Drupal 9 is Coming: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Yesterday at Drupal Europe, Drupal founder and lead developer Dries Buytaert gave a keynote that outlined the future for Drupal, specifically the release of Drupal 9, and how it impacts the lifespan of Drupal 7 and Drupal 8.

For the TL;DR crowd, the immediate future of Drupal is outlined in the snappy graphic above, and shared again below (thanks, Dries!).

The big takeaways are:

  • Drupal 9 will be released in 2020.
  • Drupal 7 end-of-life will be extended out to 2021, even though Drupal usually only supports one version back.
  • Drupal 7 and Drupal 8 will be end-of-life in 2021.

Wait… what? This proposed schedule breaks with tradition – Drupal has always supported one version back. And this schedule gives D8 users a single, short year to upgrade from Drupal 8 to Drupal 9.

So what now? Wait until 2021 to move your site off Drupal 7? Do two (possibly costly) upgrades in three years? Bail on Drupal entirely?

First and foremost, Don’t Panic.

Let’s explore each of the options in a little more detail to help inform your decision making process.

Upgrade from Drupal 7 to 9

When Drupal 8 became available, a lot of organizations using Drupal 6 opted to wait and bypass Drupal 7 entirely. The same is certainly an option for going from D7 to D9.

On the plus side, taking this route means that it’s business as usual until 2020, when you need to start planning your next steps in advance of 2021. Your contributed modules should still work and be actively maintained. Your custom code won’t have to be reworked to embrace Drupal 8 dependences like Symfony and the associated programming methodologies (yet).

Between now and then, you can still do a lot to make your site all it can be. We recommend taking a “Focused Fix” approach to your D7 work: rather than a wholesale rebuild, you can optimize your user experience where it has the most business impact. You can scrub your content, taking a hard look at what is relevant and what you no longer need. You can also add smaller, considered new features when and if it makes sense. And savvy developers can help you pick and choose contributed solutions that have a known upgrade path to Drupal 8 already.

But it isn’t all roses. Delaying potential problems in updating from 7 to 8 doesn’t make those problems go away. Drupal 9 will still require the same sort of rework and investment that Drupal 8 does. It is built on the same underlying frameworks as Drupal 8. And Drupal is still going to push out some updates to Drupal 7 up until its end-of-life, most notably requiring a more modern version of PHP. Changes like this will definitely affect both community-driven modules and any custom code you may have as well.

Upgrade from Drupal 7 to 8 to 9

 

“Ginger Rogers did everything [Fred Astaire] did, backwards and in high heels.”

— Bob Thaves

 

Colloquially, the most efficient way to get from Point A to Point B is a straight line. Major versions of a platform are effectively a line. In this case, you can think of that “straight line” as going from D7 to D8 to D9, instead of trying to go around D8 entirely.

It’s critically important to understand one unique feature of Drupal 9: It is designed from the ground up to be backwards compatible with Drupal 8.

Angie Byron, a.k.a. Webchick, gave an excellent talk about what this really means at BADCamp last year.

Again for the TL;DRs — “backwards compatibility” means that code is deprecated and ultimately removed  from a code base over time in a way that provides a lot of scaffolding and developer notice. This practice results in major version upgrades that require very little rework for the site to stay functional.

The backwards compatible philosophy means that the hard work you do upgrading to Drupal 8 now will still be relevant in Drupal 9. It won’t be two massive upgrades in three years. As long as your Drupal 8 site is up to date and working properly, D9 should not bring any ugly surprises.

Let’s talk community code

When Drupal 8 was released, one of the BIGGEST hurdles the community faced (and continues to face) was getting contributed modules working with the new version. It required ground-up rewrites of… well… pretty much everything. A lot of modules that people were using as “basics” in Drupal 7 were folded into Drupal 8 core. But a number were not, and people volunteering their time were understandably slow to bring their contributed code over to Drupal 8. As a result, many sites were hesitant or unable to upgrade, because so much work would have to be customized to get them to same place the were on Drupal 7.

So will it be the same story going from Drupal 8 to Drupal 9? Will we have to wait years, in some cases, for our business-critical tools to be updated?

According to Dries’ post, the answer is no. Drupal is extending the backwards-compatible philosophy to the contrib space as well.

 

… we will also make it possible for contributed modules to be compatible with Drupal 8 and Drupal 9 at the same time. As long as contributed modules do not use deprecated APIs, they should work with Drupal 9 while still being compatible with Drupal 8.

— Dries Buytaert

 

Assuming  this plays out as intended, we shouldn’t see the same dearth of contrib support that we did when Drupal 8 became a reality.

And yes. There are a lot of assumptions here. This is Drupal’s first pass at a backwards-compatible upgrade methodology. There is inherent risk that it won’t work flawlessly. All we can say for sure is that the community is very hard at work getting to a reliable release schedule. A thoughtful upgrade approach should make the “Drupal Burn” associated with major version upgrades a thing of the past.

So which way should I go?

So which approach is best? For starters, think about whether an upgrade benefits you in the immediate term. Read a little about Drupal 8, audit your site with our website checklist, and if you still aren’t sure, you can start with our quiz.

If all of this feels overwhelming, contact us. Kanopi Studios is known for its great support (if you choose to stay on D7), as well as great design and build execution (if you choose to go to D8). Whichever way you choose, we’ve got you covered.

Katherine White, Director of Engineering
Katherine White

Katherine is a Solutions Architect with a proven track record spanning 15 years of client-facing technology leadership, strategy and development team management. As an experienced cross-functional team leader and full-stack web developer, she guides project teams while serving as a solutions focused trusted client partner.

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