Wednesday 11 October 2017

Drupal: Content Management Made Easy

Content management systems have made it easy for even novices to set up intricate web sites, complete with many interactive features. One of the most popular open source CMSes is Drupal. This article will take a look at why it is so popular, and what features it offers the prospective user. There was a time, not so long ago, when web sites were built from scratch by hand. But with the increasing popularity of Web 2.0, the rise of the content management system (CMS) has changed the web development landscape beyond recognition. A CMS allows anyone, regardless of their level of technical know-how, to get a complex, fully featured and interactive site up and running quickly and easily.

Drupal - Content Management, Hosting Reviews

More than this, it removes virtually all the programming from site management, allowing non-coders to maintain their own content through user interfaces that are no more difficult to learn and use than a regular word processor. A CMS also allows a novice to add complex features such as forums and chat rooms, workflow management and powerful security controls that would previously have had to be custom-built. It's easy to see why the popularity of the CMS has grown almost exponentially, to the point where around 200 open source CMS projects are listed on the CMS comparison site CMS Matrix, and that's before considering the many commercial solutions that are available.

One of the most popular of the open source systems is Drupal. Now at major version 6, Drupal - like much open source software - began life as the college project of Belgian computer science student Dries Buytaert, who back in 1998 was attempting to develop a simple LAN-based message board. Buytaert decided to port the resulting software to the web a couple of years later, after graduating. At that time the CMS was little more than a fledgling concept, but in response to an increasing number of user requests, Buytaert began adding features to the system.

By 2001 the volume of requests had grown to the point where Buytaert took the logical step of releasing the code - now named Drupal - under the GNU General Public License This was intended to encourage broader community involvement in the project's development, but even Buytaert couldn't have predicted the success that would follow. Thanks to its longevity, along with the its technical robustness, Drupal is now at the center of a flourishing online community with around 350,000 members.

But what is it about Drupal that makes it so much more popular than almost any other open source CMS? A clue is offered on the mission page, which is headed with the words Don't Panic in friendly italic letters. This message -- a quote from Douglas Adams' The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy - is at the heart of the Drupal philosophy of flexibility, simplicity and utility. As far as it is possible to make an advanced software system straightforward to set up and use, Drupal does so. It also boasts an extensive feature list, over 5,000 community-developed modules that improve and extend the system's functionality, and powerful performance thanks to the lean code and advanced caching mechanism.

Drupal: Content Management Made Easy - Features

Drupal's core features include the following:

◉ Collaboration tools

Drupal contains a range of tools to enable and enhance group work. The most important of these is the Collaborative Book, which is a set of related pages for which multiple users may be given permission to write, edit, review or rearrange the content. Books can easily be provided with navigation menus, content from elsewhere on the site can be incorporated, and Drupal will generate print-friendly versions of books on demand. Drupal also offers Version Control, which allows changes to content to be tracked in detail and rolled back.

Collaboration is also enhanced by Drupal's role-based permissions system. This applies fine-grained security permissions to roles as well as, or instead of, to individual users, allowing permission sets to be created and applied quickly and easily.

◉ Customization tools

Every individual site's implementation of a CMS will be unique. To accommodate a wide variety of requirements, Drupal includes a powerful template-based theming tool that can be used to personalize many aspects of the look and feel of the system, such as the underlying style sheets (CSS), the JavaScript and whether certain page elements are displayed or hidden. Themes may be applied to an entire site, to certain sections of it, or even to individual pages. Obtaining the best from Drupal's theming tools ideally requires a basic knowledge of cHTML, CSS and PHP.

◉ Multiple content types

Drupal provides support for a wide range of content types, both static and interactive, including blogs, news feeds, discussion forums and threaded commenting, as well as the standard text, image and multimedia content types supported by the web server. All of this content is fully indexed and searchable with the use of the integrated search module.

◉ Platform independence

Drupal has been developed from the ground up to work on multiple platforms. On the web server side, these include both Apache and IIS running on all major operating systems. The CMS is built on a database abstraction layer, meaning that it can be run with either MySQL or PostgreSQL out of the box. It can be ported to other databases relatively easily with the development of a custom fourteen-function database back-end and matching SQL database scheme. Full instructions for this are provided in the Drupal documentation.

◉ Performance cache

When it is used to run a busy site, Drupal's performance can be enhanced by the use of the included configurable caching mechanism. By reducing the number of database queries that have to be handled, this can boost performance in the region of up to a factor of a hundred or more. With caching disabled, generating each individual page may require dozens or even hundreds of database queries. With the cache turned on, all of the information required to generate a particular page for an anonymous user is temporarily stored as a complete entity, which is then served in response to just a single query.

Drupal: Content Management Made Easy - Modules

With over 5,000 modules, Drupal attracts many users simply due to its extensibility. The majority of modules are contributed by Drupal users, and people who find modules useful are encouraged to actively participate in improving and refining them in order to further develop the system. The dedicated user community that has resulted from this process is one of Drupal's key strengths, and is probably as significant in the growth of the system as its underlying quality. A Module is available for almost any conceivable task or enhancement, making Drupal one of the most powerful and flexible content management systems available. In addition, if a module is required that doesn't exist, the size and commitment of the user base means that it can often be developed at relatively low cost.

Modules fall mainly into such categories as content handling, display and system administration, and provide functionality ranging from the simple to the highly complex. At the simpler end of the scale are modules that perform single tasks, such as removing the accents from words to improve search results or sending short system messages to users. This kind of compact and straightforward plug-in capability is welcome, but it is with the more complex modules that the system really shines. These allow the addition of sophisticated enhancements such as drop-down menus, commercial advertising, shopping cart integration and compatibility with a wide range of third-party applications.

The most popular modules tend to be those that provide commercial functions and user interactivity, although with so many modules available it's difficult to generalize. Other popular areas include theming, presentation and media handling. The most popular modules include:

◉ Drupal e-Commerce

The Drupal e-Commerce module is a fully-featured online sales solution. Its many features include a shopping cart, tax and discount handling, inventory management, invoicing, and plugins to handle payments and shipping. The e-Commerce module is so widely used that many additional modules have been developed specifically to integrate with it, including a large number of payment methods, automatic payment handling, and statistical analysis tools. Drupal E-Commerce is not the only online sales module. One widely-used alternative is Ubercart, which again has a whole system of additional modules built around it.

◉ Voting API

The Voting API module is designed to enhance interactivity by enabling content rating and other forms of voting. It provides tools that analyze, sort, tabulate and present the results of any voting exercise. Voting API isn't a user-facing module; it provides the back end functionality required to supply standardized voting data to other modules. An alternative popular voting module is Five Star.

◉ OrganicGroups

The OrganicGroups module also enhances interactivity, being designed to provide a mechanism for users to create and manage their own groups. Each group has its own home page where group members can communicate with each other and exchange information. Groups can be invitation-only, selective - where new applications for membership must be approved - or open to all.

◉ Simplenews

One of the most effective ways to keep a web site's visitors in touch with news and developments is through email newsletters. The Simplenews module publishes and distributes such newsletters, to both registered and anonymous users. Multilingual text is supported, and HTML email can also be supported through the addition of the Mime Mail Module. A number of supplementary modules are available to increase the functionality of Simplenews, including Templates, Roles, Digest and Scheduler.

◉ Case Tracker

The Case Tracker module is an issue tracking system similar to those used in many call centers and help desks. It enables support teams to track outstanding cases, report solutions and issue progress notifications. The module makes use of regular Drupal comments and can be integrated with other modules such as Views, Mailhandler, CCK and Organic Groups.


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