The Drupal community — in an effort to ease the burden in light of the COVID-19 pandemic — recently extended the end of life date for Drupal 7 by another year. While this is great for the over half a million users running the older Drupal version, why are there still so many users that haven’t upgraded?

We’ve turned to Drupal experts to learn if this is an indication that the migration-based ecosystem is a burden and counterproductive for users, or a necessary evil for major releases. We’ll also see what they believe the future will look like for Drupal 9 and beyond.

Why Drupal Upgrades Are Challenging

“There are still a lot of users on Drupal 7 because the upgrade path from Drupal 7 to Drupal 8 can be fairly intensive,” said Greg Aiello, senior engineer at O3 World. It takes a lot of effort to migrate to Drupal 8 because it’s technically an entirely new platform rather than a software update. In fact, Drupal 8 shifted to a completely new architecture and coding methodology.

The Symfony framework that Drupal 8+ is built atop helps developers manage the open-source codebase. Previous Drupal versions didn’t have a framework to manage code changes consistently, and this means a lot of users may need to rewrite their custom code to fit the new Symfony-based system. “Additionally, Drupal changed its templating system to leverage Twig in Drupal 8,” Aiello continued. That means Drupal 7 users would need to convert all of their content and configurations to ensure compatibility with the new templating engine. Tools like Twigify can make the process easier, but issues often occur along the way. Any themes and modules that a site relies on would need to be converted into Twig for a successful migration.

“If you are looking at migrating from 7 to 9 it could be arduous and could cost a pretty penny,” added Deepu Prakash, SVP of process and technology innovation at Fingent, “but there is no way around it.” While migrating can take up to six months for more complicated sites, moving directly to the latest version could save some effort down the line. In addition, Prakash believes that “with Drupal 8s end of life close, it’s not advisable to migrate from 7 to 8 to 9.”

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Is the Migration System a Necessary Burden?

“Ultimately, Drupal 8 was ripping off the BAND-AID for Drupal in that Drupal 7 reached a point where it was outdated and falling behind in some areas where other content management systems were innovating,” Aiello explained. Drupal 8 introduced a slew of new features and reignited the community to ensure Drupal’s relevance for the foreseeable future. “Unfortunately, that came at the cost of Drupal 7 site owners in regards to the intensive upgrade process.” Luckily, one of the key improvements was simplifying major version upgrades for Drupal users in the future.

Learning Opportunities

“The migration is indeed a necessary evil,” Prakash said, “for the sake of ensuring that your site is secure.” Even with the end of life extension, the Drupal community will no longer support versions 7 and 8 after the end of 2021. Unfortunately, that means there won’t be any more security updates, and the only option would be to pay for commercial security support. “This isn’t advisable,” Prakash explained, “as you’ll be losing the benefit of the open-source community.” Upgrading to the latest version ensures users keep their site secure while also benefiting from innovative new features.

The Future of Drupal

While Drupal migrations have historically been a burden, it appears that Drupal 8 and beyond could be significantly easier. “This is due to Drupal 8's underlying integration with the powerful Symfony framework,” Aiello explained, “and Drupal's focus on improving the upgrade experience that has been painful in the past.”

For example, Drupal 8 users can simply upgrade their current platform to the Drupal 9 platform. The only thing users need to account for when migrating is the large-scale code deprecation efforts the community has been implementing over the past few years. “Drupal's Upgrade Status module can help with this process,” said Aiello. For many Drupal 8 users, however, migrating to Drupal 9 was just like any other incremental release.

In the end, upgrading from Drupal 7 to either Drupal 8 or 9 may be a necessary burden that users can’t put off for much longer. That said, the future of Drupal — from both a platform and migration perspective — looks bright and only time will tell if users will make the effort to upgrade to Drupal 9 or choose to migrate to another CMS.