Should I upgrade my web site to Drupal 8... at all?

There has been heated discussion in the Drupal community about the future of Drupal 8. In this article, my Friends and Clients, I would like to explain my take in simple, non-technical terms.

As a small business, should you upgrade to Drupal 8 at all?

This article is mostly for small businesses and personal websites, as well as small Drupal shops and freelancers.

What’s the big noise about Drupal 8?

So what’s all this big noise about Drupal 8? Drupal 8 will be a big game changer. Big really means big. Some changes will not necessarily be good for everyone in the Drupal market.

Drupal’s top developers - especially Dries Buytaert - decided that Drupal 8 should aim for a certain paradigm. Namely, there are two things that you might have heard:

  1. Drupal should have a bigger enterprise market share.
  2. Drupal should conform to industry best practices.

These two things sound quite good. Every tool should aspire to be useful and up to date.

There are, however, some very good Drupal developers that are concerned with both of these ideas. The topic of discussion is whether Drupal 8 will be a desirable CMS outside of the enterprise section.

What are the good and bad of Drupal aiming towards the enterprise market share?

This is a marketing question. You as client, you need to realize the two things.

First, Drupal is dependant on the enterprise investments heavily.

It grows not only because separate developers input into it’s code base, but also in big part because larger enterprises sponsor writing some large and powerful modules, and dedicate their developers to do so. If you browse the modules on Drupal.org, you will see, that most of the most powerful and frequently used modules have one or more enterprise sponsors. Drupal grows thanks to enterprise investments, largely.

The good of this is that we actually get classy professional tools, well written, well architectured, and secure, all for free. Drupal 8, as I have already said, is like a modern luxurious magnetic train.

Now, the bad is that this process will likely cut off the low-profile Drupal segment. Sure, Drupal is free, but the new set of tools has an even steeper learning curve, and that will spell a higher cost of development and support.

Second, Drupal’s success has brought it’s foremost developers up into the enterprise market.

As large companies like MTV and CNN, and Mattel have switched to Drupal, main Drupal developers companies have themselves become successful enterprise market players. They believe, that if they reorient Drupal towards the enterprise segment, and make it more industry-savvy, they will be able to occupy even larger enterprise market share. And they are right.

Here, the good and the bad, depends wholly on who you are - a small business or a larger enterprise business. If you can afford a better and a more intricate site, then it's better for you. If, on the other hand, you have been relying on semi-professional inexpensive developers in some garage to maintain your site, then it won't sound like good news.

What are the pros and cons of Drupal becoming more industry-savvy?

Now this question is quite simple. Modern programming has very little to do with your daughter’s boyfriend patching a pet website on a lap overnight all for a hundred bucks. Modern programming is a true science with it’s practices, rules, and patterns, and all. And a good modern programmer can be very, very expensive.

Now, different Content Management Systems (CMS) have all different learning curves. It has been widely accepted, that Wordpress is more user friendly, and has an easier learning curve, while Drupal is more technical, and has a steeper learning curve, but it’s also more flexible and powerful.

With Drupal 8, it will have an even steeper learning curve from the developer’s perspective, though it will likely remain the same from the administrator’s and user’s perspective. It will be not harder, but even, easier, to manage a website form it’s admin interface, but it will require much more skill and education to build it in a responsible, professional way. And that likely spells an increased cost of development and support.

What about the Backdrop CMS?

Two prominent Drupal developers, Nathan Haug and Jen Lampton, joined by some more good developers later, decided to create a branch of Drupal 8 on it's early stage, and develop it separately. The idea was to preserve a development environment, that would allow to keep the development and maintenance costs at the level of Drupal 7.

It has been some time since Backdrop CMS was announced, and now we can estimate its future. With the enterprise segment now strongly behind Drupal 8, and the majority of heavy developers behind Drupal 8 as well (because they are themselves are mostly enterprise-level developers), Backdrop seems to be an unlikely alternative successor of Drupal 7. Though, I frankly wish that it succeeds as an alternative to drupal 8, and I am very sympathetic towards both Nate and Jane, I don’t see Backdrop get enough traction and support, and most small businesses don’t yet seem to realize the implications and changes that Drupal 8 will bring along.

It's possible, however, that Backdrop will receive more and more attention, as the need in it becomes realized by devs and users.

What is the future for Drupal for the enterprise segment?

In my estimate, there is bright future for Drupal in it’s enterprise segment. It will very likely grab some more percents in the ‘tops’ segments of the websites market, and will be used more proficiently for enterprise and web-apps solutions.

What is the future for Drupal for the non-enterprise segment?

In my estimate, Drupal will strongly decrease it’s market share among the non-enterprise and the small businesses, due to two main factors, namely, the rise of development and maintenance cost, and the deficit of competent Drupal developers, which will initially also result in their high prices (which will also feedback to the increased development and maintenance cost).

How is current market reacting to Drupal 8?

The enterprise sector is reacting positively, anticipating, but the market in general is reacting negatively. Drupal CMS market share has dropped by 25% through the last year, falling from 7.2% in February 2013 down to 5.4% in February 2014. 25% market drop is a huge market drop rate per year. From my estimate, it comes from small businesses, who are rapidly migrating from Drupal, before it becomes too expensive.

This trend is supported by both the W3Techs and the Google Trends.

This does not mean, of course, that the drop will continue - most customers are waiting now. They are waiting to see, if indeed, Drupal 8 will be more expensive to develop and maintain, or not.

Should I upgrade my web site to Drupal 8 in the near future?

If you are a very small business, I recommend to wait and evaluate the market for Drupal in some two years from now.

I have a Drupal 6 site, what should I do?

You should upgrade to Drupal 7.

I have a Drupal 7 site, what should I do?

I don’t recommend upgrading to Drupal 8 in the near future. Drupal 7 support life span has still at least 4 years to go. By which time, it will be easier to clearly estimate, what spendings on Drupal 8 site building and maintenance will actually be, and how many developers will be available to service this market.

What should I do as a Drupal freelancer or small Drupal business?

If you are a freelancer, or a small Drupal business owner, it would be unwise to simply wait. You must evaluate and choose - either learn Symfony, OOP, and PSR, and all the other tools that you’ll need for Drupal 8, or seek to add a wider choice of CMS to your set of skills, like, Wordpress, TYPO3, and Magento. Or both.

If you know enough Drupal 8 technologies to be able to work with it, you should still consider joining a larger companies. If my prediction turns out correct, then there will be a wave of small businesses giving up Drupal and switching or other CMS. Some will stay with Drupal 6 or 7 for some time, but that won’t provide a sure client base for you. And as small businesses turn away from Drupal because of it’s increased development and support cost, small Drupal shops and businesses and freelancers will be out of work en masse, simply because the market will be switching to corporate.

Whether you are a user or a developer, the main thing for you is to realize the measure of the change, and prepare for it.