IS at DrupalCon – Hola Barcelona!

Driesnote keynote talk at DrupalCon Barcelona 2015It’s 7.30 in the morning in our hotel and I have already overloaded my breakfast plate with so much that I need help to finish what I can’t eat.  It must be DrupalCon!

This week myself and some colleagues in IS have escaped from autumnal Edinburgh to balmy Barcelona for this year’s European Drupal conference, DrupalCon 2015.  For three days we are in the midst of a whirlwind of sessions on all aspects of working with Drupal, many of which touch on issues and experiences that are common to all web developers and site owners.

Our journey to create a new Drupal CMS for the University’s main website began before DrupalCon in Prague in 2013. Since last year’s DrupalCon in Amsterdam our new Drupal CMS has moved from its embryonic state following the initial MVP release in 2014 to a production system with a name, EdWeb, and upwards of 140 sites have so far been migrated across to the new system.  You can read more about our Drupal journey at the University Website Programme site in EdWeb.

Soon we embark on the exciting process of planning the next set of features to add to our shiny new responsive website and I’m sure that as before we will find much to inspire us at DrupalCon.  It’s also a fantastic opportunity to explore how other organisations are managing scalability and performance when running an Enterprise level CMS.  Judging by the number of cloud hosting companies in the exhibition hall this year, the answer to that problem for many organisations is to let someone else feel at least some of the pain for you!

As we did last year, over the next few days we will be gathering together short summaries of some of the sessions we attend here at DrupalCon, with our own reflections on what we see and hear. This year we are fortunate enough to have brought a group of colleagues who have played a range of roles in the creation of EdWeb, from development through to project management and production staff and there is something at DrupalCon for everyone!

But before we share any session notes, the Prenote and Keynote sessions from the first day of DrupalCon have already given food for thought.

At the centre of the yesterday’s 8am Prenote, which is always an entertaining way to start DrupalCon, was the notion of dreaming the impossible dream, expressed charmingly in song by Adam Juran, in this case the seemingly impossible dream of getting Drupal 8 released.  Having been involved with the huge undertaking of building EdWeb from the outset, that sentiment was very familiar!  Throughout the ups and downs of such a large scale and complex Agile project, it’s been important to keep our end goal in sight, and to believe that what we are trying to achieve with EdWeb is both possible and necessary.  Now we have our production CMS, and it was announced at DrupalCon today that Release Candidate 1 for Drupal 8 will ship on 7th October 2015.  Those impossible dreams can be realised!

The morning continued with the opening Keynote by Drupal founder Dries Buytaert, and once again we see parallels between the process of getting Drupal 8 to a shippable release and our own experience of building a large scale CMS.  This year, Dries’ theme was “We need to talk about that”, covering some of the uncomfortable questions in the Drupal community.  Two aspects of his talk in particular struck a chord as they relate to problems that we have also had to solve.

In talking about the extended timescale that’s been necessary to get Drupal 8 ready, Dries proposed an alternative model for Drupal’s code management, a branching strategy rather than the current approach of having all development on the trunk.  This would embrace the difficult reality of getting all features ready for a release; instead, what goes into the release is only what is ready.  During the course of our own CMS development, we have had to solve exactly that problem, releasing feature bundles into the production system at the end of each development iteration without releasing code that is not ready to ship.  Our initial workflow was to do development on the trunk, but we quickly realised that this creates problems, particularly as we run our migration project in parallel with ongoing CMS development work.  We also had to allow for the release of a security patch for Drupal itself, or for a contrib module we are using, which would need to take precedence over any feature development and go into production sooner, without including features that are not ready.  To solve those problems in a way that would support our automated deployment process, we moved to a workflow that turned out to be a variation on Gitflow Workflow and this has served us extremely well, allowing us to manage parallel development work and release only code that is production-ready into our live system.  It was very interesting to hear how Dries has come to the same conclusion as us – that for large-scale development work involving multiple developers and many features with a complex life cycle, feature branches are the way to go.  The detail of our own approach is a topic for a future post!

Another theme of Dries’ talk was usability in Drupal and how features that improve the experience for editors can be sacrificed in favour of features that add new functionality.  In creating EdWeb, we have involved users from the outset, whether via quick paper prototyping sessions to determine the best approach for a particular interface detail, or by running sessions where all members of our team, including developers, were able to watch editors actually use EdWeb so we could pinpoint usability problems.  That process has contributed hugely to the usability of EdWeb, but it’s undoubtedly true that when the pressure is on to develop new features, it’s very difficult to hold to the discipline of prioritising usability.  That problem is not unique to Drupal development; it’s a perennial problem that is particularly troublesome for Agile projects.

So there it is – before we even got to 10am on the first morning of DrupalCon, there was already a lot to think about!  Watch this space for daily posts with session notes from our team.  And if you want to see what we’re so excited about, check out the DrupalCon YouTube channel for session recordings!