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Upgrading your site to Drupal 8 or 9

An article from ComputerMinds - Building with Drupal in the UK since 2005
21st May 2019

Christian Sanders

Developer

Your current website/platform is built on Drupal 7 and news has hit your ears about 7’s end of life (EOL). Maybe your site is a Drupal 8 site and you want to know what the future has in store for you. Good news is, you don’t have to do anything immediately, but it is definitely a question that you want to start thinking about very soon.

This article is mainly aimed at Drupal 7 builds looking to upgrade to 8 or 9, and we will explore the pros and cons of each. However, if your current platform is based on Drupal 8 and you want to know what your options are with regards to Drupal 9, you can skip to here. Or, if like my fence (yes, that really is my fence and it is in desperate need of an upgrade), you require an upgrade, skip down to see what we can do for you.

Drupal 7’s EOL is November 2021, which is a little way off yet, but it’ll soon creep up on you (very much like my fast approaching wedding day… eek!)! So what does EOL mean? After End of Life in November 2021, Drupal 7 will stop receiving official support: this means no more security fixes and no more new features. Any new ‘Drupalgeddon’ security issues will be ignored, leaving Drupal 7 sites open to attack; we saw a minority of sites being used as bitcoin miners last year as a result of sites not being patched… this is just an example of what could/can happen!

There appear to be talks in the Drupal community about providing LTS (“Long Term Support”) programmes, offering continued support for Drupal 7. Community LTS tends to cover security issues mostly, with minor functionality updates. But if you want the longest term security support prospects, whilst also being on the platform best suited to growth, ongoing development and support we would advise that you don’t look to the D7 LTS programmes.

Crucially, a Drupal 7 to 9 upgrade will largely be the same as a 7 to 8 upgrade - you won’t be missing out on too much; you’ll just wait longer for the new goodness that 7 doesn’t have!

The best option, therefore, is to consider an upgrade. But which version do you go for? Should you go straight in for Drupal 8, or stay longer on your beloved Drupal 7 and switch over to 9 nearer 7’s end of life? Let’s look at the options.

 

Benefits of migrating to Drupal 8

 

Drupal 8 was a complete ground-up rewrite of Drupal 7. D7 was written without a known framework and without utilising Object Orientation, meaning a majority of Drupal 7 was written procedurally; this can make code hard to maintain and inefficient, resulting in a loss of page load performance. Using a framework that is built upon an OO philosophy ensures clearer code that it is easier to maintain, read, and modify - all of which results in a faster, more secure site.

Drupal 8 also runs on PHP 7 as standard; PHP 7 is *much* faster than its predecessor. In addition, D8 utilises a new theming engine called Twig - with benefits that include better security (Twig automatically sanitises user input, for example) and a big emphasis on separation of business logic and presentation as well as being fast and flexible. It also includes nice features such as inline editing, handy for those sites that have lots of ever changing content; this should save you a few clicks of a mouse and multiple page loads! Drupal 8 is also continuing to add new features, like the anticipated Layout builder (which you can read all about here), the newly incorporated media handling and big pipe!

 

Can’t I just upgrade straight to Drupal 9 when it is released?

 

Well you could, but we would recommend not to. Drupal 9’s release is only around the corner, much like Drupal 7’s EOL. 9 is due to be in our hands mid-late 2020. This overlap has been cleverly timed with Drupal 7’s EOL to allow Drupal 7 sites to upgrade to Drupal 9 with time to spare before EOL. So what is the difference between Drupal 8 and 9 and why do we recommend to upgrade to Drupal 8 first?

Drupal 9 - in Layman’s terms - will be a “cleaner” version of the latest Drupal 8 version; they’re essentially the same thing, minus some deprecated code that was present at the start of Drupal 8’s life. (Deprecated code is code that is due to be decommissioned and re-written/re-integrated at a later date. The code is still safe and usable, but if you upgrade in the future, you might have a job on your hands converting all the deprecated code with their replacements. Rule of thumb, always use the newer version if it’s available to avoid future headaches).

Crucially, a Drupal 7 to 9 upgrade will largely be the same as a 7 to 8 upgrade - you won’t be missing out on too much; you’ll just wait longer for the new goodness that 7 doesn’t have! Drupal 9 will also include updates to external libraries/dependencies, which it relies upon, not to mention any new features that’ll it have over 8. At time of writing, we are unsure of what these might be!

The only foreseeable benefit we can see for waiting for Drupal 9 (over 8) is that you get to stay on your tried and trusted Drupal 7 site for a year or two longer whilst giving you maximum time to plan for that eventual upgrade.

 

How easy is it to upgrade my site?

 

At the start of Drupal 8’s life, one of the major goals that 8 wanted to get right over D7 was migration. Therefore, a big emphasis was placed on making sure that migrations were easier and less painful to do, particularly since it (core) would have a completely different architecture. As a result, migrations from 7 to 8 (or 9) are somewhat nicer than those who upgraded from 6 to 7 (Checkout our Conservative Party case study where we migrated an entire Drupal 6 platform to 8)

Some of you who have been reading our articles for the last few years will notice we underwent a huge change - not only did we re-brand, but we also upgraded from 7 to 8 - all of which you can read about, including all the trials and tribulations we experienced.
Drupal 8’s built in migration tools are a huge improvement over 7 and the Drupal community has created some really neat modules too, some that will provide a good starting point for any migration mappings that you may need…  However, any custom code/custom field structures will need additional plugins and migration mappings without discounting an entire re-write of any HTML template files due to the new theme engine Twig.

As far as we are currently aware, a Drupal 8 to 9 migration will be *much* easier than a 7 to 8 migration. Those who have a Drupal 8 site see their minor version (8.5, 8.6, 8.7 etc etc) updated every 6 months with very little hiccups. A Drupal 8 to 9 migration will be not too dissimilar to the minor version updates that current Drupal 8 owners experience today. One of the very few exceptions being that any deprecated code (as explained above) will need converting; upgrading all contrib modules and performing a full custom code audit to make sure this works with the new version of Drupal. The data structures will remain intact as will the theme engine so no need to write new migration mappings or to convert any HTML templates - these tend to make up the bulk of the work for any Drupal migration.

 

What can ComputerMinds do for you?

 

We, at ComputerMinds, have experience of all the different types of upgrade paths that are available to you. Back in the day, we conducted full Drupal 6 to Drupal 7 migrations (no easy feat), but more recently, we have done Drupal 7 to Drupal 8 upgrades (as we mentioned before, in addition to upgrading some of our clients from 7 to 8, we also carried out our own upgrade for this very site) and even Drupal 6 to Drupal 8 upgrades. So we have a wealth of experience and skill.

Furthermore, choosing to upgrade your site is the perfect time to review your current brand, the look and feel of your site and to add any new features that may be in your pipeline. Any new/additional changes are a lot easier to incorporate during the upgrade phase than later down the line; it’s cheaper because we can do all the changes in development phase and it’ll also mean you’ll get shiny, new things quicker - so something definitely worth thinking about.

This article has been written to highlight what options are available now and in the future; we certainly won’t force anyone to upgrade their site, but will always do our best to make people aware of what is coming up in terms of Drupal’s life. With the e-commerce world always advancing, you definitely can’t stand still for long, so this topic will certainly need to be thought about. We also won’t be able to facilitate upgrading everyone in 2021, so please do plan ahead!

Drupal 8 is in the best possible place today. Most of the contributed modules have either been converted from 7 to 8, or brand new modules that have been created in emulate functionality from Drupal 7 that simply didn’t exist for 8. The webform module for example, a staple on 99% of our sites, wasn’t available for a long time due to the time it took to completely rewrite it - a worthwhile wait in our eyes as it is a big improvement over its 7 version. We are currently recommending any new site builds that come our way to start life as a Drupal 8 site. It gets a big thumbs up from us!

If you’ve liked what you’ve read and feel like you’re ready - or in a position - to start thinking about a site upgrade, why not start a conversation with us today either by way of live chat or using our contact form. We’d love to hear from you and look forward to seeing what benefits we can bring to your site.

Hi, thanks for reading

ComputerMinds are the UK’s Drupal specialists with offices in Bristol and Coventry. We offer a range of Drupal services including Consultancy, Development, Training and Support. Whatever your Drupal problem, we can help.