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November 8, 2019

Drupal 9 Planning: A Guide to Upgrading, or Extending the Longevity of your Website

In September of 2018 at the Drupal Europe conference, Drupal founder and lead developer Dries Buytaert gave a keynote that outlined the future for Drupal, specifically the release of Drupal 9, and how it impacts the lifespan of Drupal 7 and Drupal 8.

For the TL;DR crowd, the immediate future of Drupal was outlined in this graphic (thanks, Dries!).

Drupal 7 to Drupal 8 to Drupal 9 diagram

The big takeaways were:

  • Drupal 9 will be released in 2020.
  • Drupal 7 end-of-life will be extended out to 2021, even though Drupal usually only supports one version back.
  • Drupal 8 will also be end-of-life in 2021.

Wait… what? This proposed schedule breaks with tradition! Drupal has always supported one version back. And this schedule only gives Drupal 8 users a single, short year to upgrade from Drupal 8 to Drupal 9!

So what now? Do you wait until 2021 to rebuild your Drupal 7 site on Drupal 9? Rebuild onto Drupal 8 now and then update again hardly a year later? Should you just bail on Drupal entirely and move to another platform? What’s the right solution for you?

First and foremost, Don’t Panic.

Let’s explore each of the options in a little more detail to help inform your decision making process.

Option 1: Skip Drupal 8, and upgrade from Drupal 7 to 9

The average lifetime of a website is three years. So if you’ve had your Drupal 7 site for three years or more, hurrah! You’ve done well with your return on that investment. Drupal 7 is robust and supported enough that there’s still a lot of growth and life in your site. So unless there’s a specific module or item that only Drupal 8 can offer, you can feel confident that your Drupal 7 site will be solid until end-of-life. Staying put also buys you time to secure funding, and get all the stakeholders on the same page for the next upgrade.

But it isn’t all roses. Delaying potential problems by skipping Drupal 8 doesn’t make those problems go away; Drupal 9 will still require the same sort of rework and investment. And in the meantime, Drupal is still going to push out some updates to Drupal 7, such as requiring a more modern version of PHP. There will most likely be some maintenance costs in addition to the Drupal 9 rebuild.

Going straight to Drupal 9 from Drupal 7 gives you a little bit of breathing room. Taking this route means that it’s business as usual…sort of.

How to prepare

Even though Drupal 9 hasn’t arrived yet, the time to start curating and refining your site is now. We recommend taking a “focused fix” approach to your Drupal 7 work: rather than a wholesale rebuild. Here are some of the incremental bites we recommend you take as you move into 2020:

  • Review Website Strategy: assuming you built your site a few years ago around business goals, how is the site working towards those goals? Have your goals shifted? Does your site still achieve your mission? Revisit your strategy to ensure any changes you make are on the right path.
  • Audit Content: Content has a way of getting out of control quickly if there are multiple editors and the lines of governance get blurred. Archive or delete unnecessary content. Review it for your authority voice and established strategy.
  • Review SEO: In addition to keywords, make sure your content is mobile-focused, that your URL structures are meaningful, and existing schemas are used to properly describe the content of a page.
  • Code Quality: How clean are your code standards? Is it well-structured and easy to extend? Is there good documentation? Completing a code audit would be smart to make sure your code is as re-usable as possible for the upcoming rebuild.
  • Optimize User Experience: Does the user experience and flow make sense? Can you run a usability test on your interactive features? How about using heatmap software to see where users are clicking and scrolling, and tweaking accordingly?
  • Active Maintenance: Keep your contributed modules actively maintained to ensure they still work, and if necessary, replaced with modules that have known upgrade paths. 
  • Assess New Features: Consider new features carefully, being mindful of scope in light of your upcoming rebuild. Can this wait, or is it an urgent necessity?

If you’re a more visual person, I gave a talk at BADCamp in 2018 about going from Drupal 7 to Drupal 9 if you really want a deep dive into the options.

And if you need extra help with nurturing and growing your existing Drupal 7 site, we can help. Kanopi Studios has a dedicated Support Team that currently maintains over 100 Drupal 7 sites, and will be taking on new Drupal 7 support clients at anytime. 

Get long-term support for your drupal 7 site

Option 2: Upgrade from Drupal 7 to Drupal 8 to Drupal 9

“Ginger Rogers did everything [Fred Astaire] did, backwards and in high heels.”

— Bob Thaves

Colloquially, the most efficient way to get from Point A to Point B is a straight line. Major versions of a platform are effectively a line. In this case, you can think of that “straight line” as going from Drupal 7 to Drupal 8 to Drupal 9, instead of trying to go around Drupal 8 entirely.

It’s critically important to understand one unique feature of Drupal 9: It is designed from the ground up to be backwards compatible with Drupal 8. That means, unlike going from Drupal 7 to Drupal 8, it’s a much smoother transition to go from Drupal 8 to Drupal 9.

We’re already building our Drupal 8 sites to be Drupal 9 compatible by avoiding deprecated API’s and regularly running tests to verify. The sites we are building now will be upgradable like a normal quarterly update.

Angie Byron, a.k.a. Webchick, gave an excellent talk about this at BADCamp in 2017. Yes, Drupal seriously planned this out!

Let’s talk community code

When Drupal 8 was released, one of the BIGGEST hurdles the community faced (and continues to face) was getting contributed modules working with the new version. It required ground-up rewrites of…well…pretty much everything. While a lot of popular modules Drupal 7 were folded into Drupal 8 core, a number were not, and people volunteering their time were understandably slow to bring their contributed code over to Drupal 8. As a result, many sites were hesitant or unable to upgrade, because of how much work was needed to get to their modules up to speed.

So will it be the same story going from Drupal 8 to Drupal 9? Will we have to wait months, in some cases years, for our business-critical tools to be updated? According to Dries’ post, the answer is no. Drupal is extending the backwards-compatible philosophy to the contrib space as well. Assuming this plays out as intended, we shouldn’t see the same dearth of contrib support and going from Drupal 8 to Drupal 9 should be far less painful.

… we will also make it possible for contributed modules to be compatible with Drupal 8 and Drupal 9 at the same time. As long as contributed modules do not use deprecated APIs, they should work with Drupal 9 while still being compatible with Drupal 8.

— Dries Buytaert

And yes. There are a lot of assumptions here. This is Drupal’s first pass at a backwards-compatible upgrade methodology. There is an inherent risk that it won’t work flawlessly. All we can say for sure is that the community is very hard at work getting to a reliable release schedule. A thoughtful upgrade approach should make the “Drupal Burn” associated with major version upgrades a thing of the past.

Option 3: Starting Over with another CMS

Maybe Drupal isn’t the right platform for you anymore but you don’t know how to proceed, or where to go. When in doubt, get in touch! At the very least we can help you define what you need out of your site and what platforms would best suit your goals. And we have thoughts on migrating from Drupal 7 to WordPress. We can work out the best approach together. 

Is Rebuilding in Drupal 9 Really Necessary?

When we talk to our clients about migrating from Drupal 7, we typically hear one of three things:

  1. We don’t have the budget.
  2. We don’t have the capacity.
  3. The site looks and works perfectly fine.

Below, I’ll dig a bit deeper into each of these objections.

Budget

An average website lasts 3-5 years. However, many stakeholders aren’t aware that they need to budget for a new site that often, so they are caught off guard when the time comes. So how can you bridge this gap?

Build the business case. A business case compares the challenges of sticking with your current site against the new opportunity and ROI that could be gained by making a change.

To get started, we recommend a site audit and creative strategy session to help identify what’s not working and what might be needed to get back on target. You should also take a look at your organic search performance (SEO), accessibility, speed, and overall usability. All of these factors can reveal where your site may be missing the mark and help to justify an upgrade.

When building your case, make sure that you think through the total cost of ownership for your site so that you can reserve enough budget to get the work done right. For example, if you spent $25,000 on your website in 2013, then made incremental updates over the last five years at $10,000 per year, the cost of your current site is $75,000. If you want to preserve all features in your rebuild, you should ask for at least $75,000. While you’re at it, it’s a good idea to ask for 25 percent more than the amount it would take to preserve existing features; the redesign process will inevitably generate new ideas and site improvements that will require additional budget to implement. In this particular example, we would recommend asking for $100,000 and justifying the cost with a breakdown that takes your total cost of ownership into account.

Another example: if you built your Drupal 7 site in-house and worked on it for 24 months using a resource who cost $75,000 per year, then your current site cost you $150,000. Knowing this can help you build a rationale that hiring an agency to build your Drupal 8 site at $150,000 – $200,000 within six months as opposed to 2 years is a great deal. Demonstrating where and how a new website could show direct ROI like this can make all the difference when convincing stakeholders to approve the budget for an updated site.

Consider the costs of doing nothing. Think bigger than the cost of an upgrade and consider the costs of not improving your website at all. Over time you’ll start to experience lost customers and a damaged reputation as your site fades into obscurity. Missed opportunities can be hard to quantify, but should still be considered.

Example: Your website’s contact form currently gets an average of 10 submissions a month, and 2 of those leads convert to a sale worth $5000 each. That means your form is currently generating $10,000 per month. What if, through a smart redesign and sales orientated features, you were able to increase form completions to 15 per month? At a 20% conversion rate your site could be generating $15,000 per month, as well as potentially providing lifelong brand loyalty.

Take the time to frame your case to support budget requests. Use the approach that will work best to help your stakeholders understand the value of your website project and its potential to make a meaningful impact on your organization’s bottom line. Once they see the value, the budget will come much more easily.

Capacity

Today’s working world moves at lightning speed. Most of us end up doing far more than what’s included in our job descriptions, and those full plates can make a website rebuild feel impossible to tackle.

If your stakeholders are concerned about your team’s capacity to handle a rebuild, talk to them about approaching the work in smaller phases. Many of our clients tackle rebuilds one phase at a time, often signing on for smaller, more digestible bites that make up a larger endeavor. This can help make the process feel more approachable and easier for stakeholders to wrap their heads around. Try getting started now with a bit of user research. Then tackle design. You can continue from there in small steps until the work is complete.  

Alternatively, this is where an agency like Kanopi Studios comes in. Rebuilding your site on Drupal or WordPress is a lot of work, but an experienced agency can take much of that work off your plate by making the process as smooth and straightforward as possible, while keeping the project’s momentum at full swing. Your team can continue concentrating on their day to day work while the rebuild happens simultaneously.

The site looks and works fine

The most common objection we hear from our clients is that their stakeholders don’t see a need to change or understand the point of doing things differently through a rebuild.  

Maybe you already have a beautiful website that is driving strong results. If so, that’s wonderful! However, as time goes on, you’ll find you need to mix things up a bit to keep up with the pace of change and stay competitive. Trends shift, customer behavior changes, and Google likes to keep us guessing with their algorithm updates. Change is constant in all things, and even more so online. 

As time goes on, the technology of the internet changes as well. To ensure your site stays functional and secure, keeping your CMS up to date should be part of your current budget and roadmap. Leaving your site out of date can potentially cause critical issues with mandatory server changes, or new security risks. 

Remember, the safety zone may feel warm and comforting, but it will never give you the insight and growth that exploring the unknown can provide. Who knows what wonderful things could be in your future?

So which way should I go?

So which approach is best? For starters, think about whether an upgrade benefits you in the immediate term. Read a little about Drupal 8, audit your site with our website checklist, and if you still aren’t sure, you can start with our quiz.

If all of this feels overwhelming, contact us. We offer Drupal 7 support, and we can help you strategize and build your case for an upgrade from Drupal 7 to Drupal 8, Drupal 9, or even WordPress. Whichever way you choose, we’ve got you covered.

Start planning the future of your website