How to Build a Web Site with Drupal: Experiences of a New User

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How to Build a Web Site with Drupal

This review describes the use of Drupal to develop a web site by an intermediate user with no prior knowledge of PHP and mySQL. The content requirements for the web site under development were a blog publishing news items and opinion pieces, static content providing biographical details, a CV and an on-line bookshop. These were to be complemented by news feeds, links to external sites and providing an RSS feed derived from the central blog.

The starting point is the look and feel of the site. This is handled within Drupal by themes. Themes may be sourced from one of three places: a core set are packaged with the main Drupal installation; a range of third party themes may be downloaded from the web, some of which are free, others require payment; finally, bespoke themes can be developed but these require some detailed technical knowledge.

For this development, it was not possible to develop a bespoke theme, and a core theme was deemed to be inadequate to provide a distinct identity for the site. Therefore the Marinelli theme was identified on the web, downloaded and installed. A degree of individuality was achieved by incorporation of bespoke images into the heading.

The principal content was incorporated into the site using the blog module. This provided a facility to easily add news items to the site. The news items are organised into date order and incorporated into an automated RSS news feed. The larger opinion pieces were incorporated as story items. These also appeared on the main page, and provide facilities for users to feedback. A bespoke menu was created to provide access from the main page and distinguish these opinion items from the news items. In addition, the latest story was placed at the top of the list of blog items using the Drupal sticky facility.

A secondary links menu was used to provide access to the static content. This was created as a mixture of HTML pages and an acrobat file for the CV. An additional menu was created to provide links to external resources. Finally, a number of RSS feeds were added to provide dynamic news feeds.


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How good is Drupal?

The context of this review is an intermediate user with no prior knowledge of PHP and mySQL. This kind of user is not going to use many of Drupal’s advanced features. Just as important as Drupal’s features are its usability. Drupal’s feature set is very comprehensive. Its open-source nature has led to a wide range of add-ons available from the Internet. However, the language of much of the documentation may be inaccessible to less knowledgeable users.

Ease of use (3 out of 5)

The Drupal themes are relatively easy to access, download and install. However, users without detailed knowledge may find it difficult to tailor them to their requirements.

The Drupal system provides easy to use facilities to create content items and to add RSS news feeds. The facilities to add HTML pages are less well integrated. It is important to select the appropriate input mode otherwise Drupal will ignore HTML features such as images.

Standards compliance and accessibility (4 out of 5)

In general, Drupal provides excellent separation of content and structure, the developed web page validating both as XHTML 1.0 strict and CSS 2.1. However, the static HTML facilities encourage the casual developer to incorporate structure as inline tags into the HTML.

Managing your site (4 out of 5)

In terms of user management, Drupal provides extensive and easy to use menu based facilities. The constraints of installation on a third party server can limit some Drupal management functions. The server on which this was hosted originally did not allow the cron.php file to run to provide essential maintenance. Drupal provides an add-on called poormanscron which allows it to function without cron.php. Less easy to work around is the inability to implement clean URLs. The path module appears to be only a partial solution.

Conclusions about building your web site in Drupal

Overall, Drupal is a highly effective development environment with many strengths. It has a comprehensive feature set. At the start, new users face a difficult task and although there is much documentation on-line it is rather inaccessible in terms of its language and assumed knowledge, compared with other open source applications eg the virtual learning environment Moodle. However, this seems worth persevering with in view of the facilities offered by this application.

The site discussed was migrated to a new ISP after about 12 months and the new provider was much more Drupal friendly. It would have significantly reduced the learning issues if I had started with this service provider.