Between Releases: When Should I Adopt the Newest Version of Drupal?

by Karen Stevenson

Watching the Drupal release cycle ebb and flow reminds me of sitting on the beach as the waves roll in. There is Drupal 5! It’s getting closer and closer! Finally it crashes on the beach in a splash of glory. But immediately, and initially imperceptibly, it starts to recede, making way for Drupal 6. And so the cycle goes, Drupal 5 recedes and Drupal 6 rushes in. Drupal 6 is overcome by Drupal 7. And now, as I write this, we’re watching as Drupal 7 washes back and Drupal 8 towers over the beach.

Each new version of Drupal is a huge improvement on the one before. But each version also introduces uncertainties. Is all that new functionality necessary? Has Drupal core become ‘bloated’? Does it do too much (or too little)? Will it be performant? How much work will it take to implement? Is it still buggy? And, arguably, the most important question of all, when will the contributed modules we need catch up?

So when is Drupal “ready” for our clients? If clients want a new site in this between-releases period, do we build it on the solid, safe, predictable older release? Or jump in with the shiny, new, improved release that is just over the horizon, or just released? Or do we wait for the new version to mature further and delay building a new site until it’s ready?

We’ve dealt with these questions over and over through the years. Knowing when to embrace and build on a new major release requires careful consideration along several axis, and making the right decision can be the difference between success and failure.Here are the guidelines I use.

How Complex is the Site?

If the site is simple and can be built primarily with Drupal Core, than the shiny new version is likely a safe bet. Contributed modules may add nice features, but creating the site without many (or any) of them will mitigate your risk.

Each new Drupal release pulls into core some functionality that was previously only possible using contributed modules. Drupal 5 allowed you to create custom content types in the UI. Drupal 7 added custom fields to core. Drupal 8 brings Views into core. And every Drupal release makes some contributed modules obsolete. If the new core functionality is a good match for what the site needs, we’ll be able to build a new site without using (and waiting for) those contributed modules, which would be a good reason to build out on the frontier.

Correspondingly, if the site requires many contributed modules that are not included in core, we’ll have to wait for, and perhaps help port, those modules before we can use the new version. If we can’t wait or can’t help we may have no choice but to use the older version, or wait until contributed modules catch up.

How Tight is the Deadline?

It will probably take longer to build a site on a new version of Drupal that everyone is still getting familiar with than an older version that is well understood. It always takes a little longer to do things when using new processes as when repeating patterns you’ve used many times before.

Delays will also be introduced while waiting for related functionality to be ready. Perhaps there is a contributed module that solves a problem, but it hasn’t been ported yet, so we have to stop and help port it. Or there may not be any contributed module that does anything close to what we need, requiring us to plan and write custom code to solve the problem. Latent bugs in the code may emerge only when real world sites start to use the platform, and we might have to take time to help fix them.

In contrast, if we’re using the mature version of Drupal, odds are good that the bugs have been uncovered and there is code somewhere to do pretty much anything that needs to be done. It might be a contributed module, or a post with examples of how others solved the problem, or a gist or sandbox somewhere. Whatever the problem, someone somewhere probably has already run into it. And that code will either solve the problem, or at least provide a foundation for a custom solution, meaning less custom code.

Basically, if the deadline is a key consideration, stick with the tried and true, mature version of Drupal. There just may not be enough time to fix bugs and create custom code or port contributed modules.

How Flexible is the Budget?

This is a corollary to the previous question. For all the same reasons that a deadline might be missed, the budget may be affected. It takes more time (and money) to write custom code (or stop and port related contributed modules). So again, if budget is tight and inflexible, it might be a bad decision to roll out a site on a shiny new version of Drupal.

How Flexible is the Scope?

If we use the latest, greatest, version of Drupal, is the scope flexible enough to allow us to leverage the way the new code works out of the box? If not, if the requirements of the new site force us to bend Drupal to our will, no matter what, it will require custom code. If we build on a more mature version of Drupal we may have more existing modules and code examples to rely on for that custom functionality. If we build on the bleeding edge, we’ll be much more on our own.

Where is the Data Coming From?

If this is a new, from-scratch site, and there’s no need to migrate old data in, that would be a good use case for building this shiny new site with the latest, greatest version of Drupal.

But if there is an existing site, and we need to not only create a new site, but also migrate data from the old site to the new, the question of which version to use gets more complicated. If the source is another, older Drupal site, there will (eventually) be a supported method to get data from the old site to the new site. Even so, that may not be fully ready when the new version of Drupal is released. Drupal 8 uses Migrate module for data migration, but only the Drupal 6 to Drupal 8 migration path is complete, and that migration process will likely improve in future point releases. The upgrade path in previous versions of Drupal was often fraught with problems early on. It's something that never gets fully baked until the new version is in use and the upgrade process is tested over and over with complex, real-world sites. So the need to migrate data is another reason to use the older, more mature version of Drupal (or to wait until the new release is more mature).

How Important Is the New Hotness?

Every version of Drupal has a few things that just weren’t possible in previous versions. CMI (Configuration Management) in Drupal 8 provides a much more rational process for deploying code and configuration changes than Drupal 7 does. Drupal 7 requires banging your head against the limitations of the Features module, which in turn is hampered by the fact that Drupal 7 core just isn’t architected in a way that makes this easy. And Drupal 8 core has built-in support for functionality previously only possible by using one or more additional Services modules in Drupal 7.

If these new features are critical features, and if struggling to solve them in older versions has been a time sink or requires complex contributed modules, it makes sense to dive into the latest greatest version that has this new functionality built in.

How Long Should It Last?

A final question is how often the site gets re-built. If it is likely to be redesigned and re-architected every two or three years to keep it fresh, there should be little concern about rolling out on the older, mature version of Drupal. Drupal 7 will be supported until Drupal 9 is released, and that is likely to be a long time in the future. If it will be many years before there will be budget to re-build this site that might be a reason to build it on the latest version, delaying the project if necessary until the latest version is fully supported by contributed modules and potential problems have been worked out.

It’s Complicated!

The ideas above are just part of the thought process we go through in evaluating when to use which version of Drupal. It’s often a complex question with no black and white answers. But I take pride in our ability to use our long experience with Drupal to help clients determine the best path forward in these between-release periods.