Content management

To Upgrade Or Not To Upgrade: Drupal Sites

I've been dealing with Drupal sites for about a decade and my own lean, when not working with Drupal shops, has been with non-profits and small businesses. Back in the early days of content management systems, Drupal stood out to myself as a multitool in a world that was still learning about blogging tools. In dealing with the user demographic of small businesses and non-profits, there was always one thing in common: small budgets. We're not talking,, or the NYSE. We're talking and (metaphorically; if the sites exist I'm not referring to them but the idea of them).

This runs counter to the technologist and, arguably, the majority of the Drupal community's bend: Upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. Generally speaking, upgrading sites keeps Drupal folk employed and pays the bills and, for companies with larger budgets, this is simply the cost of doing business. I've seen Drupal sites lag behind 2 versions for those with smaller budgets and that is perfectly fine, once you maintain the site and assure functionality. The question those with smaller budgets need to ask themselves is whether or not it's actually worth upgrading.

Got Dependencies?

The key to that question is really how many third party modules a site uses and where they are in the newer version of Drupal.

Presently, I've been talking to a non-profit about their Drupal 6 site. A lot of the functionality that they want in their upgraded site revolves around enhancing social media ability as well as look and feel of the site - but these things are not necessarily requirements for an upgrade. Drupal 7 can and has always brought a lot with it and it's likely Drupal 8 will as well, but the general direction of Drupal has always involved the breaking of third party modules and major changes to the core of Drupal (thus, a major version release!). When Drupal 7 came out, the community tried to fix that with getting third party module developers to pledge that they would have a Drupal 7 version when Drupal 7 came out.

To this day, third party modules suffer alpha releases and in the odd case, complete abandonment. Upgrading to a new major release of Drupal when a module you need is still in alpha or beta is, at least on the surface, not a good idea. An alpha module that hasn't been updated since 2011, as an example, could mean... anything. It could be a module that just works and not enough people use. It could be abandoned. Or it could simply mean that someone didn't bother to make it a release version for one reason or another.

The more dependencies you have on your site that aren't in Drupal Core, the more you need to think about whether it's worth the upgrade.

Look And Feel?

How your site looks is not necessarily dependent on the major version of Drupal that you're using, though theming for mobile devices is easier with more modern versions of Drupal - and yes, more people are using mobile devices. That said, if you upgrade a site you almost always have to upgrade the themes - meaning it's going to cost you.

Abandonment By Drupal Core

Abandonment is a harsh word, but I mean to point out how serious it actually is. In January of 2011, Drupal 5 was no longer supported. It is a matter of time before any version of Drupal (or any other software, for that matter) is no longer supported. If it's not getting security updates or core fixes, it's not something you want to be using. Period. Abandonments are typically planned ahead of time to give people the chance to upgrade but some people don't know about it because they don't have dedicated staff that keep an eye out for that sort of thing.

With Drupal 8 coming out probably within the next year, there is a question as to whether there will be an announcement about abandoning Drupal 6.

The Formula.

Simply put, here's what you need to look at.

  1. Decide what you want of the site.
  2. Look at what third party modules are involved and how well they are supported. The 'alpha', 'beta' and 'dev' releases of modules are yellow flags and mean you have to assess whether the modules are actually usable - and supported.
  3. Look at when the newest version of Drupal is to be released; typically 2 major versions of Drupal are officially supported at any time. If Drupal 8 is coming out in a year, your Drupal 6 site will likely not be supported in a year (as an example).

At the time of this writing, it's a grey area: You may not need to upgrade from Drupal 6 and you'll likely have at least a year before Drupal 6 support is dropped. It might be worth patching things along and upgrading to Drupal 8 in a year or so. It might not.


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The DIY vs Auto Industry Problem

Mazda B2500 Turbodiesel Brush Bumper: CompletedAs I mentioned in a previous post, I'm  getting a 1983 Mazda RX-7 GSL soon. It's a car that is almost 30 years old and, as the seller told me, it comes with the classic issue with the old power window switches1. Fortunately, I recalled helping a friend in Florida fix a similar problem on his car in a fairly bullet proof way but couldn't recall the details. It's not something that you would find in a Mazda RX-7 Service manual; it's a complete mini-DIY project. You can find replacement switches for around $65 each on the web if you look hard enough but in doing so you retain the conditions that created the problem. You can fix it for less with a little elbow grease and the original switches, if not damaged too much, may last your lifetime.

I searched the Internet for hours last night - time pleasantly wasted as I was reading all manner of other things along the way. I gave up. This morning, I did an almost completely unrelated search and accidentally found what I had been looking for: adding relays to the power windows of a first generation RX-7. The page is 10 years old and will save me having to figure out the wiring schematics and picking the right wires on the harness - a process that can take hours or even days.

I do DIY. I document what I do. The brush bumper on that Mazda pickup to the right served me well in extreme circumstances for 2 years, as an example.

Stepping Back and Being Circumspect

This little issue is, on a larger scale, a much bigger issue. With the economy as it is, a lot of people have more time  than money - tinkerer's paradise once the bills are paid.

With the RX-7s, there's a cult following - mainly performanced based because the Wankel engine has a devout speed following. We love our engines. No piston. Rotary. 12A. 13B. 20B. 26B, drool. We love these engines and the cars built around them and we happily share information between ourselves through forums like the RX7Club. In this, automotive enthusiasts around the world aren't different. Some of us like speed, some of us like restoration. We'll milk the last horsepower out of an engine if we can, we'll hypermile, we'll do all manner of things. We're the real people that live outside of an auto industry that, in the United States, was doing so poorly that technically every taxpayer should be sitting on the board of every large automotic company except Ford2.

Vehicle maintenance has become more complicated. There are no open standards when it comes to troubleshooting computer codes, each manufacturer has different standards because... well, I don't have a good reason. Haynes manuals have not become available for eBook readers, at least for the RX-7 - and even when they do, they will be in black and white with the same issues that they had before - diagrams sometimes unclear, sections of the manual that related to different models, etc.

We live in an age of technology, where content management is easily handled. The trouble publishers of the older books will have, though, is updating their content to take advantage of the color available on eReading devices and even smart phones. Where they published manuals on cheap newsprint and black and white, the potential is there for a lot more. It's unlikely that they will properly manage the content in a way that benefits the people who still use them simply because they think it's cost prohibitive3.

This, too, extends to catalogs. As much as I like the RX-7 parts they make available, the online Black Dragon catalog sucks4. The JCWhitney online catalog is pretty useful and well designed. For simplicity, I find the RockAuto catalog the best.

Toss in that most people probably haven't even heard of the resources available to make your own electric car in a period where gas prices are high and the answer the auto industry gives is telling consumers to buy new cars instead of creating more efficient replacement parts for the majority of vehicles on the road.

Stepping back like this, I can't help but wonder why we automotive and motorcyclist enthusiasts haven't scratched our own itch a bit better.

If there was ever an industry that could benefit from it's own community, it would be the aftermarket auto industry. Open Content. Maybe Wikis or content management systems. Maybe eBooks produced by people who bother to document things without falling into copyright traps. 

All we need are people who are proud of what they do.

It seems like we already have that.

1For the electromechanically inclined, the first generation RX-7s that had power windows from the factor ran the full amperage through the switches themselves. While the switches were designed for this, they do corrode over time. A temporary fix is to clean the switches but this is less than ideal. The ideal solution is to use relays so that the switches don't have the full window motor amperage across them.

2 Ford didn't take taxpayer money. Remember that. This might be because they have a world market whereas GM and Chrysler don't.

3 I don't believe that it is, but I don't have all the market data. There are a few models for this I have thought of but haven't seen broached publicly.

4 That's actually not too hard to fix. I can do that rather cheaply.

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The Necessary Death of Open Source CMS Fanboyz

It seems everything is getting polarized these days and the open source CMS arena is not much different. "Dear Drupal: Season's Greetings. Love, Smashing Wordpress" communicated a message that should be important between open source projects ("Hey! We're on the same side!") but didn't get as much traction as it probably should have. When we're in our code caves we have a tendency to go with what we know.