Drupalcon Day 1 – notes from the floor

I’m working on a project right now that is based on a Web development platform called Drupal. I have a long editorial episode building in my head concerning Drupal and competing platforms for Web development, but today I’m going to write this episode assuming you already know what Drupal is and how it works. (This is also how the documentation for Drupal is written.)

Once I arrived and registered, I looked over the program to decide which seminars I would attend. I looked down the list and realized I already knew what most of the seminars were discussing. Some of the seminars, I could have been the presenter. I realized that the cross-section of stuff I know about Drupal probably qualifies me as a Drupal expert now.

Still, there’s always new stuff to learn. I decided to dedicate my day to security. There are a lot of ways to break a Web site these days.

Before the security sessions there was the keynote address by the guy who invented Drupal in his dorm room in Antwerp ten years ago. He is still holder of the vision for the project, and hearing him speak I have to say that the project is in good hands. He knows there are challenges ahead, and he was an excellent cheerleader for open source, and for encouraging everyone who uses Drupal to give back to the community. Currently they are trying to release the next major upgrade, something they absolutely must have, and soon (more on that in a bit). “There are 114 critical bugs to fix,” he said (or something like this), “If we break into teams right now we can have them fixed by the end of the day. So, we’re locking the doors…”

There was a laugh, but his point was a good one. Rather than wait eagerly for the release, the Drupal community should be actively making it happen.

He also mentioned that 1% of the Web is now powered by Drupal. That’s pretty dang impressive (until you compare it to WordPress). It’s difficult to call his methods for estimating that 1% as scientific, but whatever that number is, I can tell you that it could be a lot higher except for one thing: This software induces more WTF? moments than any other development platform I’ve ever used. Novices who come to the platform install the software, stare blankly at the screen, click things, and give up and move on to a more intuitive product. It would be impossible to measure how many adoptions they have lost because of that initial Now What? moment, but it’s significant I promise you.

On a related note, employment opportunities for Drupal experts is on the rise. People who have worked their way through the WTF to where they can be productive with the platform are in demand. I can now navigate and decode the documentation (I think some of the writers of the documentation are so steeped in the Drupal Way that they don’t even realize they are writing in code), and that puts me in good position to find work. When the out-of-box experience is improved (a major thrust of Drupal 7), my “expert” status will be less lucrative.

Speaking of the Drupal Way: At the risk of being overly general, these guys are more sensitive than even Mac people when it comes to hearing criticism about their platform. Also, there were easily more Macs in evidence than Windows laptops. Perhaps that is because we are on Apple’s home turf here, but I think that Mac, with its handy Unix underpinnings, is finding a sweet spot in the Web design world, with cachet among the designers as well as unix (the os of the Web) for the ├╝bergeeks. (The only apple I brought to the convention, I ate. I have Ol’ Pokey charging up, however, to see if it’s game for one last field trip before its ten-year-old video system gives up entirely.)

Back to the keynote: Mr. Buytaert, while talking about the future of Drupal, mentioned that as they got bigger, there would be people for whom using Drupal would be a day job! They wouldn’t be using it just for the love of it, they would think of it as just another tool to get their job done. Mr. Buytaert, welcome to 2008. Those people are now your market, if you want to meet your stated goals for growth.

One thing I’ll say for the guy, he really seems driven by the simple desire to make Drupal the best. He’s probably wealthy now, but commercial success just doesn’t seem to be what motivates him. He wants to make his baby better and better and world domination is simply a way to measure how well he’s doing. It’s refreshing to hear from someone like that.

As for the security sessions, I think this best sums it up (this link was given in one of the seminars):

xkcd 327

A note of explanation for the less-geeky (which you can skip): When a programmer is careless, people can put a string in any field on a site and cause database commands to be executed. In the comic, the name “Robert’); DROP TABLE Students;–” will cause the database the table named ‘Students’, obliterating their records. The ‘); tells the database that the command to add the name is finished, then the rest of the text is treated as a new command. Aren’t you glad you asked?

I also learned just what a risk it is to link to an image the way I just did. The owner of that site can now attack my blog. Ah, the irony.

I did learn some useful stuff in the seminars, and just in time, too. I’m really glad I went.

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4 thoughts on “Drupalcon Day 1 – notes from the floor

  1. Very timely article, as I am about to become webmaster of Doug’s Boy Scout Troop’s website, and the previous owner converted it from custom HTML to…Drupal! One thing to say about Penasquitos parents, there are a lot of do it yourself geeks among us, apparently.

    So I have started wandering around the Drupal documentation. While I haven’t been able to digest (and therefore agree with your comments about it), I have to say I didn’t find it any worse that any other open source, user community written documentation (see Apache). I guess there’s still time…

    Any way, looking forward to more Drupal here, and glad to know I can come to you with my soon to be inherited problems on the troop website.

    • I would definitely prefer to inherit a Drupal site over a custom HTML one. And you’re right, the geeks all around the world who are building Drupal modules have a widely varying ability and desire to document their work. Some parts are documented pretty well, while others hardly at all.

      Generally things are a lot easier if you can let the modules work their way. Case in point: the Apache Solr search module. It has hooks (special functions that the system can automatically recognize in your custom code based on a naming convention) that you can use to customize the query to the search database. One of the parameters for the hook is $query, another is $params. There is nothing in the documents that tells you anything about what those parameters are or how they are altered. After an extensive search (Drupal’s site uses Apache Solr for searches and it’s not helping sell me on the technology), I found that the documentation is… the source code.

      Other modules, like the one we use to show Flash content (whose name escapes me since I never used it as an epithet), is very well-documented and was a breeze to implement, once I got preprocessor functions and template files sorted out.

      I’ll be going into that more in a later post. In the meantime I’m happy to answer any questions you might have.

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