Drupal, a popular content management system, has garnered both praise and criticism over the years. While it’s undoubtedly a powerful tool, developers often find themselves grappling with certain challenges when working with Drupal. In this blog post, we will delve into the top 6 reasons why Drupal has its downsides from a developer’s point of view, and why these issues shouldn’t deter us from recommending and using Drupal for most of our projects.
One of the technical drawbacks of Drupal is its memory usage. Under the hood, Drupal employs a robust hook system that automatically detects and loads functionality. Developers need only follow a specific naming convention and implement a designated hook, and the code is automatically discovered and executed when necessary. However, this power comes at a cost – Drupal must load every enabled module on each request to check if it implements a required hook.
Because PHP operates in a process-based manner without long-running threads, this approach incurs a performance hit. On lower-end hosting, there might not be sufficient RAM to accommodate a large Drupal site. Typically, you need to allocate at least 128MB of RAM per request for PHP, and even more for sites with numerous modules. With limited RAM, your server may run out of resources when handling multiple concurrent requests.
While additional hardware can help mitigate this issue, it means that larger Drupal sites require more resources compared to static sites or more efficient frameworks. Fortunately, caching strategies can alleviate these challenges, helping Drupal sites run smoothly.
Drupal is built on PHP, a scripting language known for its ease of learning and use. However, PHP has had its share of security vulnerabilities in the past, stemming from certain convenience features that could, in some cases, allow remote code execution through a simple GET parameter. Although PHP has improved its security, its reputation for security concerns persists.
Two notable weaknesses of PHP are its lack of threading/inter-process communication and poor Unicode support. The absence of long-running threads means that a significant portion of the Drupal framework must load with every request, rather than being cached in memory. Additionally, PHP struggles to accurately determine the length of a Unicode string, a problem not fully resolved until PHP 6.
Despite these issues, Drupal has managed to work around security concerns, caching helps mitigate the threading problem, and Drupal offers its own functions to handle Unicode support. However, one must question why Drupal should have to address these shortcomings in the first place.
Drupal’s versioning history can be a headache for developers. As of now, Drupal 7 has been available for ten months, Drupal 8 is in development, and Drupal 5 is no longer supported. Surprisingly, many developers continue to build most of their sites in Drupal 6. This raises the critical question: which version of Drupal should you use?
Drupal 7 is undoubtedly a more advanced platform for development, but the transition is not straightforward due to the absence of many essential modules. This gap means that, in many cases, it’s more cost-effective and quicker to build Drupal 6 sites for clients. Drupal’s reputation for challenging upgrades also plays a role. Although the situation has improved, upgrading often involves costs for clients, as many contributed modules are developed by companies, necessitating paid updates.
Drupal’s module ecosystem has evolved significantly over time. In its early days, custom modules were prevalent, but as Drupal matured, it saw the emergence of thousands of single-purpose modules. Nowadays, powerful, multipurpose modules like Views, Rules, Display Suite, Features, and Context have reduced the need for numerous single-purpose modules.
While this transition is generally positive, it has its challenges. Power modules come with steeper learning curves, and their configuration requirements can make Drupal less accessible to beginners. Additionally, as developers embrace more generalized modules, single-purpose modules are often abandoned, leaving users without clear upgrade paths.
This professionalization of Drupal has made site building more complex, requiring specialized knowledge. Recognizing when to use power modules and understanding how to configure them can be daunting for newcomers. This complexity is a key reason why experienced Drupal developers are in high demand.
System caching mechanisms like PHP opcode caching and MySQL tuning are often necessary to maximize performance. In some cases, developers resort to file-based caches or reverse proxies to bypass Drupal entirely. Memcache is yet another layer of caching that can be added.
The challenge with caching lies in ensuring it is appropriately regenerated when data changes. While Drupal generally handles this well, there are instances where data does not get cleared correctly. Caching is, in many ways, a solution to Drupal’s performance issues, but it requires skilled system administration for optimal results and can sometimes complicate issue identification.
Perhaps the most critical factor affecting Drupal projects is the quality of the developers working on them. It can be challenging to discern whether a developer truly understands Drupal or is simply learning on the job at your expense.
Experience is a key differentiator. Seasoned developers have learned from their mistakes, know how to roll out changes without breaking production sites, and understand the importance of safeguards in complex systems. They protect themselves from potential pitfalls, much like rock climbers use safety equipment to prevent falls.
Inexperienced Drupal developers may not grasp the need for these precautions, often making direct changes to Drupal core code that can result in long-term problems. This approach, known as “killing kittens” in Drupal circles, is highly discouraged, as it can lead to compatibility issues during future upgrades.
Drupal has its share of technical challenges, they should not overshadow its strengths as a powerful content management system. With the right expertise and strategies in place, Drupal can be an excellent choice for a wide range of web projects. Developers who understand Drupal’s quirks and intricacies can harness its capabilities to create robust and dynamic websites for clients.
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