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Drupal 8: we're outta here

Nigel Morris-Co...

When Drupal 8 was first announced, I installed it and within a couple of hours had given up with it. It was clunky, many of the modules I relied on were not available and may never be but, most of all, it was clear that if I wanted it to do what I wanted it to do I was going to have to relearn programming - which is exactly why we moved to Drupal: I can make Drupal 7 do what I want with minimal digging around under the covers. Three years and many releases later, as the threat of Drupal 7 reaching end of life becomes real, and in the light of some big complex sites we are building, it was time to review D8's progress. I don't just not like it, I actively detest it. And with one press of the delete key acting on the server, I'm free of it.

"The server has encountered an unexpected error," it says. Over and over and over again. Add a module and install it, that's what it says. Run the update script and that's what it says.

Now, after two days of, literally, giving myself headaches and still not able to make it do as I want, it's Goodbye to what was trumpeted as the next big generation of previously brilliant CMS.

The thing is, that problem has been reported in support fora and discussion groups over and over and over again for at least two years but it's still happening, no matter what 8.x version people are running. As one correspondent put it (this isn't verbatim) "Drupal users use Drupal so they don't need to be programmers." That's the point: we moved all of our websites from another large, complex, CMS simply because we couldn't run it without a bank of techies and most of the techies we found were unreliable or failed to work to the brief. With Drupal, and a couple of external tools, I, me, a lawyer by trade and a chap who happens to know a bit about financial crime compliance and risk management, can build and maintain large, stable websites in my spare time and that is largely due to the simplicity of the system which treats me like a human not a part of the machine.

Drupal 8 is an enormous philosophical shift: it's an autocratic system that makes decisions and just ploughs on, the same course, even when it's patently wrong. Shit, it could run Europe. "You don't like it, well tough, we're going to do it more, and harder." It's the Stalin of CMSs.

Some changes from D7 have been forced on it by bad decisions. For example, in D7, when a document is created, there's a menu at the bottom, on the left, for all the admin stuff that relates to that page. What is in the menu is determined by the settings for that document, or "content" type. It's logical, it's easy and it's unobtrusive. In D8, that menu is on the right of the document creation page, forced there by the bad decision to have a large slide-out menu on the left side of the screen. That's there out of the box. It can be moved but finding out how to do that is a major exercise.

Pages are, as before, made up out of blocks but the blocks management system is far too complex and there is no function to put blocks in a kind of reserve to be picked up later. If you don't like the blocks that D8 has put there, you have to delete them. At least, that's all I could find out to do with them.

The modules page, now called "extend" to match the bizarre terminology adopted by the Drupal website, has lost one of the hugely useful functions of the same page in D7. Now, to find out about a modules dependencies, instead of there being one glance, it's necessary to click on the description and then a slider opens. Why? The only improvement needed from D7 was to make sure that names of missing modules were the same as the name on the Drupal website rather than the short name as shown on the installed, user's, site. This is what happens when techies become too techy instead of thinking of their market.

I created a page and told it to be promoted to the front page of the site. So, when one enters the address, that page should be there. But no, it isn't. Instead clicking on the "home" link goes to a search page. I've no idea why and I can't be bothered to try to find out. I'd already been driven to distraction by the default blocks that filled the page up with stuff, including a link to a contact form that I didn't want because we have our own, and either couldn't remove or couldn't find to remove.

Some might say that it's just a learning curve but it was more of a drop from a cliff. Some forward motion but mostly down.

We have several sites that we would have migrated to D8, if it worked without falling over and, here's the sad part for the company that develops it, in the case of this big, complex, site we would have asked them to quote to undertake the big job. It's too big for me and if I have to get someone to do it, I might as well get the people that built both versions to do it so it gets done right.

But we can't because many of the modules we use either won't install properly (like Pathauto for which all the controls are missing) or have not been produced beyond an alpha or, at best, beta version for D8, if they have been produced at all. The absolutely essential Rules module, upon which many of our functions depend, isn't ready.

In D7, one of the most useful features (not because it was particularly good but because it saved loads of time in an admin and editorial context) was overlay. That's been abandoned in D8 and there isn't a "home" button on the hideous and, so far as I can find uneditable top menu. There is a "back to site" link but it doesn't go to the front page which is where, mostly, I need to go. Yes, they would say, there are breadcrumbs but I don't want breadcrumbs - they clutter up my pages.

I think the point where I lost faith in D8 came shortly after installation: the system has a predilection for American format dates. In D7, a simple pick list allowed me to change that in a few seconds, choosing a variety of styles to follow the English format. Aside from the fact that I chafe at the bit every time I see the racist UTC (part of the world's determination to exclude British stuff wherever it can be found) the only way to modify the dates now is to modify a PHP code. It's not difficult but it does require a change in thought processes: instead of three seconds, it took two minutes. But that wasn't the thing that really annoyed me: there is a "fall back format" which is set to American format and cannot be changed, at least not from that page. No doubt it can if I dig around in a code file, if I can find out which one. That was a big black tick, something to come back to later if the rest of the trial was a success. It wasn't, I haven't.

The bottom line is this: D8 is not an upgrade from D7, it's almost an entirely different product with an entirely different ethos. It's like asking a cyclist to ride a camel because you sit on both of them. After two days of frustration, misery and anger, I've had enough. I've got work to do and buggering about with software that, historically, has worked out of the box and met my needs and, in most cases, my wants, Drupal 8 has gone. Life's too short. The next big project, like PleaseBeInformed will be on D7.

There's already a movement to keep D7 and its modules alive after it reaches end of life. Meanwhile, those behind the project have already begun developing D9. Perhaps they should have a fundamental rethink about their priorities before going much further. And perhaps they should remember that the reason Drupal has been so successful is that those of us on this side of the screen really didn't need to be programmers and that was why we chose it. We can tinker with it and make incremental improvements to what we make it do and that, for many, is the extent of the technical involvement we want. Oh, and we want to find things and not have to deal with oddball names.

And so, the delete key was my friend. Now I fully understand its power, I wonder if it works on the Trivago ads on TV.

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