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DrupalCon Chicago 2011 Session Quick-hits and Impressions

by Jay Callicott
March 16, 2011

This year's theme: Drupal goes commercial! I haven't been to a lot of Drupalcons but it is interesting to see the evolution of the Drupal community. Maybe in the past it was about making Drupal into a platform that can compete with the other players in this space and attacking marketshare dominated by other CMS-es, both free and commercial. The emphasis now is definitely on Drupal shops showcasing their enterprise-level services: hosting, platform/distributions, app-stores, software-as-a-service type offerings. I think it is part of a natural evolution when you have a good platform that is growing and gaining momentum.

Dries Keynote

Dries as usual has a must-watch keynote to open up the conference. He spent most of the keynote talking about the future of Drupal, that is Drupal 8 and the direction he thinks Drupal is headed. I think his ideas for D8 are great although I skeptical that we could get any more than half of the wishlist of items.

What amazes me still is the idea that we would want a shortened release cycle when it already takes such a long time to upgrade and adapt to the new version of Drupal. The great thing about Drupal is that the community isn't afraid to embrace new paradigms even if it means ripping out a lot of code. The downside, however includes a) increased costs for the end client who has to keep upgrading their website and b) the developers and contributors who are having to learn new API's every release. Even though D7 took 3 years you have to remember that most people waited months to begin developing Drupal 6 sites, so really it was a couple years to get acclimated to D6 just in time to have to learn a new version.

This is an ongoing problem and I don't really know what the solution is. I would probably rather sacrifice backwards-compatibility for innovation because if Drupal does not continue to innovate it will become irrelevant.

Pantheon: The Future of Drupal Development, Testing, and Deployment

Drupal has a lot of shops selling their hosting/platform/developer-oriented services and certainly Pantheon is included. Josh Koenig is a great speaker and I always have to see his presentations. The pantheon stack is fantastic and the hosted service is very interesting. It's interesting to contrast their service with Acquia's. They are both attacking similar markets and doing things in a slightly different way. I would say the difference is that Acquia has been up and running for a while whereas Pantheon has been stuck in beta for a while. I have used both the Pantheon stack and Acquia's hosting. What I enjoy about their services is that they have streamlined deployment between environments. I am very excited about the future of Drupal enterprise-hosting in general, just because I think we are proving as a community that we can handle enterprise-level websites.

Acquia: Improving the Drupal Developer Experience with DevCloud, Managed Cloud and the Acquia Network

As I mentioned in the Pantheon session, it is very exciting to see all the developer-friendly features of these Drupal-optimized hosts. Acquia has added a ton of features to their platform, including easier deployment tools and New Relic (+ more). I would say cost is an issue, but for enterprise-level hosting they definitely have a solid product. I am particularly interested in learning more how to utilize New Relic as a way to find bottlenecks in a Drupal application.

Clay Shirky Keynote

This keynote is difficult to explain just because it is a lot of visionary, "big picture" type ideas. That being said, it was very enjoyable. One of the items I took away was his breakdown of how wikipedia works. Even though you might have 100's of contributors, most of the work on an article is done by only a couple people. And Drupal is that way in some respects, at least as it is related to core development. You might have hundreds or thousands of contributors, but there are 30-50 that are really heavily involved.

Git on It's Easier Than You Think!

This session was plagued by technical problems with the overhead projector which wasn't anyone's fault but it did make getting your arms wrapped around git a little difficult. I have now made several commits to git on and I still am slowly learning how to grasp what is a bit of a different paradigm. One of the cool things they discussed in this presentation was how with a sandbox account that everyone can have you can submit patches to any module. This will streamline patch submission (when we can figure it out). And so that is an exciting development.

Developing Apps for iPhone/iPad/Android using drupal as Base System

Finally a platform to code once, run anywhere (hey haven't I heard that before?)! In this presentation we learned how using this opensource platform called Titanium we will be able to write Drupal apps that can deploy to native mobile applications using JSON as a go-between. While the nuts and bolts weren't explained super-well, I think the concept is brilliant and this will open more doors for Drupal shops wanting to go mobile to be able to deploy Drupal to mobile apps without having to learn each mobile devices native programming language.

Failure to Launch: Drupal Performance Tuning

I would say a must-watch presentation of how to tune a Drupal website, presented by Kenny at Acquia. He discussed a array of performance-related items that are important for scaling a Drupal site. Things like utilizing pressflow+varnish, disabling the statistics module, and a host of many other items. I have talked to Kenny before and so I was aware of many of these items, but some are not super-obvious so it is definitely worth watching (and it is very entertaining).

Introducing OpenPublic: the Government Drupal Distribution!

Phase 2 spent a lot of time touting their flagship product at Drupalcon and I was very pleased with this presentation. They went over the problems, opportunities with Government web sites and how OpenPublic was built to address those problems/opportunities. I have already downloaded OpenPublic and it is certainly a very exciting product and platform for building public websites.

Distribution Deli

As a distribution enthusiast (@see, I was very interested in any presentation that was distribution-related (and there were many). This presentation touched on several new distributions: OpenScholar, Drupal Commons, Nodestream and Civic. I think there are good take-aways from each. One of the more encouraging things about distributions in general, is that I think the UI issues of Drupal will be best address by distributions going forward. A blank Drupal site does not know your end goal. A distribution is self-aware in the sense, it is a packaged/bundled with a lot of software and I think more time is focused on making editing/configuration tasks easier. For instance, Civic had a very cool module for customizing a theme's css via a UI. Nodestream utilized the 'draggable views' module to allow editor's to easily customize the homepage. I think distributions can and will 'lead the way' as far as demonstrating good practices for making the end Drupal site usable to the end user/site maintainer.

How to Make Awesomesauce

A very entertaining presentation by Morten Heide. I certainly liked his thoughts on making theming better in Drupal 7. One of the issues that he brought up was the problem that core and contrib modules add all kinds of CSS cruft that the end themer has to deal with. In addition to that, many times the developer on a project adds even more CSS/JS to a page that the themer is left to deal with. Morten discussed many specific ways Drupal 7 deals with this problem. He also introduced some additional methods for cleaning up themes, some of which I was too keen on, but I like his general approach.

Drupal Commerce: Setting up Shop on Drupal 7

I watched Ryan's presentation last year and it was more of the same commerce-goodness. I think this will be a great platform and you can tell that it has been very well thought it. One of the great things about commerce is that it doesn't try to do to much and relies on other contributed solutions like Rules and Views. I was hoping it was a little more ready, my impression of Drupal 7 in general is that it's not quite ready in regards to contrib support at the present time.

Building Drupal Platforms

A very nice presentation by Frank Febbraro on distributions in general plus more information on OpenPublic and the controversial app store application. The app store module in action is very cool. I have had a chance to look at it in depth on my local machine and the API looks great. I think it will be very interesting to see what apps come out from the community here soon.

These are some of my notes and impressions from the sessions I attended. Let me know what you think! 


Meet team member, Jay Callicott

Jay is an engineer and leader with a passion for creating technical solutions that solve real-world problems. As a long-time advocate for Drupal and Open Source, he has spent over a decade speaking, writing, and developing enterprise solutions that advance Open Source worldwide.

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