So You’ve Got a Drupal Website

It’s shiny.  It’s new.  And it’s totally mind-boggling how much you can do with it.  The only trouble is, you have no idea where to start.  In this series, I’ll walk you through all the useful bits and bobs in your new Drupal site, how to use them, and all of the situationally useful extra stuff you can safely ignore 99% of the time. But before we dive into that, let’s start with the basics.

“Drupal”?  What in the world is a “Drupal”?

Yes, the name sounds silly.  Apparently, it derives from the Dutch word for “drop”, which was the original name picked after “dorp” (the Dutch word for “village”) was unavailable as a domain.  Yeah, I know; it doesn’t make the name any less silly.  Just bear with me on this. It isn’t the name that matters.  It’s what Drupal does.  Drupal is a full-featured content management system, or CMS, which is just a fancy way of saying it’s a platform for building large, dynamic websites that anyone (even mere mortals who lack vast computer mojo) can manage.  You can create new content, manage user accounts, change out menu items, and do all sorts of other neat things without ever having to leave the comfort of the Drupal administration panel or mess with a lick of code.

Okay, sounds neat.  But aren’t there a bunch of CMS’s out there?  What makes Drupal so special?

It’s true.  If you’re shopping around for a CMS, you have a lot of good options to pick from.  And some of them are better than Drupal in some ways.  WordPress, for example, is the best blogging CMS out there, and beats Drupal in the usability department hands down (sorry, Drupal, but it’s true).  For smaller, simpler websites or straight blogs, WordPress is probably a better choice. That’s just to say Drupal isn’t the only fish in the CMS sea, and that it isn’t the best fit for every website.  It is, however, one of the biggest, best, and most badass.  It’s like the great white of CMS’s.  Here’s why:

  • It’s feature-rich. Straight out of the box, Drupal handles a lot of the basic functionality any good website needs, like user management, version control, error logging, and site search.  It does a great job of the mundane stuff; all you have to do is worry about customizing the pieces that make your site special.
  • It’s modular. If there’s anything Drupal doesn’t do out of the box, 95% of the time, somebody’s built a module that handles it.  Think of modules as packages of extra functionality.  You upload them to your website, enable them in Drupal, and now Drupal knows how to do something brand new, like build webforms, track pages with Google Analytics, or let users send private messages to one another.
  • It’s themeable. Okay, “themeable” isn’t necessarily a real word (or so my word processor is telling me).  The idea is, in Drupal, design and content are separate.  If you want to completely change the look of your site, all you have to do is modify the theme; the content stays right where it is.  This makes your life easier and your site more agile if changes ever need to be made when changes inevitably need to be made.
  • It’s open source. Chances are you’ve heard the term but never really had a chance to appreciate what it means.  Open source basically means that a piece of software is free for anyone to use and customize (i.e., the “source” code is “open” to the public).  This means Drupal is free to download, install, and upgrade, keeping development and maintenance costs down.  It also means that there’s a worldwide community of unpaid enthusiasts constantly bug-checking and extending upon Drupal.  That’s where all those nifty modules come from.  Did I mention that most of those are free, too?
  • It’s got a fantastic ecommerce engine: Ubercart. As if it didn’t already do a lot, Drupal is a terrific ecommerce platform when paired with Ubercart.  You can make catalogs, manage products, process orders… the whole shebang.  Like Drupal itself, it’s hard to list all of the things Ubercart does right out of the box.

Drupal sounds too good to be true.  What’s the catch?

Like I said before, Drupal’s great, but it’s not the end-all, be-all.  For all of its versatility, the backend can take some getting used to.  In fact, the word “labyrinthine” comes to mind.  It isn’t that you can’t do a lot with it; it’s that it isn’t always clear how to get in, get the job done, and get out, all while avoiding the minotaur. Don’t worry, though; that’s what the rest of this series is for.  Now that you know what it is and why it’s awesome, I’ll walk you through how to use it.