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  • Drupal

What is Drupal?

Drupal is an open source content management platform that can be downloaded and used free of charge. It consists of a core group of files that are standard on all installations, plus plugins and themes that are added to customise it. The name is an Anglicised version of the Dutch word for 'droplet', and that inspired the teardrop logo.

What Can Drupal Do?

Drupal is often mentioned in the same breath as WordPress and Joomla!, but each tool is subtly different. All of them are content management systems (CMS) - they let you organise text, images and videos for the web. However, Drupal's strength is in its complexity and robust architecture.

Drupal is best for sites that are expected to grow, or experience high volumes of traffic. It has a strong following amongst media clients, large ecommerce stores, top universities and household brands. Drupal also provides the framework for many US and UK government websites.

It's also known for being highly flexible, so companies can easily run a diverse range of scripts from one Drupal install. Unlike Joomla!, Drupal is not designed to support web applications, although some users do set it up for this purpose. And while WordPress is more logical as a blogging platform, it's not designed to scale up and out like Drupal.

The Evolution of Drupal

The Drupal source code was originally written as an internet forum application. Its founder, Dries Buytaert, a PhD graduate in computer science. Buytaert now runs a company called Acquia that specialises in Drupal support and employs 300 people. It was Acquia that assisted with the transition of the whitehouse.gov website to the Drupal platform.

From humble beginnings, Drupal now powers at least 2 per cent of websites globally. It is owned by the Drupal Association, which is a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting Drupal.

On the modern web, Drupal is built to support content. It lets companies index and display custom content types in a limitless number of ways, so you're not limited to normal blog or ecommerce formats. This is why many businesses adopt Drupal over the alternatives.

Drupal Pros and Cons

There are a few downsides to Drupal:

  • It's less popular than its competitors, so you'll find it a bit more difficult to pick up. There are currently just over a million sites known to be running Drupal, and you'll find fewer guides than you will for WordPress
  • The learning curve is pretty steep if you want to go beyond the basics
  • You will need PHP skills (or hired helpers) for anything complex
  • The add-on modules can be complicated and difficult to implement (depending on what you're trying to do. They are also less organised than WordPress' plugins
  • Big upgrades can render all of your modules totally unusable
  • There's been a really big hack (see below), so confidence in the platform is dented

However, website owners stay loyal to Drupal because:

  • Most web hosts provide it as a free one-click installer
  • Developers have tried to make it more usable, and are actively investing in getting feedback
  • It's very flexible, particularly if you can code
  • It's designed to be shaped to fit your own purposes
  • It scales up well, even with very large amounts of content; Drupal 7 has been re-coded with speed in mind
  • It has been used to develop some very high profile sites, including Sony Music, eBay, Harvard and Al Jazeera
  • User roles and permissions are sophisticated
  • Plugins, known as modules, extend core functionality and make Drupal more versatile


Drupal is designed to be installed on the LAMP stack - Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. The current version is number 7, and Drupal 8 is in active development at the time of publication.

It can also be installed on Nginx or Microsoft IIS (Windows).

The core installation takes up 15 MB of space. Remember: you'll need more disk space for themes, modules and content.

You'll need to check that your database is on the same machine as your website files. This isn't a requirement as such, but it makes a big difference to resource usage. If your database is located elsewhere, you might find that your host objects to Drupal without sophisticated caching in place.

If you don't have a web hosting account, you can try Drupal 7 as a service at Drupal Gardens. Note that you can't upload themes, import sites or add modules to your sites, so if you want those advanced features, you'd be best off setting up your own Drupal site on a web hosting account.

Drupal Risks

In October 2014, a large scale SQL injection hack rendered tens of thousands of Drupal websites insecure. The hack took advantage of a vulnerability in Drupal 7's code, and it meant hackers could create a backdoor that could not be detected or patched.

Drupal Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is Drupal?

    Drupal is an Open Source Content Management System built in PHP.

  • What is Drupal good for?

    If you are building a complex content-driven site requiring a lot of custom data types, Drupal might be the right choice for you.

  • Is Drupal a CMS or a framework?

    By most definitions, Drupal is a CMS. But is a highly modularized CMS, with enough power and flexibility that it can be looked at as a web application development framework as much as a content management system.

  • What is a content management system?

    If you think of a typical website or blog, there are a number of individual pages which each have their own content. But they also all share elements like headers, menus, sidebars, and footers. Additionally, there are some pages which contain lists of other content — like the front page of a blog, which might have excerpts from the latest posts along with links to the page that actually has that posts content for you to read. It would be time-consuming, and just bad generally, to have to manually re-create all of the shared elements on every page. Similarly, it would be annoying to have to manually update the “latest posts” list every time you added a new piece of content. Content management systems (CMS) solve these problems by storing the individual pieces of content in a database and assembling the pages at the time they are viewed. If you want to look at a particular blog post, the CMS fetches the content of the post from the database and inserts it into a bunch of code that creates the header, the sidebar, the menus, and everything else, and then sends that all to your browser, which treats it the same as if it was a static document sitting on the server. When you look at a list of posts on the front page of a blog, the database is sending the system the latest bunch of posts by date, and the system’s code is arranging them into a list and building the page around them. Content Management Systems also provide a “back end” or administrative interface for adding and editing content, which makes the act of writing a new page or adjusting the menus no more or less difficult than writing an email or adding contacts to your phone. CMS systems provide additional features and ways of adding more features through plugins, but they all do something similar to what was just described.

  • How is Drupal different than other Content Management Systems like WordPress?

    Some CMSes are more geared toward one type of content than another. For example, in WordPress, blog posts are the primary content type. Additional content types have been added to the core code, like pages, media, and comments, but the blog post is still central. In fact, under the hood, every piece of content is a “post” and different types of content are called “post types.” Many content management systems have some type of bias toward a single type of content, usually relating to their origin. Since WordPress began as blogging software, it makes sense that post are the central organizing principle. With other CMSes, it might be pages, images, products, or documents. This can be problematic when “content” becomes things very different than originally envisioned. For example, is a person a piece of content or a user? Is a project a piece of content? Depending on the type of application you are building, it can make a difference whether a piece of content is thought of as “an article about X” to “a record of X” or even “X itself.” Drupal doesn’t have the content-as-article bias or a preference for one type of content over another. All content types are on an equal footing. This makes it especially good for building more complex data and content manipulation applications such as project management tools, customer relationship management systems, online stores, and social media networks.

  • Is Drupal flexible?

    Drupal is completely modular, even the “core” distribution is a series of plugins. This makes it extremely flexible.

  • What type of content types can be tracked in Drupal?

    Any that you need. It has a number of built-in or already available content types for a wide range of applications — blog posts, content pages, products, people, projects, media. New content types can be created easily through the admin interface, provided by plugins, or added with code.

  • Does Drupal have a customizable theming system?

    Drupal has a theming system which allows for extreme customization of a presentation. This includes changing the look and layout of your site, but also providing content in other ways, like through a RESTful API or an RSS Feed.

  • What are Drupal Distributions?

    One of the most powerful features of Drupal is its Distributions Project. Taking their cue from Linux culture, Drupal developers have created a system of packaged distributions which provide organized sets of features for specific applications. For example, there are distributions for education, non-profit administration, churches, government agencies, musicians, podcasters, and news publishers.

  • What are the hosting requirements of Drupal?

    Drupal requires PHP 5.2+. It works MySQL and PostgreSQL databases, and versions 7 and 8 of Drupal provide support for even more databases. IT can run on Apache, Nginx, or IIS web servers.

  • Is Drupal available in a one click installation?

    Many hosting plans provide one-click installation of Drupal through the control panel. However, use of any Drupal distributions usually requires manual installation (although some hosts provide installation support for a small set of distros).

  • Will Drupal work on shared hosting?

    Shared hosting environments are usually technically adequate for a basic installation, but the types of large, complex sites for which Drupal is a good choice do not usually do well on shared hosting plans.

  • Any other Drupal hosting considerations?

    If you plan to use a specialized distribution, be sure to check the specific hosting requirements for that package, as they may include additional needs.

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