Introduction to Drupal. Taming the beast!

Drupal is one the most popular content management systems out there at the moment. It is also considered as the one with the steepest learning curve.

How things can get with Drupal.

I experienced this first hand in 2016 as i set out to learn and master this CMS whilst on a tight deadline. I was fortunate enough to have a familiar face to give me a few pointers but the bulk of the things I know now I eventually picked up somewhere along that unkind curve.

In retrospect I realized that learning Drupal is made difficult not because Drupal itself is complicated (though it is compared to other CMSes) but because there are so many ways to go about doing the same thing. So much so that it’s not easy to get a definitive starter pack for beginners. As such, consider this post a starter pack for Drupal beginners.

Drupal 8 is the latest version of Drupal albeit some plugins and projects are still migrating to the latest version since it’s only 1 year and a few months old. Its worth noting that most of the things highlighted here are specific to Drupal 7, however since none of them are overly technical they should still apply to the latest version.

Where to start

Download your preferred version of the Drupal CMS here. Once you have it, set it up in your development environment and navigate to it on your browser to start installation. Follow onscreen instructions to complete the installation. Common problems face here are usually PHP extensions that haven’t been installed and a settings file that hasn’t been created or is not writable by the web server. Check this documentation for installation troubleshooting.

Understanding the lingo

The Drupal administration menu can be confusing at times. Here are a few pointers on what does what:

Content – this is where all the content that has been created can be found. All the content you create on Drupal is based on a model called a content type. So before creating content you must first create content types.

Structure – this is where content types, taxonomy, menus and views are managed. I won’t go into what those are but basically this section regulates what your content will be structured like and how it will be used on the site. First port of call for a new project will likely be content types.

Appearance – here you can edit existing themes or install new ones. Some themes have layout builders under this section.

Extend / Modules – here you can install/uninstall modules that extend the functionality of the website.

Extending the core

Drupal has a fantastic repository of modules that extend the functionality of the CMS for both administrators and end users. Most of these modules are offered free of charge since Drupal is all about open source, this gives it an edge over other CMS’ like Worpress. Here’s a list of recommended modules for getting started and a short description of what they do:

Administration Menu – extends the functionality of the default CMS admin menu reducing the number of clicks to get to menu items and increasing productivity.

Views – arguably the most important module in Drupal. Well depending on what you use Drupal for. Views is a module that offers a UI for creating structured queries to the Drupal database and allows the administrator to style the data that comes from the result. There are a lot of definitions and tutorials for Views so take your time with this one. Views is so popular that in Drupal 8 it is part of the core system so doesn’t need to be installed.

MD Slider – a module that creates a slider block that can be used just about anywhere where blocks are acceptable. Sliders can be images or videos and can have a variety of text or HTML placed in different locations and animated.

Panels Bootstrap Layout Builder – enables page layouts which give flexibility beyond what a theme can offer. A user is able to create custom layouts and insert blocks, widgets or other available items into each section of the layout.

Webform – gives the ability to create different kinds of forms to allow users to interact with the site. Forms can be styled and modified by administrators and submissions tracked.

And that’s good enough as a starter pack for beginners. Learning the intricacies of these modules will take time though, for instance each of these modules has some sort of dependency on another module and in many cases you’ll have to download and install the dependency first then install the wanted module. For troubleshooting Drupal module installation checkout this link.

Rounding it up

In conclusion, Drupal isn’t for everyone. It’s not easy to learn and not easy to master. But the benefits of its flexibility and wide spread developer community should not be underestimated. Drupal is easily capable of being anything from a beautifully crafted visual website to a hard working REST API management backend. So i would say take your time with it and don’t give up too easily.

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