Drupal 7 or Drupal 8 for Higher Education, College, and University Websites?

Over the past eight years, we’ve designed and developed dozens of large-scale college and university websites using Drupal 6 and Drupal 7. We’ve also been working with Drupal 8 since before its official release in November 2015. Drupal 8 represents a big step forward, and it is the future of the platform. It retains the best features of Drupal 7 and augments it with improvements in user experience, responsive design, performance, scalability, and extensibility. However, Drupal 7 brings continued strengths as a mature platform with access to a robust library of functionality.

With two great versions to choose from many of our clients are weighing the benefits of building on Drupal 7 or Drupal 8. In helping our clients choose the best platform, we encourage them to explore three key areas:

  • What is the required functionality of the site — now and in the future?
  • What is the lifespan of the site — 1 year? 4 years? 10 years?
  • ​Who is handling ongoing support and what is their skill set?

Consideration 1: Required Functionality for Your Website – Drupal 7 vs. Drupal 8

Although the Drupal 8 core is released, much of the functionality required to deliver a robust CMS experience comes from contributed modules from the Drupal community. Many of these modules have not been fully upgraded to Drupal 8. So in picking a version, you’ll want to consider the functionality that’s required for your website. The table below compares how Drupal 7 and Drupal 8 can be used (or not) to deliver many of the key content and functional areas in a typical higher education website.

Content/Functionality

Drupal 7

Drupal 8

Program/Degree

Content Type

Content Type

Faculty Profiles

Content Type with Views

Content Type with Views

Roles & User Permissions

Core Feature

Core Feature

Group/Department Permissions

Organic Groups

Not Available

Drupal Search

Yes

Yes

Workflow

Workbench Module

Workbench module

Data Import

Feeds Module

Not Available

Calendar

Calendar module

Not Available

News

Content Type

Content Type

Related content

Taxonomy with Views

Taxonomy with Views

Web forms

Webform module

Not Available

All of the above functionality can be delivered on Drupal 8, but the lack of contributed modules means your team should be ready to use a dev release of a module or undertake some custom development.

Consideration 2: What’s the Projected Lifespan of Your Drupal Website?

The Drupal community generally supports a version of Drupal – new features, updates, security patches – for both the current version and the previous version, and it’s likely this support cycle will continue. For example, when Drupal 7 was released in 2011, support for Drupal 5 dropped in favor of Drupal 6 and Drupal 7. With the official release of Drupal 8, Drupal 6 support ended on February 24, 2016.

What this means for your higher education website is you need to consider the lifecycle of your site as well as your upgrade path when making the decision to use Drupal 7. Support for Drupal 7 will likely only continue until the release of Drupal 9 sometime within the next four to five years. If you select Drupal 8, you can be confident that your version will be supported until the release of Drupal 10 in roughly eight to ten years.

It’s important to note, that when a version of Drupal is no longer supported, it will still continue to function. A lack of on-going support simply means new features will not be developed and security vulnerabilities will not be fixed. This means increased cost and risk to continue to maintain your out-of-version site.

Consideration 3: Development Skills Required for Drupal 8

A significant change in Drupal 8 is a shift to object-oriented programming to increase flexibility and improve the developer experience (DX). With previous experience in Drupal 7 and object-oriented programming, our developers were up to speed within two weeks.

Does your university website have internal developers? If yes, consider possible changes to their skillset, as they may need some time to get more comfortable with object-oriented programming. When it comes to administering a site or managing the hosting, our developers didn’t find much difference between Drupal 7 and Drupal 8.

The Bottom Line: Drupal 7 vs. Drupal 8 for Highered Education, College, and University Websites

Drupal 8 is the future, and we seriously consider using Drupal 8 for each new project that arises. It incorporates some of the best contributed features of Drupal 7, and augments them with improvements in user experience, responsive design, performance, scalability, and extensibility.

However, we recognize that much of what makes Drupal an amazing content management platform are the contributed modules. These hundreds of modules significantly reduced or eliminated the time needed to build certain portions of functionality. Therefore, we still consider Drupal 7 as a strong choice for complex Drupal builds that need to be built today with a lifespan of four to five years.

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