DrupalCon Amsterdam - A developer's view

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At the end of September, three of the Hydrant team attended the European DrupalCon in Amsterdam. I was lucky enough to attend the conference, and was joined by Leo White our MD, and Lewis Harper our Business Development Manager. We obviously all had different ideas about what we wanted to get out of the conference, but mine were firmly of a technical nature. A pleasanter-than-usual journey down the M6 to Manchester airport left us with a few hours to kill before the flight, and we spent most of this discussing what we expected the conference to cover, and what we wanted to achieve.

Why DrupalCon?

DrupalCon Amsterdam

I'll leave Leo and Lewis' comments for another post, but I really enjoyed the chance to reflect pre-conference on what I wanted to get out of it. My big items were:

  • Spend some time really getting to grips with Drupal 8 and what it means for our production team
  • See what new and interesting things people are doing with (or to!) Drupal
  • To see Drupal 8 hit beta (I thought not doing so would have caused significant "harm" to the community effort)

Did DrupalCon deliver?

I have to say that this year's DrupalCon seemed to be much more useful (to me) than last year's. I suspect most of this is down to alignment with the Drupal 8 release cycle. DrupalCon Prague in 2013 covered d8 extensively, but it all seemed to be a little early for anyone not heavily involved in work on d8 core. It was great to see what was coming, but too early for us to make much practical use of the changes.

DrupalCon Amsterdam saw Drupal 8 reach beta, and the call was put out for module developers far and wide to start porting their modules to d8. All the talk about d8 seems much more relevant this time around, and we were able to spend some real time working out how we can start to work with d8 (More on that later).

As ever there were some excellent talks from members of the Drupal Community, and the conference team did a great job recording sessions and getting them online quickly. We managed to share great presentations quickly with people who couldn't attend, and it also allowed a bit of catching up where there had been more than one sessions I wanted to attend in a given slot.

I pulled together the following list of videos that I felt were particularly relevant for our team. It should be noted that I'm a dev, rather than a builder or a themer, so this is code-heavy, and it's by no means definitive (I heard great things about many sessions I didn't personally attend).

  • CKEditor in Drupal 8
    • The admin interface in Drupal 8 is something we often spend time thinking about. Compared to some other systems Drupal's admin interface can sometimes be complex to set up, and clunky for client's to use. There are ways to improve that in Drupal 7, but Drupal 8 should have a much better out-of-the-box experience. Widgets in CKEditor also look like they will be a great tool for sites in the future.
  • Render caching in Drupal 7 and 8
    • There are some fairly well known approaches to making sure Drupal sites perform well, page caching and aggregation are built in, and Drupal plays nicely with Varnish meaning that you can get some really nice scalability without trying particularly hard. There are issues with those approaches though - they're not great if you have significant numbers of logged in users requiring personalised content. This talk covered the relatively unknown render_cache module for Drupal 7, which looks like a great solution for sites that need it. The talk also gave a great introduction to caching in Drupal 8 - making it an excellent blend of current and future practice.
  • Drupal 8 CMI on Managed Workflow
    • The configuration management system in Drupal 8 is something that's been talked about extensively over the past year or so. It aims to solve some of the problems Drupal development teams have with moving configuration (Much of which has traditionally lived in the site's database) between environments separate to site content. The CMI initiative looks really nicely polished. As well as the intended benefits it'll also be really interesting to see what other features people can build on top of CMI.
  • An Overview of the Drupal 8 Plugin System
    • A great introduction for developers looking to build Plugins for Drupal 8. I'd dabbled with Plugins after DrupalCon Prague last year, but it was great to see that many of the things that were in-flux a year ago had solidified. This talk covered everything you need to know - I flagged it a must-watch for all of our Drupal developers!
  • Field API is dead. Long live Entity Field API!
    • Another great post that covers much of what's changed in Drupal 8. This talk covered the problems that developers had interacting with entity's in Drupal 7, and how things have changed in d8. Again - this should be considered a must-watch for anyone looking to develop with d8.

Of course there were plenty of sessions for all skills - the Drupal Association YouTube channel has them all if you couldn't make it, want to re-live a particularly good session, or want to catch a session you missed.

Much has been made of Drupal's decision to make to re-using Symfony components, and the conference line up including a few Symfony-centric talks. My only disappointment at the Con was attending a few talks that were just about pure Symfony, with no Drupal relevance whatsoever. These seemed slightly out of place at DrupalCon, and I feel I could have used this time better - however that may well just be personal opinion?

Beyond the sessions

Of course, DrupalCon is about more than just the sessions themselves.

We spent some time catching up with people we know in and around the community, as well as meeting some new people. It was a great opportunity to chat with Drupal users, and agencies about what they're doing with Drupal.

I was really interested hearing about people using Drupal as a "headless" system as part of blended technology solutions. As a team we work with a bunch of other technologies such as Symfony, Laravel, and WordPress already and it's great to see the way people are using Drupal with other technologies to provide whole solutions.

I also took the opportunity to give d8 a thorough test, logging issues along the way, and started the process of moving some modules I maintain over to d8 - exciting!

So, what happens now?

We've kicked off a formal evaluation of Drupal 8 internally, and we've started tracking module development more closely so we can take an informed view on when to start building with Drupal 8 for production sites.

While we've done plenty of test installs over the past few months, but now is the time that we're really looking at what it means for our build processes, the impact on our in-house skills, and more interesting what possibilities it opens up for pushing the boundaries on future work.

We'll be porting modules that we maintain - feeding back as we go, setting our themers loose to play with Twig, and putting together our base Drupal 8 install profile.

A big thank you

DrupalCon really is a huge event (2,300 attendees this year) organised by the Drupal Association, so it's thanks to them for a great event, but also to all of the speakers & volunteers for giving up their time to share knowledge, help out, and make sure everything went smoothly. It's also thanks to the other attendees for sharing their knowledge experience and opinions.