The Migration Challenge for Drupal Users

It’s still a couple of years out, thanks to a COVID-19 reprieve, but an end-of-life date could create some big migration headaches for associations that rely on the Drupal content management system. Here’s what you need to know.

Web infrastructures are complex and can be challenging to manage even during the best of times. But the wheels of innovation keep turning, and a failure to maintain your platforms can really bite you over time. As I’ve written in the past, a plan without an upgrade path is no plan at all.

Still, sometimes upgrades don’t happen, and that can lead to far bigger upgrades down the line. This is the problem a lot of Drupal users are dealing with at the moment, as many remain on the decade-old Drupal 7 even though Drupal 9 was released just last month.

Drupal’s Crazy Eight

To be fair, it wasn’t entirely their fault. The Drupal project made many significant changes for version 8, released in 2015, to account for shifts in coding best practices and to keep up with the times. The idea behind the more aggressive platform upgrade with version 8 was to make future upgrades easier, but this makes transitioning from version 7 quite the challenge, the kind that requires under-the-hood work.

The idea behind the more aggressive platform upgrade with version 8 was to make future upgrades easier, but this makes transitioning from version 7 quite the challenge.

Back in 2018, the Drupal project announced plans to set both versions 7 and 8 to end-of-life status, meaning both will stop receiving security patches. Initially, the plan was to retire them in 2021.

On his site, Drupal founder and lead developer Dries Buytaert said this plan actually offered a reprieve from the traditional approach.

“Historically, our policy has been to only support two major versions of Drupal; Drupal 7 would ordinarily reach end of life when Drupal 9 is released,” he wrote in a blog post. “Because a large number of sites might still be using Drupal 7 by 2020, we have decided to extend support of Drupal 7 until November 2021.”

COVID-19 has changed things a bit: Last month, Drupal’s developers announced they would extend the migration period deadline for version 7 to November 2022—buying stragglers another year in the old world. (The easier-to-upgrade Drupal 8, which has a technical dependency, will keep its 2021 end-of-life deadline.)

The Drupal community noted that this decision was not made lightly for its community support team, which relies on volunteers and sponsored employees. “This means extra work from the Drupal community at large and the security team in particular to review security reports, create patches, and release security advisories for Drupal 7,” the organization stated.

Migration Considerations

The extension may bring a sigh of relief for many Drupal shops, but don’t take the wrong lessons from the delay. For Drupal 7 diehards, now’s the time to make a big decision about migration. This is not an upgrade date that should be ignored.

And it raises bigger questions about the model Drupal uses, honestly. Recently, CMSWire explained that the decision to force version-number migrations—also used by competing content management systems such as Craft CMS—seems to put site owners at a major disadvantage because it forces a content infrastructure reboot just to stay current with Drupal.

In many ways, the changes to Drupal 8 were so dramatic, it might have felt like upgrading to a new CMS entirely. It was good for the project as a whole, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in January. But it hurt for the agencies and large companies that rely on Drupal.

“Ultimately, Drupal 8 was ripping off the Band-Aid for Drupal in that Drupal 7 reached a point where it was outdated and falling behind in some areas where other content management systems were innovating,” O3 World’s Greg Aiello told CMSWire.

And to be fair, Drupal’s developers are trying to resolve these issues. Version 9 of Drupal is intentionally a smaller step up than version 8 was. And Acquia, the enterprise services company that supports Drupal, has offered numerous tools to make the migration process easier.

Understand Your Options

Nonetheless, if your association is still using Drupal 7, you’re eventually going to hit a big roadblock if you’re not ready for the end-of-life date. And while sticking with Drupal might seem like the best solution, the changes to the platform in recent years are significant enough that it may be worth thinking about the bigger picture.

A lot of recent trends have emerged in the content management space in recent years, such as headless CMS platforms, many of which could benefit your platform as you modernize. Drupal 8 was Drupal’s attempt at future-proofing; it should be met with your own future-proofing efforts.

You may be dreading that big upgrade, but if you look at it as an opportunity to reinvent your tech stack, it might seem a little less scary. Just don’t lose track of that deadline.

(Overearth/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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