"There's a distribution for that"

If you're a group having a Drupal website built for you, one of the first questions you should ask is, "What distribution will you base the site on?"

And conversely if you're a Drupal site builder with a new site to build, you should start by asking, "What distribution will I base this one on?"

True, not every site will lend itself to being based on a distribution ("distro" for short). A few sites will be so large, or idiosyncratic, or both, that basing them off a distro doesn't make sense. And some will have focuses that don't yet have a solid distro option. But for the rest - and that means most sites built today - a distro is likely to be a great fit.

Why use a distro? The more pertinent question might be, why wouldn't you?

For both users and developers, well designed distros offer a ton of advantages over a one-off site:

  • They're built by experts who know the toolsets inside out.
  • They're designed with a broad set of users in mind and have already solved many usability and design issues.
  • They have been tested on dozens or hundreds of sites so many of the issues you might face have already been caught and fixed.
  • They're flexible and allow you to start off with just what you need now.
  • They come with built-in solutions for future needs that a site admin can just turn on and use when the time comes. And as new solutions are developed and shared by other users, you'll be right in line to add them in.
  • They come with detailed and specific documentation both for users and developers.
  • You can access community support from others using the same solution as you are.
  • Rather than being stuck with a one-off product that only the individual site builder or company is familiar with, you as an organization get something that multiple developers and shops can work with and understand.
  • You're on an update path and can look forward to getting future updates that have already been tested, with update issues addressed for you.

If these benefits sound familiar, they should. They're all the key reasons why you'd choose Drupal and open source in the first place.

"There's a module for that," Drupal users are often heard saying. Meaning, rather than start from scratch, why not look around and pick an existing module that fits the bill? True, it might not do absolutely everything you want exactly the way you want it to. But with a bit of evaluation you're likely to find a module that's going to save you a ton of time, and probably be better than what you'd throw together yourself.

Ditto with design. Relatively few themers start from scratch. Instead, they choose one of the many available base themes and use that as a huge leg up in building their own theme. In turn, site builders help improve the modules and themes they use. The result saves time and money all around.

But, when it comes to building a new Drupal site, most developers still start pretty much at zero. They download Drupal core, select numerous custom modules, and start into the time consuming work of building out content types, fields, views, panels pages, and the rest, along with whatever custom coding is needed. Or, at best, they use their own private, in-house startup scripts or features.

People, we can do better than that!

Distributions are the next obvious step in Drupal evolution. There are now dozens of distributions meeting many or most of the major Drupal site use cases--see the distributions hosted on drupal.org and distribution documentation. In some cases there's an embarrassment of riches, with three or more distros to choose from.

The current redesign of the flagship groups.drupal.org site is a case in point. Drupal Groups was originally developed as a custom site. For the Drupal 7 update, rather than continue custom development, the developers decided to switch to a distribution and chose the groups-focused Drupal Commons distro. The discussion offers a good example of reasons to build off a distro and also how to evaluate available distros and make a good choice.

Got a site to build? Chances are, there's a distribution for that. Give it a try. If building off a distro is right for sites like groups.drupal.org, isn't it a good option to consider for your next project too?