Architecture

Dropping forward

A little over a month ago, a few Drupal developers announced something new: A fork of Drupal called Backdrop. There's been quite a bit of talk about it, of course. While I don't plan to be using it myself, Backdrop has raised a number of valid points and criticisms of Drupal that are worth discussing.

Backward compatible APIs

As we begin a new year, it seems appropriate that the discussion of backward compatibility has come up yet again in Drupal. It's a perennial question, and you can tell when a new Drupal core version is ready for prime time when people start complaining about lack of backward compatibility. It's like clockwork.

However, most of these discussions don't actually get at the root issue: Drupal is architecturally incapable of backward compatibility. Backward incompatibility is baked into the way Drupal is designed. That's not a deliberate decision, but rather an implication of other design decisions that have been made.

Drupal developers could not, even if they wanted to, decide to support backward compatibility or "cleanup only" type changes in Drupal 8. It is possible to do so in Drupal 9. If we want to do that, however, then we need to decide, now, in Drupal 8, to rearchitect in ways that support backward compatibility. Backward compatibility is a feature you have to design for.

Drupal in the post-page era

(At BADCamp, several people were asking me to explain what the heck the Web Services core initiative was trying to do, so I got to practice my elevator pitch. This is essentially that pitch in written form.)

Drupal today is very page-oriented. Every request that comes in is responded to with a full HTML page. It is possible to return something else, and finally in Drupal 7 there is, sort of, native support to do so with delivery callbacks, but by and large any non-page response is an after thought at best and a hack at worst. The entire system is built around the assumption that we're returning an HTML page. Why else would we still load the theme system and form system for an auto-complete callback?

In the past, that hasn't been a major issue. The web was a series of pages, in practice, and Drupal is one of if not the most flexible page-generating machine on the web today. Drupal 7 is, arguably, the pinnacle of this page-oriented world.

Just in time for that world to be fading fast.

Design Patterns of Drupal

My article from the inaugural issue of Drupal Watchdog is now online. Design Patterns of Drupal is based on my original session from DrupalCon Paris. Although Drupal-centric, it serves as a great introduction to the concept of design patterns in general.

If you're going to be at DrupalCon London, watch for Watchdog issue #2 in your swag bag! It looks like I may have as many as three articles in it, discussing mobile web design, Drupal 7's improved node access system, and how to approach the "Drupal stack" when planning a new site. I'll also be on stage talking about Code Smells and how to avoid stinky code, plus teaming up with Peter Wolanin to talk about what it means to work with Free Software.

See you in London!

Announcing the Web Services and Context Core Initiative

At DrupalCon Chicago, Dries announced that the development process for Drupal 8 would be a bit different. Rather than a vast dog pile of efforts to improve Drupal in ways big and small, Drupal 8 will feature a number of major "core initiatives". These initiatives highlight major areas of work that represent not just a patch or three but major changes to Drupal's plumbing. Each initiative will have one or two initiative leads who have the ability to coordinate and make decisions relating to that initiative while working closely with Dries. In a large sense, it is a way for Dries to scale; Rather than Dries having to keep track of 1000 ongoing conversations himself, initiative owners can coordinate related changes while Dries coordinates the initiative owners. It also gives a clear indication of what work is happening and what to expect out of Drupal 8.

The first initiative for Drupal 8 has already been announced; Greg Dunlap will be leading the charge to overhaul Drupal's configuration system to provide more robust, performant, and deployable configuration and change management. That will be critical for Drupal's future as we push further into the corporate and enterprise sphere, as well as enabling more robust and unified configuration handling in the first place.

Today, I am pleased to announce Drupal's second core initiative: The Web Services and Context Core Initiative (WSCCI).

Drupal's audience priorities

I've spoken a great deal recently about architectural priorities. In short, we as software developers cannot eat our cake and have it too. Improving flexibility in one area may hurt performance, while improving usability one another area may hinder flexibility. These trade-offs are not necessarily right or wrong, except in the context of the goals and purpose of the project with respect to its target audience.

But what is Drupal's target audience, and how does that impact our architectural decisions?

DrupalCon Copenhagen was a watershed event in terms of understanding how to conceptualize that question, in my view, based on conversations I had with the likes of Mark Boulton, Jen Simmons, and Sam Boyer. In his (excellent) keynote, Jeremy Keith noted that the HTML5 Working Group had a specific, defined set of priorities:

In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementers over specifiers over theoretical purity.

That may be a good priority order; it may be bad. That depends on your point of view and your goals. It lays out the order in which different stakeholders should be listened to, and if you come to a decision where you have to screw one group over to benefit another how that decision should be made. Having such a clear understanding of your constituent priority is critical to making good, consistent architectural decisions.

So what are Drupal's priorities?

Objects, property visibility, and trade-offs

As if on cue, the public vs. private debate has sprung up again within Drupal. The timing is fitting given my last blog post on programming language paradigms. Of course, property visibility is not a new debate, and the PHP community debates this subject from time to time (sometimes humorously).

What I believe is usually missing from these discussions, and what I hope to offer here, is a broader picture view of the underlying assumptions that lead to different conclusions about when different visibility is appropriate (if ever).

In short: It's the difference between procedural-think and object-think.

Programming language trade-offs

This article is also available in Serbo-Croatian

There has been much discussion of late in Drupal about Object-Oriented Programming. That's not really surprising, given that Drupal 7 is the first version that has really tried to use objects in any meaningful way (vis, as something other than arrays that pass strangely). However, too much of the discussion has boiled down to "OMG objects are inflexible so they're evil!" vs. "OMG objects are cool, yay!" Both positions are harmfully naive.

It is important for us to take a step back and examine why one particular programming paradigm is useful, and to do that we must understand what we mean by "useful".

Programming paradigms, like software architecture, have trade-offs. In fact, many of the same methods for comparing architectural designs apply just as well to language design. To do that, though, we need to take a step back and look at more than just PHP-style objects.

Warning: Hard-core computer science action follows. If you're a coder, I recommend getting a cup of $beverage before continuing, as it could take a bit to digest although I've tried to simplify it as much as possible. There's fairly little Drupal-specific stuff here so hopefully it should be useful to any PHP developer.

Architectural priorities

As anyone who has followed my past work knows, software architecture is a particular interest of mine. I find the subject fascinating, but my interest is not entirely selfish.

Understanding architecture, and the trade-offs that different architectures imply, is an important part of any software project. Whether you're discussing a Content Management Platform like Drupal, a language like PHP, or a particular web site, having a solid understanding of the "big picture" is crucial not only for building the system right in the first place but for communicating that architecture to others.

To be able to speak and think about the design of your system properly, though, you need to understand the trade-offs that come with it. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and designing a system to be powerful in one way invariably tends to harm it in another. It is important to know what your priorities are before you start building; and in a distributed collaborative environment like Drupal to all agree what those priorities are, at least to a large extent.

Let us therefore examine those priorities and the trade-offs they require.

Moving as metaphor

A few weeks ago, I and several others helped some friends of ours pack up their apartment into a truck in preparation for moving cross-country from Chicago to New York. It was, as such moments generally are, bitter sweet. It's always a good feeling to help out a friend, but when you're helping them get further away from you it's not as pleasant.

Of course, me being me, what struck me most about the whole process was how well it served as a model for software development and project management in general.

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