This article originally appeared on our sister site Symfony Station.
Is Drupal growing? I would say no. But is Drupal predestined to a slow and slight decline year after year? Or does it have a growth path? That’s what I will explore in this opinion piece. One that I hope is wrong.
Idiots have been claiming PHP is dead for years. Guess what? It’s not dying. It’s growing and mainly via WordPress and outside the United States. With Drupal, not so much.
This piece will cover Drupal’s strengths and weaknesses as I see them affecting its growth. And when I talk about growth, I mean the total number of Drupal users, not the profits of companies basing their businesses on Drupal.
Then I will look at three paths its future could take. Those of what I want, what could happen, and what will probably happen.
But let’s start this article with a quick divulgence of my experience with Drupal. So that you know where I am coming from. It’s why this is an opinion piece since I don’t consider myself a Drupal expert.
I would describe my status as semi-outsider, a semi-newbie from a WordPress development background, and a proponent of Symfony components.
Having spent 18 months with Drupal and converting three of my company sites to it, I feel qualified to offer an opinion on its future. For a case study on this site, read my article - How Symfony Station was built.
I have attended and enjoyed four DrupalCamps and one Acquia Freedom Tour event. I have learned a great deal and have much more to learn.
So, let’s explore Drupal’s future as I see it.
In my eyes, Drupal is strong in specific markets, governance, security, control of the editorial process, customization, and in its community.
Drupal is powerful and has a competitive advantage in two markets, government and education.
Drupal promotes several advantages here, but these are the most relevant:
- Scalable - Multi-site functionality allows you to centrally manage and control the brand while giving content independence to each agency and department.
- Accessible - Be compliant while serving disabled citizens with Drupal’s fundamental commitment to accessibility standards.
Drupal accurately lists three advantages here:
- Flexible - Build various solutions from university websites, applications, scholarly publishing, and more.
- Scalable - Multi-site functionality allows you to centrally manage and control the brand while giving content independence to each department.
- Secure - Protect student and faculty data with a platform built on security best practices.
Another strong point of Drupal is its security. It shines here, at least compared to WordPress.
To quote Drupal, its security ensures:
- User Access Control
- Database Encryption
- Information sharing via security reports
- Auto-update and core validation work in partnership with GitHub
- Prevention of malicious data entry
- Mitigation of Denial of Service (DoS) attacks
- Patching of issues before they’re exploited
Drupal’s governance capabilities are another strength. Acro Media lists these critical capabilities and Drupal has them:
- Empowers content authors that manage their content.
- Enforces standards across your web properties.
- Automates processes for greater efficiency.
- Allows you to manage web content as a digital asset and your website as a channel.
The Editorial Process
Fine control of the editorial process is essential for government sites, and especially education sites. This involves governance, but Drupal also has excellent rules for editing content.
They result in a Drupal-based content flow:
- Create content — even from numerous users — in one place
- Deploy content across channels
- Connect with all of your marketing tools
- Users access your content on any device
- Monitor site content and campaigns in one place, ensuring brand consistency
- Tailor, retarget, and personalize content
CKEditor 5 Premium is a paid module that further increases these capabilities.
Customization is another of Drupal’s strong points. However, this is taken to an extreme with Drupal modules, in my view. Almost 50,000 modules are too many.
Its greatest strength is a passionate community. Everyone involved with Drupal knows this.
Some say pain is weakness leaving the body, but this is not true for Drupal. Pain seems to be a debilitating feature.
Dependencies boil my piss
I like the model of a core and adding only the functionality you need via modules.
But → Dependency on 50,000 modules and module dependencies. I have looked at modules that require and depend on up to twenty (!!!) other modules. This is fucking ridiculous. And then you have deprecations in core wrecking individual third-party modules maintained by who knows who. So you have to find another solution.
I think the WordPress plugin model is a better solution because you can add a self-contained set of code to solve a functional need.
A fucking chore to upgrade core
While Drupal module updates are somewhat user-friendly, but upgrading core and migrating to a new major version of core are disasters. And I know they are changing this in a future update of Druapl 10. But you have to update to 10 first.
For more info on the types of Drupal updates, read this article → Drupal Updates vs. Upgrades vs. Migrations: What's the Difference and When Do You Need Them?
As a content creator and front-end, I have tried to update Drupal core multiple times.
I faced nothing but problems with the following:
- Multiple OSs, including Windows and Mac
- Multiple computers, including desktops and laptops
- With multiple tools Putty and Drush
- And in multiple development environments, including local dev tools, staging sites, cloud accounts, FTP, etc.
Again, I have three Drupal sites.
Bothered and bemused, I finally tried to pay my host (who will remain nameless) to do it. They couldn’t do it despite having instructions in their documentation for how to do so. WTF?
I wouldn’t even begin to do something like migrate from Drupal 7 to 10.
Not friendly for end users
Everyone who has ever used Drupal knows this, including its creator Dries Buytaert. I spoke with him about it over a beer at an Acquia Freedom tour reception last year.
People are trying to address this, and I found a decent solution with DXPR.
I have a client site I have to migrate from a hard-coded site (well done, but still hard to believe it exists). And I may or may not handle its content creation going forward. So I wanted to see if a Drupal solution was as easy as WordPress.
I redesigned and migrated one of my sites from WordPress to test DXPR. It was great, and my site Mobile Atom Media uses it now. But it’s still not at a WordPress level.
Journalistic-level sites like Symfony Station can use Drupal, but the average small to medium-sized organization can’t. In addition, Drupal cannot grow if you have to depend on backend developers to update your site. Even if its easier to do the content side.
Weak in Large Markets
Small Businesses have to make up 95 plus percent of business sites worldwide. Unfortunately, they don’t have the skills, personnel, or budget to use Drupal.
And no entry-level personal blogger in their right mind would choose Drupal.
Too Slow to Innovate
Drupal is too slow to innovate. Of course, this is a problem for all open-source contributor communities, including WordPress. But Drupal seems to move at a glacier pace (and not a melting glacier).
I think the developer community for Drupal is too small to keep up with the modern web because it is too complicated for many of its users to contribute to regarding programming.
The core code base is too big, in my opinion, although I may be wrong about this.
The Community is Awesome but too Old
The best thing about Drupal is its fantastic community. It’s better than WordPress and much more fun.
However, the organic growth of the Drupal community is not enough especially when it is not growing at all.
In a recent piece, Sebin A Jacob shares trepidation on The Rising Age of the Developers. And this is something I have observed myself at the DrupalCamps I have attended. The young people are primarily working for vendors. I will be 59 in April, myself.
Speaking of vendors, Drupal Easy and Drupalize. me are focused on creating new Drupal developers, but they need help. Evidently, they work with each other, which is good to see.
Those enrolled in Drupal Career Online from Drupal Easy also have unfettered access to the thousands of Drupalize.me tutorials during the course. In addition, upon graduation, students receive a career technical education certificate and a deep discount on a Drupalize.me subscription for continued learning.
I know I love SymfonyCasts, so this collaboration is great for those who can afford it. But most Drupalers worldwide can’t. And you can’t fill up an empty pond with one bucket and two bucket carriers.
We have to get more young people involved and more cost-effectively. I will provide more on this below.
Drupal doesn’t do the Vision thing
To my eyes, Drupal is a bit aimless. It lacks a vision or at least promotion and implementation of the one it claims to have. That’s the job of the Drupal Association, and they aren’t doing that great at it, IMHO. But they have a new president, and hopefully, this will change. I know they are working hard, but are they working smart?
Dries definitely has a vision for Drupal that he calls a composable digital experience. He wants Drupal to be for ambitious site builders. He wants a 2-year strategy called Composable Core. The idea is that Drupal will become smaller (yes) but more composable. It will help Drupal promote innovation, compose different sites, and be faster. It will be a digital experience platform, not a CMS.
“Specifically, (there are) six core tenets that I believe are key to Composable DXPs:
- Principle 1: Software architecture needs to be modular
- Principle 2: Components need to be discoverable and orchestrated
- Principle 3: All business stakeholders need to be empowered with low-code / no-code
- Principle 4: Data makes the difference, but it needs to be unified and automated
- Principle 5: Multi-experience content demands strong content management
- Principle 6: A platform approach requires diverse experience composition and delivery methods
This idea is not unique to Drupal. For example, in this ReadWrite article, the author states:
“In (a composable) software development paradigm, an enterprise’s software architecture can be imagined as a collection of autonomous, independent, and API-driven Packaged Business Capabilities(PBCs) that can be assembled together to build any application.
Composability brings the benefits of modularity and autonomy to change functionalities without disrupting the business. In addition, it allows for innovation by enabling the orchestration of disparate capabilities and encourages deeper collaboration among stakeholders.
The ability to “compose” applications vis-a-vis the traditional ‘build’ provides the much-needed acceleration enterprises require to take their differentiated experiences to market quickly.”
As a front-end developer who loves atomic design with components, composable software rings a bell. Moreover, these ideas are vital, as we will see below.
But, Dries’s vision doesn’t seem to be making it down to Drupal core’s development in a mission-critical way. Again, I may be wrong on this. And I sure as fuck hope I am. This is urgent, but I don’t see urgency.
I only see urgency for Acquia and its deep-pocket users.
Drupal also needs more community initiatives. And they need to be different. If you visit the link, you will notice there is not one focused on making Drupal easier to use for the end user. I think the Drupal Association leads these efforts.
And like PHP in general, Drupal needs better marketing or any at all. But that’s also the job of the Drupal Association and would have to be explored in another article.
This is the Way (forward)
What I Want to Happen
Less is more with Composable Core
Coming from a content and design background, I believe in design minimalism, less is more, good design is good business, etc. But, of course, this applies to code design/architecture as much as any other type of design.
Dries’s strategy is sound. So, how can we achieve it or move towards it?
- Keep it Simple Stupid can be applied as one of many possible composable versions of Drupal. A brochure site version, a simple blog version, a cupcake-selling eCommerce version, etc., should be options. Users should be able to select only the parts of Drupal core that they need. Maybe the new theme starter kits will help, but there need to be core starter kit options as well. Everything being promoted in Drupal, whether a community initiative or a new core module, should answer this question. Is it making Drupal more straightforward to use? If not, it should join the other 50,000 3rd-party modules outside of the core. Core = simple, modules = self-contained complexity.
- An updated version of Backdrop CMS should become the official and permanent version of Drupal 7. Maybe we can call it Legacy Drupal. We can’t afford to lose any users. And Drupal 7 users without the resources to upgrade need a soft landing.
- This is a pipe dream, but fork Drupal with maximum integration with Symfony. Symfony is the ultimate composable platform. You just use the components you need. There is no need to reinvent and maintain the wheel(s) when Symfony and its large development community already do it for you. Just look at Sulu CMS, Bolt, Contao, and Ibexa, among others. It is easier to update, and things just work in the background. We can call it Sympal. ;)
- Barring that, Drupal needs a tighter integration with Symfony, which, to be fair, it is moving toward. IDK but they may already be maxed out in what can be integrated without completely being based on Symfony.
What Could Happen
What I want above may be unlikely, but the point I will make below could work.
Diversity is the only opportunity for Drupal growth
First, a quick aside to point out where software education is failing in the U.S. Unless you are getting a computer science degree, you are being taught the latest and “greatest” rather than concepts and soft skills.
Larger educational institutions offer paid continuing ed certifications, as do purely-for-profit boot camps. In the one I attended four years ago, we were first taught jQuery, then told to forget it as it’s going away because of the advances of ES6. After being taught the new and improved JS, we were taught Node.js and then the bullshit that is React. New and shiny, that’s the American way.
So, how can targeting people other than middle-aged white men help Drupal?
An attendee from India at DrupalCamp Florida pointed out he would love to have the Drupal community in India that we have in the U.S.
PHP is dominant worldwide. Drupal needs to do what WordPress and Laravel have done in India. And in other places other than Europe and North America. What I propose below would be much more cost-effective in the the Pacific Islands, Asia, and Africa and grow Drupal.
We need diversity in North America as well. Only a buffoon would argue that we don’t need more women and people of color in our development communities. Minority communities are being ignored at best and discriminated against at worst. And they would likely jump at the chance of a cost-effective workforce development option to improve their lives and those of their families.
Then there is the separate problem women in tech face.
So, this ⬇️.
I enjoyed spending time with DrupalEasy’s owners during the 2022 Florida DrupalCamp. They have tried integrating their training into our state’s educational institutions for years. Unfortunately, high schools, technical schools, community colleges, and universities have refused to cooperate unless it’s provided for next to nothing regarding instructor pay.
This is not surprising because I live in the hellhole of Florida with its Florida Man-level politicians. These so-called public servants are more interested in destroying education than furthering it. And they are tight as a mosquito’s ass with funding unless it involves corporate welfare. And this is despite what they claim about workforce development and being business-friendly.
But maybe something like the following is possible somewhere in North America.
This is the partnership model we need
Many economic development organizations are government entities or not-for-profits working with their local cities, counties, or multi-county coalitions. They promote job creation and workforce development. And they have access to or facilitate grants from state and federal funding to support those efforts. Some areas even have both an economic and workforce development org.
In the southern United States, historic black colleges and universities (HBCUs) educated African-Americans throughout segregation and continue to afterward. I assume that in the western states, there are similar institutions for Native Americans.
These institutions are eager to find partners for STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math). Magnet schools for under-sourced communities are as well. And I think this would apply to private female-focused institutions. Local economic development organizations, authorities, councils, etc., want to develop workforces for local job creators. And they want to recruit new job creators with a talented local workforce. One that is strong in STEM skills.
Composable software development based on Drupal fits the STEM bill. The skills taught can be used in building websites, apps, business software, fintech, the internet of things, robotic manufacturing control, etc.
With grant funding from local workforce development organizations, historically minority-focused institutions from high schools, tech schools, community colleges, and universities could teach Drupal development. After the success of the pilot efforts prove their worth, they could be folded into the permanent curriculum of the institution.
John Picozzi gave a fantastic Florida DrupalCamp presentation on Drupal as a headless, omni-channel, web platform.
This is a similar idea to composability. And it is the approach to Drupal that these minority STEM workforce development efforts could be based on. Companies like Drupal Easy could provide institution-specific curricula and instruction. The educational institutions could offer them as certificates, associate degrees, or courses in related majors like IT, big data, cybersecurity, or computer science.
I think this model of Drupal instruction would thrive in Central America, Micronesia, the Caribbean, and most of Africa and Asia. Smaller nation-state governments could implement this education policy more easily than the U.S.’s chaotic federal system. Even if the wheels have to have a little grease applied. ;)
In addition, Drupal should establish an official development curriculum for individual developers as Symfony does. Third-party organizations could teach it, and they need a big-budget sponsor to fund its development and provide scholarships. Divorced wives of Amazon and Microsoft founders make perfect donors, for example. ;)
I know Acquia has a Drupal 9 certification as part of Acquia Academy and that Drupalize.me can prepare you specifically for the exam. And Drupal Easy's products can as well. But, we need a free and self-paced certification.
And FYI, WordPress is actively considering an official certification.
Unfortunately, this dream is most likely wishful thinking
Remember that I am a pessimist with a personality somewhere between Billy Butcher and Wednesday Addams. But’s lets hope I’m wrong, however unlikely that is. ;)
What Will Happen
Though this is disappointing, Drupal’s future is enterprise-level only (nothing wrong with that).
Another aside here, Facebook and Google have millions to throw at React and Angular. So they “innovate” quickly, which would make you think they wouldn’t suck. But then again, they are from Facebook and Google, and rather than innovate just become more complicated.
No one is throwing money at Drupal. So it drifts along like a melting glacier.
Unless its more prominent vendors triple their contribution investments, I don’t see core Drupal development being fast enough to innovate at the pace required. And, of course, investment equals money. And money relies on profit. So, there is a bit of a problem turning a vicious cycle into a virtuous one. More people need to use Drupal for this to happen, but they won’t be available unless it happens. It’s the classic Catch-22. Unless what I want to happen and what could happen happens, that is not changing. Only a maniacal focus on simplicity so that more people can contribute will change this.
I don’t see individuals making up the difference. They slow down rather than speed up production. Volunteers don’t have bosses providing a motivational kick when needed. And they aren’t rewarded sufficiently in non-monetary ways. But, if they are all you have, that’s what you have. So you have a glacier pace of development.
That said, individual contributors are vital to Drupal. More essential than anything else. I am not knocking them. Drupalers are fantastic, and Drupal needs all the evangelists it can get. And people preach about what they use. And they won’t contribute to it unless they use it. So, please prove me wrong, peeps. Please contribute and do so with urgency. At a minimum, donate money in some way to the Drupal Association.
Hopefully, individuals working at organizations with resources can convince those organizations that it’s in their best interest to contribute to a simplified Drupal core. And not just modules that integrate with their services and clients.
A Composable Web Platform
Drupal must become a true DXP (digital experience platform) and not an overly complicated CMS to mitigate its slow decline. Drupal can’t compete with other content management systems in the long run.
Acquia is working toward this and has been for years. And it should be because it is Dries’ company. And his vision of a composable digital experience is the one needed. However, 99% of Drupal use cases don’t have an Acquia budget. The vision has to be implemented in core Drupal. Having it only available to the Teslas, European Unions, NASAs, and other large non-profits and educational institutions of the world won’t cut it in terms of growth.
If visions like Dries’s and education for the uses discussed by John Picozzi achieve traction, Drupal can at least flat-line in terms of growth. And maybe inch upwards.
Summing it up
A slow decline is not the end of the world, but all of us who love Drupal want it to flourish.
I hope I’m wrong about its growth path. However, I’m not optimistic. But I’ve been a grumpy old man since I was twenty-six, so what do I know?
More importantly, what do you think about the future of Drupal? Finally, and most importantly, what will you do to help it grow? Are you an optimist?
Do you want to help the girl in the image above turn the moon into a balloon? If so, it’s time to step up to the plate, take the penalty kick, apply maximum effort, or your cliche of choice. But let’s just fucking do it.