Wot I Lernd At DrupalCon

I spent last week in the lovely city of Copenhagen immersed in all things Drupal. It was a great experience, not just because of the city (so many happy cyclists!), but because I’d not seen a large scale Open Source project up close before and it is a very different and very interesting world!

I’m going to pick out some of my highlights here as to cover it all would take days, but if you want to know more I’d encourage you to check out the conference Web site and the presentation videos on archive.org.

So, wot did I lernd?

Drupal Does RDF
OK, so I knew that already, but I didn’t know that from Drupal 7 (release pending) RDF support will be part of the Drupal core, showing a fairly significant commitment in this area. Even better, there is an active Semantic Web Drupal group working on this stuff. While “linked data” remains something of an aside for us (99.9% of our materials will not make their way to the Web any time soon) the “x has relationship y with z” structure of RDF is still useful when building the BEAM interfaces – for example Item 10 is part of shelfmark MS Digital 01, etc. There is also no harm in trying to be future proof (assuming the Semantic Web is indeed the future of the Web! ;-)) for when the resources are released into the wild.

Projects like Islandora and discussions like this suggest growing utility in the use of Drupal as an aspect of an institutional repository, archives or even Library catalogues (this last one my (pxuxp) experiment with Drupal 6 and RDF).

Speaking of IRs…

Drupal Does Publishing
During his keynote, Dries Buytaert (the creator of Drupal) mentioned “distributions”. Much like Linux distributions, these are custom builds of Drupal for a particular market or function. (It is testament the software’s flexibility that this is possible!) Such distributions already exist and I attended a session on OpenPublish because I wondered what the interface would look like and also thought it might be handy if you wanted to build, for instance, an Open Access Journal over institutional repositories. Mix in the RDF mentioned above and you’ve a very attractive publishing platform indeed!

Another distro that might be of interest is OpenAtrium which bills itself as an Intranet in a Box.

Drupal Does Community
One of my motivations in attending the conference was to find out about Open Source development and communities. One of the talks was entitled “Come for the Software, Stay for the Community” and I think part of Drupal’s success is its drive to create and maintain a sharing culture – the code is GPL’d for example. It was a curious thing to arrive into this community, an outsider, and feel completely on the edge of it all. That said, I met some wonderful people, spent a productive day finding my way around the code at the “sprint” and think that a little effort to contribute will go a long way. This is a good opportunity to engage with a real life Open Source community. All I need to do is work out what I have to offer!

Drupal Needs to Get Old School
There were three keynotes in total, and the middle one was by Rasmus Lerdorf of PHP fame, scaring the Web designers in the audience with a technical performance analysis of the core Drupal code. I scribbled down the names of various debugging tools, but what struck me the most was the almost bewildered look on Rasmus’ face when considering that PHP had been used to build a full-scale Web platform. He even suggested at one point that parts of the Drupal core should be migrated to C rather than remain as “a PHP script”. There is something very cool about C. I should dig my old books out! 🙂

HTML5 is Here!
Jeremy Keith gave a wonderful keynote on HTML5, why it is like it is and what happened to xhtml 2.0. Parts were reminiscent of the RSS wars, but mostly I was impressed by the HTML 5 Design Principles which favour a working Web rather than a theoretically pure (XML-based) one. The talk is well worth a watch if you’re interested in such things and I felt reassured and inspired by the practical and pragmatic approach outlined. I can’t decide if I should start to implement HTML5 in our interface or not, but given that 5 is broadly compatible with the hotchpotch of HTMLs we all code in now, I suspect this migration will be gentle and as required rather than a brutal revolution.

Responsive Design
I often feel I’m a little slow at finding things out, but I don’t think I was the only person in the audience to have never heard about responsive Web design, though when you know what it is, it seems the most obvious thing in the world! The problem with the Web has long been the variation in technology used to render the HTML. Different browsers react differently and things can look very different on different hardware – from large desktop monitors, through smaller screens to phones. Adherence to standards like HTML5 and CSS3 will go a long way to solving the browser problem, but what of screen size? One way would be to create a site for each screen size. Another way would be to make a single design that scales well, so things like images disappear on narrower screens, multiple columns become one, etc.

Though not without its problems, this is the essence of responsive design and CSS3 makes it all possible. Still not sure what I’m on about? dconstruct was given as a good example. Using a standards compliant browser (ie. not IE! (yet)) shrink the browser window so it is quite narrow. See what happens? This kind of design, along with the underlying technology and frameworks, will be very useful to our interface so I probably need to look more into it. Currently we’re working with a screen size in mind (that of the reading room laptop) but being more flexible can only be a good thing!

There were so many more interesting things but I hope this has given you a flavour of what was a grand conference.

-Peter Cliff

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