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Overview of Drupal and how it works

in Drupal on July 10, 2020

Solutions for content management struggle to balance flexibility and simplicity. If a solution is too simple, it can only be used for a single purpose; if it is too flexible, it may be too difficult for newcomers to learn.

The average content management system (CMS) is like a toy truck—specific assumptions have been made about how it will be used, and these assumptions are difficult to override.

📌 Content management frameworks, on the other hand, are like the raw materials needed to make any toy—no assumptions have been made about how they’ll be used, and the builder needs expert technical knowledge in order to make anything at all.

Drupal is designed to be the perfect content management solution for non-technical users who need both simplicity and flexibility.

It accomplishes this through a modular approach to site building. Unlike other CMS's, Drupal isn’t a prefabricated toy truck, but rather a collection of wheels, windshields, axles, frames, etc., that a toy maker can easily assemble.

With Drupal, a maker could create a toy truck, but she or he could just as easily create a toy airplane, submarine, or robot.

For this reason, Drupal may be described as both a content management system and a content management framework—one unified system that strives to have the strengths of both, without their deficiencies.

So, whether a site builder is looking to create a news site, online store, social network, blog, wiki, or something else altogether, it’s just a matter of combining the right modules. The only limitation is the creator’s imagination.

To clarify the difference between Drupal and other CMSs, consider the example of a news site.

1. You want to be able to post news articles on the site, and you want the homepage to have a section featuring the five most recent ones.
2. Next, you decide that you want to add a blog section, and put a list of links to the five most recent blog entries on the homepage as well.

If you were using an ordinary CMS,

1. first you would install a plugin that handled news articles and could put short blurbs on the homepage.
2. Next, you’d install a plugin that would track the latest blog posts and put a list of those on the homepage.
3. Each plugin would only be responsible for tracking and managing a particular kind of content, and each would remain relatively isolated from the others.

But, what happens when you have that brilliant, middle-of-the-night idea to blend these two functions by showing a list of blog posts about the latest news items, ordered according to contributor activity?

If you’re using a “toy truck” CMS, you may be out of luck. Or, you may need to hire a developer to write a custom plugin from scratch.

But through the power of the Drupal way, the way of manageable abstraction, you can accomplish this task quickly and easily.

Since Drupal's modules do things in a standard way and interface with a common underlying system, building all sorts of clever, customized features is just a matter of snapping parts together.

In this example, you could just use Views.

Of course, this flexibility comes at a certain cost.

While a toy truck is instantly understandable and ready to use without much thought, a modular vehicle construction kit will by nature require you to read the instruction manual first.

The building blocks are available, but you'll need to learn how they fit together before you can take a paper prototype and turn it into a full-featured website.

Drupal core, and the thousands of contributed modules that build on it, requires an initial investment to learn but mastering the Drupal way is immensely rewarding; the passionate community is a testament to Drupal's power to liberate site builders from the simplicity/flexibility dilemma.

Once you've tried Drupal, you'll likely leave your toy truck and boat in the closet to gather dust.

Let's take a closer look at how Drupal works.

People often think of a website as a collection of static pages, perhaps with some functions like a blog or a news engine thrown in to round it out. When they go to manage their site, they are thinking in terms of a tree-like hierarchy of pages that they will edit.

👉 However, Drupal treats most content types as variations on the same concept: a node (more on this in a moment).

📌 Static pages, blog posts, and news items (some possible node types) are all stored in the same way.

📌 The site's navigation structure is designed separately by editing menus, views and blocks.

WHERE, 

views = lists of content and 

blocks = side content which often have links to different site sections

It’s a lot like the separation you find in standards-compliant page coding—XHTML provides the meaningful structure of the information, while CSS arranges it for presentation.

In Drupal,

nodes hold the structured information pertaining to a blog post (such as title, content, author, date) or a news item (title, content, go-live date, take-down date),
while the menu system, as well as taxonomy (tagging of content) and views, creates an information architecture.

Finally, the theme system, along with display modules like Panels, controls how all this looks to site visitors.

Since these layers are kept separate, you can provide a completely different navigation and presentation of your content to different users based on their specific needs and roles.

Pages can be grouped differently, prioritized in a different order, and various functions and content can be shown or hidden as needed.

Nodes: The secret to Drupal's flexibility

We don't talk about "nodes" every day, but since they are at the heart of Drupal's design, they deserve further investigation.

📌 Essentially, a node is a set of related bits of information.

When you create a new blog post, you are not only defining its body text, but also its title, content, author link, creation date, taxonomy (tags), etc. Some of these elements will be shown by the theme layer when the node is displayed. Others are meta-data that control when the node will show up at all – such as taxonomy or publishing status.

As suggested before, you aren't limited to a single way of presenting your site's content. You can define as many navigation schemes, custom themes, or designs for the site. 

Comments also illustrate the Drupal way. Comments are typically thought of as part of a blogging system, but there isn't a separate "blogging system" in Drupal.

Drupal simply manipulates nodes to function in a manner that most people think of as a blog. But comments can be enabled on any content type (or node) you choose – be it blog posts, news items, book pages (which provide basic wiki features) or any other type you may create. Drupal's modular system is limited only to the imagination of the site builder.

Drupal's core

Creating an informational website that broadcasts from “one to many” is something that most CMSs do right out of the box. Drupal shines, however, by empowering site users to create content and to interact with each other – moving from "one to many" to "many to many."

With some CMSs, you can set up a blog, and you can install plugins to handle having a community of users. But what happens when you want to give individual blogs to each of your users, sorting their contents so that they can be displayed individually with their own skins, while also generating cross-blog topical digests, top five lists, and links to elaborate, customized user profiles?

What if you also want to integrate those blogs with forums, a wiki-like environment, and user-owned galleries of tagged photos? A typical CMS's approach to information makes such a scenario very difficult to implement. In contrast, the Drupal way makes such a scenario not only easy to establish, but also incredibly manageable over time.

Drupal is designed from the ground up so site builders can delegate content creation, and even site administration, to users. All a site builder has to do is define user permissions for everyone to start collaborating.

Credit: Drupal

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