Lessons learned from my first Drupal 8 projects

During last month’s SCDUG I gave two presentations. I’ve already posted the Sins Against Drupal talk I gave. That didn’t take up much time, and since I had been prepping some thoughts on the first few Drupal 8 projects I gave a second short talk on what I’ve learned working with Drupal 8 during its first year.


What Projects?

Cyberwoven launched three Drupal 8 sites during the early fall of this year:

AllSouth was our first Drupal 8 site, and was actually started as a Drupal 8.0 site, and was updated to 8.1 before launch and 8.2 post launch. As a credit union AllSouth had a number of regulatory concerns that meant we had to flex a few extra muscles along the way.

Valuant is a fairly simple site that is representative of lots of standard projects.

Cyberwoven’s new site is a headless site powered by Drupal and Angular.

What’s not new?

Drupal 8 brings forward lots of concepts from Drupal 7 (and prior versions). It also brings forward a few standard community realities.

The information architecture tools are basically the same at least at the conceptual level. Nodes, Fields, Taxonomy, and Menus all still exist more or less as we’ve known them for years, and while there are differences on the surface those differences are incremental in nature and scope.

We also still have the constant hunt for modules that do what you’re doing so you don’t reinvent the wheel. Many modules that people are used to using are still missing, but new things arrive daily, and many of the new versions are significant improvements over previous generations of tools.

And there is still a lack of a clear line between front-end and back-end. When does business logic end and interface begin? When does a themer need to understand Drupal’s HTML generation vs when does a backend developer need to figure out how to force Drupal to generate carefully crafted markup?  There are opportunities to form better and clearer lines, but they aren’t automatic by any means: every team will have to solve this problem their own way.

What’s so great?

Drupal 8 opens up a collection of new tools and opportunities for the community.

  • As a backend developer you get to write modern code. The name spacing can feel a little Java-esc at times, but the ability to properly name space code, ditch globals, move from hooks to event listeners, and other basic OOP tools is incredibly nice.
  • With CKEditor in core we get better integration between that interface and the rest of Drupal. And better modules are coming out all the time to solve long standing UX annoyances. For example with the D8 Editor File upload module files and images can both be handled as Drupal file objects, but the editor can know the difference between a file (which should just be a link) and an image (which you should display).
  • The Symfony community provides a large number of packages that provide 3rd party integrations, or the tools to make them easy to build.
  • The two core base themes do not require keelhauling to make viable. If you commonly built your themes from scratch, the ability to have clean default markup that’s easy to override makes both Stable and Classy a major improvement to life.

Things you need to survive

As you dive into your first projects you need to understand that much of what you know at the detail level has changed.  And so you’ll need to learn a few new tricks and be willing to toss aside a few old ideas:

Your old build standards are wrong. Probably not entirely, but you’ll need new modules in your default builds, new best practices about when to use a node vs block vs custom entities, and other basic details you probably have really well develop standards (or at least habits) from years of working with Drupal.

If you’ve been avoiding it to-date, it’s time to develop an understanding about composer, drush, and Drupal consoleNot only do you need to be using these tools (probably all three) but you need to understand what each provides and which tool is best for which job.

Nginx is not for the faint of heart: as best I can find, no one has published a complete setup guide yet. In Drupal 6 and 7 there were pretty good guides to setting up Nginx properly, but with Drupal 8 there are enough differences that those guides don’t really work. And all the guides that I have read so far include errors (some of them significant security mistakes). To be clear, it can be done, but if you want to do it yourself be prepared to do a great deal of extra research along the way.

If you have windows you have pain. There are a number of windows specific challenges (speed and NTFS weakness being the biggest we face), and there is little community support to help you overcome the challenges.

Core patches tend to be required. Unlike Drupal 7, core and module patching is the norm not the exception. There are several issues that are frustratingly slow to get fixed that hit some fairly common use cases (like this menu block bug). While this is improving all the time, we haven’t launched a D8 site without at least one patch in place.

Cache tags are great, but require learning. The new caching system is powerful, flexible, and totally different from what we had before.  It’s better, but to use it well you’ll need to spend some time getting to know when to set and clear the tags you want to create.

Twig is great, but requires learning and discipline. I really like twig and the much cleaner syntax to brings to the theme layer.  However, as more and more people use it they are finding ways to move increasingly complex logic out of modules and theme PHP into template files. Please fight this urge! Keep your business logic separate from your display logic. If some object wasn’t loaded into a variable in your twig file do not attempt to load it in twig. If you need some 4 or 5 layer selector to get to the value you want to print: fix that in a preprocess function.

The API improvements are coming all the time and make things interesting. So far the community has stayed on schedule of rolling out new minor versions of 8 and that’s meant great new features in each version. It has also meant that sometimes a solution you built is not using the best techniques given the improvements.  That’s not really a problem, but can add headaches in maintenance cycles. Also you will find places where brand new D8 tools are already deprecated but the replacements don’t have good example implementations yet.

XML to JSON in Five lines

In closing I want to share the feature that caused me to realize that Symfony was worth the cost of admission: a 5 line XML to JSON AJAX callback.

AllSouth has an ATM Locator that links to a data provider to find all ATMs nationwide that AllSouth customers can access.  That provider has an XML-base API that cannot be accessed directly from browsers, and therefore needed to be proxied through the main site. The full details involve more than just the following lines of code (providing input checking, settings, routing, etc), but the heart of the process is just five lines.

    $client = new Client(); // 1: Create Guzzle Client
    try{
      $res = $client->get($config->get('api_endpoint'), // 2: Make request
            [
              'http_errors'=>false,
              'query' => [
                 'key'=>$config->get('coop_api_key'),
                     // ...
               ],
            ]);
      $decoderRing = new XmlEncoder(); // 3: Create XML Encoder
      $xml = $decoderRing->decode($res->getBody()); // 4: Decode the XML Response into an array. 
      return new JsonResponse($xml); // 5: Return the array as JSON
    } catch (RequestException $e) {
      throw new HttpException($this->t('Unable to process request'));
    }

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