A DrupalCon Austin Roundup from the Eyes of a NUAMPS Developer

I just returned on Friday from DrupalCon Austin 2014, overloaded with new tools to test out, new development techniques to employ, and a wealth of new knowledge concerning the upcoming release of Drupal 8. So, now that it’s over, I’ve shared my thoughts and observations on the event below, broken up by the sessions I attended:


Day 1

The DriesNote

DriesNote 2014

Dries Buytaert’s Keynote Presentation (Photo credit goes to Acquia)

The conference began with Dries Buytaert, founding developer of Drupal, opening with his keynote presentation (commonly referred to as the DriesNote) on “The State of Drupal” . In this State of the Union style presentation, Dries discussed the current progress of the Drupal 8 platform, and called upon the Drupal community to get more actively involved in the testing, issue reporting and patching of the new release.

Dries also made a point to identify some of the key features in Drupal 8 and how they will align with current web trends like semantic data, platform-agnostic presentation models and public-facing APIs. This presentation set the tone for the rest of the conference, which placed a great deal of focus on the technologies Dries had identified and continued to push for further involvement from the Drupal community.

The Drupal 8 Entity API

Next, I got a deep dive presentation into the new Drupal 8 Entity API and the changes brought about by the integration of the Symphony framework. This was a promising look at the handling of entities in Drupal 8, and left me feeling a lot better about ditching the node model. With great enhancements like properties as fields, a REST-based validation API, the simplified Entity Field Query, the new Typed Data API and the storage of configurations as entities, Drupal 8 is turning out to be more than just a small upgrade from the former Drupal 7 Entity API.

Semantic Site Architecture

Following the tone of Dries’ keynote, Jody Lynn, CTO of Zivtech, gave a great presentation on translating the trends of semantic web into user experience by using semantically suggestive language in our development and front-end naming conventions. By titling concepts somewhat generically, in terms that align with commonly used semantic vocabulary, we can suggest intent to users and other developers without convoluting the UX with terms used only internally. This is a crime that developers are notorious for, and one which is easily avoidable with a bit of research and planning. For this purpose, Jody stressed the importance of creating an Architecture Plan template before starting any Drupal project.

Getting More out of your Logs: Logstash and Graylog2

Howard Tyson, VP of Engineering for Zivtech, presented in the DevOps track on a commonly overlooked problem: the logging jungle. Tyson presented an aggregated logging solution using Logstash, Graylog2 and ElasticSearch which provides developers with the ability to browse logs using a faceted search tool which sits on top of a Lucene search server. This model seemed to make the process of multi-tailing log files through the terminal feel archaic and obsolete, and is certainly something the NUAMPS development team will have to look at employing internally.

Status of Migrate in 8

With the Migrate module becoming a part of core in Drupal 8, I figured it would be good to check out a session on migration presented by Mike Ryan, the primary maintainer of migrate. From what I saw in this session, not quite all of migrate is ready to be part of core – at least in Drupal v8.0. While D6 to D8 migration is already in core, D7 to D8 migration support is still listed as a stretch goal, so there’s certainly a chance that elements of migrate will remain in contrib until a later release. Luckily, D7 still has plenty of life left in it, leaving the migrate dev team a bit more time to polish these tools for core integration.

A short demo followed right after the presentation previewing the new D8 Migrate UI. Using the new migrate upgrade UI, Mike was able to fill out a simple form pointing to the old database, URL and files folder and instantly populate his D8 site with the content and configuration of all D6 core modules (and even a few contrib modules). While this was by no means a perfect migration, I was fairly impressed at the new tool’s simplicity and the ease of use. Granted, not all migrations will be so simple (especially when involving contrib modules), but by using tools like Migrate Plus framework, mapping more complicated sites will be possible. Hopefully this simplicity can be carried over to the D7 migration tool as well.

Major version upgrades have always been a holdup for Drupal in enterprise and commercial systems, so it will be interesting to see how this new migration tool shifts how people view Drupal for long-term support.


Day 2

Keynote: Erynn Petersen

Erynn Peterson's Keynote Presentation at DrupalCon

Erynn Peterson’s Keynote Presentation (Photo Credit goes to Sandra M. Chung @sandramchung)

Erynn Peterson, VP of Strategic Mobile Development at Time Inc., kicked off day 2 with a great big callout to the elephant in the room: diversity in the tech industry. Erynn presented a series of statistics on ethnic and gender diversity studies identifying the clear need of a more diverse IT world. Interestingly enough, the Drupal community outperformed most other areas of IT in both gender and ethnic representation, though still fell short of an ideal balance.

BOF: Drupal in Libraries

One thing I’ve learned from attending many development conferences is that BOF (birds of a feather) sessions should never be underestimated, and Drupal in Libraries was no exception. In a small forum room, around 30 librarians and developers for libraries gathered to discuss the use of Drupal for library systems and even within digital humanities.

Primarily, this group consisted of people in higher education, so the discussions here really tied in with a lot of the work NUAMPS is doing. Some of the bigger topics discussed here include authentication with enterprise systems, avoiding content duplication when working with enterprise systems, exposing APIs with SPARQL, and building communities around resource/publication sharing.

Config Commands, a Boris Shell, Views Support, and Other New Features in Drush 7

Just 4 days prior to DrupalCon Austin 2014, the Drush team pushed out a new release of the popular Drupal command line tool – Drush 7. Moshe Weitzman, Drush’s primary maintainer, gave a great presentation showing the DevOps community what’s available in this new version. This walkthrough showed a lot of powerful new configuration management tools for Drush and left me feeling a lot more confident in Drush as a deployment tool.

BOF: Drupal for Education Applications

In my second BOF of the day, we discussed how Drupal is being used within educational applications, and how to increase adoptions rates amongst educational faculty. A lot of this session focused on training and documentation, as these tend to be big pain points in custom-built academic software. The biggest highlight here was the introduction of WalkHub, a community built walkthrough repository and framework.

WalkHub allows developers to record a set of actions on a website as Selenium actions which can each be annotated, and then the whole walkthrough can be replayed as a live overlay on a website which can provide contextual help and tutorials. The best part is that there’s already a Drupal module available for this. A tool like this can massively decrease the burden of writing tutorials, while at the same time making the tutorial experience much simpler for end users.

Dear EdTech, ELMSLN is Here and it Wants to Replace Your Vendors

Staying inline with my trend towards presentations for higher education, I decided to take a look at ELMSLN, a Drupal-based LMS packed as a distribution by Penn State. I had taken a look at ELMS several years ago, but that was back when it was a single distribution. In his presentation at DrupalCon 2014 however, Bryan Ollendyke, the lead developer of ELMSLN, presented ELMSLN in a whole new light.

ELMSLN has been broken down into a series of multisite distributions which can be deployed all together or independently of each other depending on user needs. Penn State has also put a lot of work into improving the design and UX while giving ELMSLN a major face lift – a significantly simpler interface than I had been shown about 3 years prior. This product will definitely be something to watch over the next year or so in the educational Drupal community as the D8 shift occurs.


Day 3

Keynote: Hugh Forrest

For the final keynote speaker at DrupalCon, they brought in SXSW (South by Southwest) Director and former “Austinite of the Year,” Hugh Forrest to address the community. Hugh talked about his experiences coordinating the SXSW conference, and how DrupalCon reflected a similar creative presence. While Hugh did not address Drupal-specific topics, he pointed the community’s attention to 10 of his “Rock Star Directives” which help build a successful creative community. Hugh also took a brief moment to address political controversies surrounding net neutrality, immigration and diversity and their potential effects on the IT industry over the next few years.

Scaling Drupal for Higher-Ed Institutions

Four Ivy League schools put together a panel discussion featuring Drupalists from Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Stanford University and Yale University to discuss implementation and scaling of Drupal as a CMS for higher education. This session focused mostly on organizational strategy, and establishing a plan for implementing Drupal as a primary CMS in a university setting. It was interesting hearing perspectives on this from other research universities like Northwestern University, but not quite so relevant to the niche and boutique Drupal development done here at NUAMPS.

BOF: Linked Data & RDF in Drupal

Continuing the trend of incredible BOF sessions, I headed over to Linked Data & RDF in Drupal for lunch. Little did I know, this session was being lead by Stéphane Corlosquet, primary maintainer of the RDF module and RDFx module and one of the biggest driving forces for semantic web in Drupal Core. Aside rom having some great discussions about RDF, SPARQL, Apache SOLR and semantic web, I got the opportunity to talk in depth with Stéphane about the future of RDF and SOLR within Drupal. Stéphane shared some great ideas with me regarding the unison of SOLR and RDF indexing, a concept which we can hoepfully begin to employ in our sites soon.

BOF: Drupal in K12 Education

Initially, the topic of Drupal in K-12 seemed like it was the wrong topic for a developer at a university, but a short chat with Shane Thomas of Codekarate.com the evening before had changed my mind. Shane, and his company STEM Fuse, work with K-12 institutions to implement shared curriculums and lesson plans in Drupal. Shane, alongside Adam Learing of STEM Fuse, led a discussion on the use of Drupal as a learning platform, as well as Drupal as a tool for teaching K-12 students about web publishing. Using Drupal as a means to teach basic web publishing posed an interesting idea, as we have taken a similar approach in the digital humanities at Northwestern using WordPress.

Closing Session

DrupalCon Closing Session (Photo credit goes to Jeffrey A. McGuire @HornCologne)

DrupalCon closed with a short session announcing Los Angeles as the location for DrupalCon 2015, and providing some statistics on DrupalCon Austin 2014:

  • This was the largest DrupaCon to date (34,443 attendees)
  • On average, there were 42,000 active internet sessions at any given time
  • DrupalCon attendees consumed 805 Gallons of Coffee over the three day period


In Summary

DrupalCon Austin was an amazing experience, and I learned a lot of great new development techniques and organizational concepts. My big takeaways from this are primarily in the areas of semantic web / linked data, DevOps, user experience, and Drupal 8. I’m excited to get started integrating what I’ve learned in Austin into the NUAMPS development process.

While Drupal 8 is not yet ready to be deployed on our production sites, we will be watching it closely over the next year as we prepare for the world of change it’s release will bring. It will be interesting to see if the community building that occurred at DrupalCon carries out throughout the year and helps expedite the release of D8.