Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sitting In Drupalcon's Cheap Seats

A colleague does a lot of Drupal module development. He's a cool and knowledgeable guy and in the Drupal Association. He spoke of the legend of the Drupalcon. In the last six years, Drupalcon attendance number have doubled with each session. What started with a bunch of coders in a pub basement has now grown to 3000+ people. Massive rooms capable of holding 800 people were too small to contain the crowds. Birds of a Feather-- ad hoc sessions of people who were like minded-- were packed with 30-60 people apiece. The scale of this event was massive. It speaks to the growth of the Drupal content management system.
Has it grown to be too big?

The State Of Drupal

According to Dries Buytaert, the originator of Drupal, Drupal powers 1% of the websites out there. Given the market fragmentation and how many people roll their own designs, having one CMS power 1% of them is massive. That said, Wordpress is three times more popular than Drupal. They are different products: Wordpress is for blogging; Drupal is for anything.

Weakness Is Not Strength

Drupal has some weaknesses. It's comparatively solid for security; it's good for internationalization but it's weak for scalability. There was a great talk(2) from Khalid Baheyeldin about how to extend the CMS for a massive amount of processing. The basics: use fewer modules, build your server specific for Drupal and shun some crawlers. If I could do this at my day job, I'd be able to take up golf and not spend day after day in terror as 158 modules pop like popcorn vs. 100,000 page views from Google each day. Many of the talks were about getting Drupal to behave better in a high traffic environment. I think that says it all: Drupal has performance problems otherwise you wouldn't be trying to fix it. You can win big from its flexibility, but that flexibility comes at a cost.
I think some concepts need to considered:
- One ideal module made to accomplish your site's work. Start with core and expand by almost nothing at all. Go back to coding and sink the time into the development work that happens with most sites.
- Not everything needs a module. Google Analytics? Google Adsense? Google and other sites make their tools so portable that they are wholly driven by the client side. Why are there so many modules in Drupal that do what should happen at the bottom of your theme? I will populate a block with a Google AdSense block. Why do it some other way?
- Hard wiring is not a sin (nor is hacking core, but I'll go to Drupal Hell if I suggest that). You get full reign of your themeing. Why would a fixture that is on every page in your theme go into something programmatically derived? On one site, I've done, the blocks start AFTER a number of divs where the elements are hardwired into place. This cuts down on the amount of function calls and database work.
- More code is not better. Drupal 7 is promised to come with more code. One Twitterer fired up Drupal 7 to see it face plant. Bug reports say that Drupal 7 busts a seam when it tries to do an update. None of this is surprising: Drupal 7 is still under development.
- Put your busy-work into the client side as much as possible. Lean on Ajax, good design and smart usage of CSS. For example, Google will de-list you if you present Google friendly code that is different from what you produce for non-Google users. But you can present the same code to everyone and rely on the idea that, for now, Google will not be able to entirely parse the code in the same way a browser does-- then give those capable of using the code something better than those that cannot (dynamic loading, dynamically sourced forms, etc.).
- Be agnostic. Drupal has some set aside directories (like modules, includes and themes). That leaves many options for sub directory names. You can install Wordpress inside of the sub-directory of a Drupal site. Don't be afraid to use multiple technologies. You wouldn't move your apartment using your Honda Civic, when the Dodge pick-up is available. Don't mistake that some applications can satisfy niche roles better than Drupal can.

The Forest for the Trees Problem

I went to the PHP Conference in Vancouver in 2007; and the OpenWeb Conference in 2009. Their conference sizes were large but okay. I was able to network with a number of people and have some good conversations. Drupalcon's 3000 attendees meant that I met many people once and only once. There were so many Birds of a Feather sessions that I couldn't zero in a breadth of topics, but strafe what I could. The saving grace: many of the Drupalcon events are available online. I could have watched these from home. With the use of the IRC channels, I could have communicated with the community. With this number of attendees, I needed some specialization. I sat with module contributors; librarians and entrepreneurs. I was hard pressed to find someone in my boat.
There are many categories of people at Drupal:
Industry: Public Sector, Private Sector, Start-ups and Hobbyists
Specialty: Core coding, Coding, Module Development, Theming, Architecture, Entrepeneurialism.
Ideally, Drupal needs to split along something like these 24 segments (I'm not going to presume I have the recipe with these categories). I could get juxtaposition from a module developer bent on satisfying the needs of libraries; but I really needed to talk to someone who is getting a lot out of their install. If dating technology could have been applied to the attendee dynamic, then people could have met people who were one step up the skills ladder.
I wish there were more days-- there were-- the unconference before; and the core developer summit afterwards, but they felt as though they were not open to everyone. Worse still: I had the option of training on the Sunday-- or the Unconference.
I could have learned what I did via a tutorial tree-- here's what you know, there's what you don't-- so that you can spend the time of discoveries and skill building.

Sharing The Piss But Not The Recipe

There was another more annoying occurrence at this conference. I went to a talk by people from Four Kitchens. In short, Four Kitchens ROCKS. Their sites looks good. Their Pressflow distribution is a great way to ruggedize Drupal. When they offered a talk from taking a Photoshop mock-up and making it into a theme, I leapt at the chance to attend. They described what a Drupal theme was (thanks-- I spent 8 hrs. in a room on Sunday re-learning that). Then they opened up the floor to questions. They glossed over how to start with a PSD and end up with a Drupal theme. That was the whole point of the session. Lots of people are doing it-- I know they are. I've cut up Fireworks designs. What I didn't know was how to take a Photoshop mock-up and convert it. I still don't know, but I know that Four Kitchens does it and they do it well.
I cannot singly fault them. This is a big topic. I hit this problem multiple times. Hearing "it's easy" but getting no details is like those affiliate marketers who say "I make $20,000 a week!" but don't back it up with real details-- SHARE.
I really wish the talks could be vetted before they are approved. I went through a number of sessions that were VERY basic, so much so that I didn't know how someone could run to a conference specialized for Drupal but not know some of these basics.
The conference needed to be split into basic, intermediate and advanced and really stick to it. 20 APIs Every Drupal Developer Should Know is an example of a session that was ranked for "Basic, Intermediate"-- really it was "Basic Developer" (too low for me); and "Intermediate Architect" (about right for my wife who is a site admin, but she doesn't code though she should know what's out there). When it said "Intermediate" I thought it was in my league. When it said "APIs" I thought it was about APIs-- Daylife, Flickr, Google, etc.. No: it was about 20 types of Drupal modules. My bad.

Were I to run Drupalcon, I would have done it differently:
- Split the conference into lots of micro conferences. Hold them nearly in parallel with some shifting so that the entrepreneurs, coders and themers don't need need to jockey for the same rooms.
- Hold training, but not at the conference. The problem there: some places run diploma-mill training that results in their students washing windows (really). Lullabot, Zivtech and Lynda are great and should be used more. What I would like: a question-answer of what there is to know vs. what you don't know. At my theming training I learned about (theme)_preprocess_(specialty). I wish I could have jumped to that then off to something else new. Group training sessions don't work like that.
- Match people to spark conversations. Let people code themselves and look for people up and down the skills tree. There were 3000 people at Drupalcon. I liked speaking with everyone I spoke with; but I would have liked to speak with the 30 people who could fill in my blanks-- only I didn't know who they were.
- Open the cookbooks. People should share their Drupal recipes as much as their bosses will allow. I was able to share my biography and session schedule, but I could not share how I built or

The Good Stuff

Beyond learning and emersing myself in Drupal-land, I came up with some good ideas and a better understanding of Drupal. I also learned how much I have managed to wring out of Drupal and Apache. Others are pulling off the same result by lopping out 120 modules; or doing the same as what we're doing but with four servers and not one. I left one person speechless when I told them that the site had 36 themes. Yep: I know we have about 30 themes too many.
I have an idea for a module-- well, a framework concept as well as a migration synchronization module.
I have an idea for a site to support Drupal people. Ideally, it should go on Realistically, I'll put it on
I have an idea for a Photoshop plug-in. First, I have to become a Photoshop plug-in developer expert. It's like Colombus wanting corn: first he has to travel to the New World.

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