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Drupal 8: Towards a postmortem

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November 16, 2021
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As Drupal 8 entered its last months of life, I found myself reflecting. What did version 8 mean for the project? What was lost? What was gained? What were the roads not taken? To try to puzzle out at least some preliminary answers, I read up on what others had shared and spent some time with various sources--Drupal core and contrib code bases, usage statistics, old conference presentations, release announcements and more. I started the exercise motivated by personal interest but now that I've wrapped it up I figure I may as well share my observations in case they're of interest to others.

There've been insightful one-off posts addressing such questions. Often these are reflections on problems with Drupal 8, sometimes coming from people partly or completely moving on from the project. One such was "Lessons Learned From The Stall of Drupal" by Matt Farina, which reads like an exit survey turned in by an exceptionally perceptive and frank respondent.

I wanted to take a deeper pass.

Version 8 of Drupal brought with it by far the most sweeping changes in the twenty year history of the software project. The broad outlines of the shift were discernible as early as 2011 when, in his DrupalCon Chicago keynote address, project lead/"Benevolent Dictator for Life" Dries Buytaert said that, based on consulting some twenty of the largest companies and organizations using Drupal about their pain points, he'd derived core "initiatives" for Drupal 8 - among them the Configuration Management Initiative (CMI) - designed to fix "the pains of large organizations adopting Drupal." Drupal would be fundamentally rewritten to suit the priorities and requirements of enterprise-level users.

Now Drupal 8 has reached end of life (EOL). Not only that, but unlike for prior versions there are no plans to offer commercial security support for Drupal 8. The contrast with Drupal 7, the previous major version, couldn't be more striking. Drupal 7 will be officially supported for a full year after Drupal 8's EOL, while "Vendor Extended Support" for Drupal 7 will be available for an additional three years beyond that, if not longer. When Drupal 8 reached EOL, there were still many more sites out there running Drupal 7 than Drupal 8 and 9 put together. For added symbolic weight, one of those sites still on Drupal 7 is drupal.org itself.

For all the announcements and initiatives that went into Drupal 8, there's been notably little in the way of qualitative or quantitative evaluation, at least in public. Various aims were announced and strategies pursued. Were the objectives achieved? If so, did they have the desired effects?

I was one of several people who raised concerns and flagged issues early on in the Drupal 8 cycle. One motivation in a retrospective was to see: to what extent were our various concerns validated by the process as it played out? To what extent, conversely, was the project able to avoid such issues, or to successfully address them when they arose?

But I had more immediate concerns as well. I've been "doing Drupal" for over 18 years. In many ways I've loved being part of the project. It's shaped my career, enabled me to work part time at home while my kids were young, allowed me to collaborate with organizations whose missions I deeply believe in, and brought me into contact with many interesting people. Early on I made contributions to core systems, some of which - the theme region system, the JavaScript behaviours system - are still around in some form. Over the years I've written or contributed to an embarrassingly long list of modules--embarrassing because the sheer number suggests a tendency to dabble with a problem before moving on to a new interest. But from the start there have been aspects of the project that didn't sit well with me. Now I'm in my fifties. Like many others before me, I'm taking a long look at whether this is still a project I want to be part of. Debriefing Drupal 8 is part of asking, is it time at last to move on? And if not, what exactly do I still want to do in and with the project?

As well as all that, I believe in the value of critique. A project is stronger for having members asking questions and pursuing diverse, even - or especially - unorthodox directions.

Beyond esoteric concerns of a particular software project, the story of Drupal 8 brings in issues of wider concern: voluntarism, conditions of employment, authority, technology and society, corporate influence, the potentials and pitfalls of collective endeavour.

A final motivation was pure curiosity. I found myself following up arcane tangents, exploring puzzling quirks I'd long meant to look into but had never found the time, pursuing answers that brought only further questions, surfacing results that at times felt novel and intriguing, even startling.

In a series of upcoming posts I'll share what I found. These are, of course, just my own reflections. Others will have different experiences, observations, questions, perspectives, insights.

You can't say very much, critical or otherwise, about a project without mentioning at least some initiatives, participants, or groups and things they've done or said. Just in case, I'll say in advance that my interest is the project as a whole; none of what I'm sharing is intended as personal criticism of any participant or contributor. If anyone has concerns or other feedback I'm very open to hearing about it and people may contact me via my drupal.org contact form (requires being logged in to drupal.org).

As a starting place, I'll look at some curious quirks in Drupal usage stats and implications for understanding Drupal 8+ adoption.