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Building a Road Map For Your Update to Drupal 8

A colorful illustration of men in orange vests doing road work.

By \ March 2, 2020

Many of our clients – non-profits, universities, and government entities – use Drupal, an open-source content management system, for large, enterprise-level websites. So, naturally, questions started coming to our development team when it was announced that Drupal 7 will reach its end of life in 2021.

Open-source software means that anyone can download, modify, and share Drupal code. Unlike a proprietary CMS, there’s no licensing fee. But your Drupal site is still part of a larger community, so when the teams supporting Drupal decide on a core upgrade, it’s critical to keep up.

It’s been a good run for Drupal 7, which arrived in 2011, but technology has changed dramatically during the past decade. If you currently have a Drupal 7 website, this is an opportunity to plan your upgrade, evaluate the effectiveness of your current site, and budget appropriately for the project.

Easy as 7, 8, 9

Science fiction author William Gibson is credited with saying, “The future is already here — it’s just unevenly distributed.” That’s the case for Drupal source code too.

Drupal 9 arrives in 2020 while Drupal 7 — and Drupal 8 — will see an end-of-life in 2021. There will be a time when D7, D8, and D9 sites coexist, but everyone’s goal should be to upgrade to D9 by 2021. Otherwise, your D7 or D8 site may be left out in the cold, vulnerable to security attacks and limited by its existing modules and features.

The good news? According to open-source developer Dries Buytaert, upgrading from D8 to D9 should be a lot easier than jumping from D7 to D9.

Drupal 9 will start as a minor update of D8, paring down deprecated features and updating the third-party elements that power Drupal, including the php framework Symfony that provides reusable libraries and best practices from thousands of web projects. (Symfony’s planned upgrade is also a catalyst for Drupal.)

Developing a plan for these updates will be challenging, and you should get moving as soon as possible. Here are a few key considerations to get you started.

#1 Find a Perfect Host

Drupal recommends running a minimum of PHP 7.2 for its D8 websites.

If your current server runs anything less, you will need to make a hardware change. And you will need a new, separate hosting environment as your team transitions from the current D7 website to a new D8 site.

For example, the Acquia hosting platform provides development, staging, and production environments for Drupal 7 and Drupal 8 installations. But a new D8 site can’t live on a D7 installation.

Budget for a time when you have D7 and D8 installations running in parallel. Then, when you retire your D7 website, you can discontinue its hosting environment too.

#2 Determine Whether to Migrate Content or Just Start Over

Websites accumulate content. Sometimes it’s well curated like a museum exhibit. Other times it can build up over time like the Great Pacific garbage patch.

When you’re thinking about the necessary transition from D7 to D8, ask yourself: Does your team want to bring all of your content to a pristine new site “as is”?

If so, there are automated tools to help with content migration. It’s possible to copy over all content types and content directly from Drupal 7, but it will require some human intervention to clean up the data. And that approach doesn’t leverage Drupal 8 resources.

D7 has its own templating language, but D8 dropped it in favor of the Twig template engine that’s part of the Symfony framework. In some cases, templating and reconfiguring a D7 design may cost as much as building a new site from scratch in D8.

That provides an opportunity to evaluate your current site to determine what’s working and what can be improved. Think about the site in terms of:

  • Design and Development Opportunities: Chances are good that design and development approaches have evolved since your site first launched. The question is, how far behind are you? Honestly evaluate the design and functionality of your site to determine how soon an update is in order.
    • Google Analytics: Who’s visiting your site? How do they find you? What are they doing when they get there? How long are they staying? Answering these questions will help gauge what’s working now.
    • Accessibility: Check your site against accessibility best practices to determine how it can be improved in the near future. This is critical as Google continues to rank websites based on accessibility standards — and an accessible website benefits everyone who visits it.
    • Optimization: Website speed tests and PageSpeed Insights help identify the time required for users to access your site. And it’s a great way to confirm that your images and code are optimized.
  • User Experience: Consider the user experience that audiences are having on your site. What do they want to accomplish and what’s currently stopping them? Are they taking the actions that you want them to take? The answers to these questions will let you know whether or not it’s time for redesign.
  • Content Creation: What is the current workflow to create and publish content? Do all of the stakeholders have access to the tools they need? Have stakeholders requested any new features? Are there opportunities to create content once and publish it across a website or multiple web properties? Content types such as Events, News, and Profiles often appear in multiple locations. Creating a single reference point for each piece of content can save time and administrative overhead. Drupal’s Roles and Taxonomies provide several opportunities to streamline the workflow, and these adjustments can be made as part of an upgrade.

Having these types of discussions with internal stakeholders will help determine whether you want to migrate content as-is or take this opportunity to update your entire site.

#3 Plan for the Future

Drupal 7 and 8 have 18 months left in their lives. No matter how much updating you expect to do to your website, you’ll need a plan to guide you through the transition. Here are some key questions you’ll want to run by your team as you start the conversation.

Create a Roadmap:

  • What do you want to accomplish with this website?
  • How does it fit in with other technology initiatives?
  • Are there opportunities to centralize content creation in Drupal 8?
  • Are there other web properties? If so, would it be helpful to build a template system / Drupal 8 theme for a consistent user experience?

Set a Timeline:

  • What absolutely has to happen by 2021?
  • How does this project fit in with the organization’s schedule? E.g., is there a critical month to launch the new site?

Define the Team and the Budget:

  • Can an internal team handle all of the work?
  • Would it help to have a partner on this project?
  • What is financially feasible?

Partnering with idfive.

These types of changes happen often in the world of web development. As difficult as it can be to plan a course of action and communicate the need to your stakeholders, significant changes to your website almost always result in better business outcomes.

Our team at idfive has helped partners plan and execute these types of web projects for more than 15 years. We have a deep bench of Acquia-certified Drupal developers, and we’re happy to guide you down the road to Drupal 9.

To kick off this sort of partnership, reach out to Chris Smith, idfive’s AVP of Marketing.


Here is a collection of Drupal sites that idfive has created:


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