly/refreshdrupal

Next up was Alex Fisher of Commercial Progression.  Alex has over 15 years experience in programming, web development, and business.  Alex started off saying “I do websites solely in Drupal.”

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He then discussed Drupal’s Open Source GNU v2 license.  “Some people might equate it to communism or socialism… All open source is saying is that if you distribute a program or … website, whoever you distribute that to can access the code.”  That doesn’t mean everyone one in the world can access it, just the person or organization you created it for.  You aren’t giving away all your secrets or hard work.

Alex finds the main advantages of Drupal are its Flexibility, Simplicity and Utility.  It keeps things modular, extensible and maintainable. “If you’re a web designer it means you can probably do a lot more in less time….  If you’re the client or employer… you’re not locked in to some proprietary solution.” Drupal has been shown to work well on large sites like Lifetime Television. Its modular approach means it cutting edge features get added quickly.

Alex discussed the different ways you can leverage Drupal including:

  • Creating websites for yourself or others
  • Creating Drupal based web applications like Open Atrium and CiviCRM or applications that may not even run on the public Internet.
  • Provide Drupal training
  • Design themes and modules

Alex pointed out that one of the biggest challenges to developing with Drupal is its steep learning curve.  Fortunately, are a lot of ways you can learn more about Drupal and places to go for help.  “Drupal.org is really is the place to go to get Drupal, to meet the community, to get help, to learn about it.” There are also Drupal Cons and Drupal Camps where there are demos and presentations.   Alex stressed that “if you’re new don’t be intimidated.  There are people who will help you learn about it.”

The final presentation was by Steve Colson, a co-founder of a Switchback, a web development firm specializing in open source content management systems.  Steve’s impressive demonstration showed how Drupal can be used to solve problems that would take days to code with other solutions. These included:

  • Editable images inside editable content
  • A list of sales staff
  • A product listing that dynamically updates
  • Advanced page layouts where the above components can all be put on the same screen and yet updated by their independent sources
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The audience asked some interesting questions during the meeting.

Most of the Drupal.org site seems to be focused on code and how to implement solutions. Is there a place to go to understand what the capabilities of Drupal is for a particular purpose?

One the hardest things to learn with Drupal is that there are over 5000 modules and its hard to know which is the best solution for a particular problem.  To find out which modules and themes to use for a particular purpose ask for help via the Drupal IRC chat (irc://irc.freenode.net/drupal-support), email lists, forums, and the different local user groups.

Is there an automatic method of updating Drupal? How does one get alerted that there are updates to Drupal?

“Drupal…out of the box will check Drupal.org for module updates or actual Drupal core updates.  That will happen automatically” answered Alex. There is no auto update feature yet but your web developer can usually do the updates.  Otherwise there are companies you can hire to support your Drupal website.

What are Drupal’s accessibility features?

Steve answered, “The beautiful thing about Drupal is that its content is completely separated from its programming, which is completely separated from its display layer”. For accessibility this means the themer can decide what tags are added to each element.   For example you can make it so all images must be output with an ALT tag or that a form’s HTML is structured in a way that’s accessible. Out of the box they’ve tried to make Drupal good for screen readers.  The White House web site must comply both on the front end and back end to accessibility standards, so that’s a testament to Drupal’s abilities in that respect.

Do you have to pay for some Drupal modules?

If a module is on Drupal.org , which every major module is, its free. There are some people selling modules but they are on off on their own doing it.  “One of the beautiful things about Drupal is that … web developers can pretty easily grab any module and know we’re not going to have to pay a ton in licensing costs” said Steve.

What type of hosting is required for Drupal?

Steve pointed out that while Drupal will run on some over subscribed web hosting services, if your need fast loading pages then quality hosting is required.  A2hosting.com and Nexcess.net were Michigan based web hosting companies that were recommended.

Why is Drupal being used for so many library web sites?

An audience member mentioned libraries like that it was free, its huge support system and that there are a lot of modules coming out that are library related.  Steve added that Drupal can connect and integrate very easily to a variety of data systems like a library’s book system or its event scheduling system. Also, Drupal has a fantastic taxonomy system for categorizing, which other CMS’s don’t have.

All three presenters did an excellent job of showing us the basics of how Drupal works, what its advantages are and where to go to get help.

To learn more about the presenters:

Brad Czerniak
http://twitter.com/ao5357
http://www.facebook.com/bradczerniak
http://hawidu.com

Alex  Fisher
http://twitter.com/AlexanderFisher
http://www.commercialprogression.com

Stephen Colson
http://www.switchbackcms.com


Photos by Jeff Mackey

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