Foundation Drupal 7


This book review was published by Slashdot, 2011-01-21.

Foundation Drupal 7

Of all the better-known content management systems, Drupal is oftentimes criticized for having the steepest learning curve. Yet that would only be a valid charge as a result of Drupal's great power and flexibility — particularly in the hands of a knowledgeable Drupal developer. But how can the interested programmer begin gaining those skills, as quickly as possible? One approach is to read and work through the examples of an introductory book, such as Foundation Drupal 7, written by Robert J. Townsend (except for a chapter contributed by Stephanie Pakrul).

The book was published on 15 December 2010, under the ISBN 978-1430228080, by "friends of ED", which is both a division of Apress and arguably a baffling name for a publisher's imprint. The book's material spans 328 pages, grouped into 12 chapters and four appendices. The publisher's page offers a description of the book, and a link for purchasing the e-book version. Visitors can also read a few dozen of the least interesting pages in the book, using a lame modal interface "powered" by Google Preview's book viewer system. As of this writing, the author's own site for the book appears to have no useful content. In fact, even a few weeks after the publication of the book, the site had no word as to how to use the site or even obtain an account, and there is nothing pertaining to that in the book. Now, it appears to be the beginnings of a demo site.

The book's chapters can be loosely grouped into four parts: The first three chapters provide an overview of Drupal, and explain how to set up a local Web server, install Drupal 7 on it, and configure the new site. The material composes an adequate introduction, but there are some false statements readers should watch out for, such as: newly created blocks are added to nodes (page 15); "Drupal will not run on most inexpensive hosting plans" (pages 19 and 20); "server settings and update notifications must be configured" (page 35; actually, they are optional); "the default Garland theme" (pages 40 and 55; no longer true in Drupal 7); a block can be any shape (page 48; …as long as it's a rectangle!). But the discussion on multisite setups — while likely intimidating for Drupal newbies — is well worth reading by anyone who has not yet tried running multiple sites from a single Drupal instance. However, the ".demo.d7" suffix (page 28) should have been explained. In the introduction, the author noted that the book is primarily intended for readers who have little or no experience with content management systems in general, and Drupal in particular. The early chapters hew to that approach, going so far as to briefly present the basics of databases — material that experienced programmers can safely skip.

Node fields, content types, taxonomies, users, roles, permissions, and modules (both core and contributed) are key components in building a site with Drupal — and they are explicated in Chapters 4 through 7. The narrative is quite descriptive, and readers new to Drupal may find some of it tough going; but it will be worth their while to read through all of the material, at least once, while exercising their newfound knowledge on a test installation of Drupal 7. Most of the discussion is clear and straightforward, but a few spots will likely perplex readers, e.g., "all search fields are hidden by default when either search view node is enabled" (page 85; what search view nodes?). Also, on pages 69 and 87, the author advises readers to limit a system name to seven characters, but each example given exceeds that number. Such inconsistencies can prompt readers to begin questioning the author's advice and attention to detail. As a resource perhaps unique to this Drupal book, the sixth chapter explores the purpose and basic usage of most of the core modules not enabled by the standard installation. Drupal newcomers invariably wonder what contrib modules they should first be trying out and learning, and the author presents several of them in the seventh chapter, which includes a helpful comparison of using the Webform module versus nodes for collecting data from users.

Nonprogrammer website creators — who must rely entirely upon the GUI of a content management system to build a site — are strongly influenced by the visual appeal of a CMS's built-in themes, and not necessarily its flexibility or other differentiating factors. (One can only speculate as to how many such people have chosen Joomla over Drupal based upon the former's more attractive default themes.) Thus, theming can be especially significant to non-technical Drupal site creators, and is covered in the next two chapters, the first of which was authored by Stephanie Pakrul. To illustrate the ideas discussed, she uses her own Vibe theme, which is a sub-theme of Fusion. Unfortunately, as of this writing, there are no releases of Vibe, so it is not clear how readers are expected to download it as instructed (on page 174). Consequently, readers won't be able to see on their own Drupal installations what she shows in the screenshots. This is just one more example of how this book appears to be unfinished. Some readers may become frustrated with the way that she often gives instructions but fails to identify the page on which to perform them. Also, the Skinr block settings shown in the book look nothing like what I am seeing using the latest versions of Fusion and Skinr, but that may be due to Vibe missing. Skinr's project page currently warns that it is not stable or functional for Drupal 7; this makes it a poor choice for a book aimed at beginners, who can be easily derailed by such problems. Several details are incorrect, e.g., the Firebug technique shown in Figure 8-14 does not use double-clicking, as stated, but simply mouse hover. Chapter 9 provides advice on using Photoshop and Illustrator CS5 for working with layouts, text, colors, and images in designing Drupal themes.

The last three chapters discuss topics related to deploying a site. Chapter 10, "Going Live", presents the details of the author's strategy for using separate sites for development, staging, and production. This involves executing Linux commands on the command-line, and at one point even deleting the public_html directory and creating a symbolic link. It is easy to imagine readers being hesitant about doing so — especially in a client's account — and for such people, using only an FTP application might be more palatable, even if it takes extra time. The next chapter offers some valuable best practices for maintaining a production site, including techniques to be automatically notified when installed modules become out of date. The last chapter, "Translating Business Requirements to Drupal Functionality", may at first glance seem inappropriately placed at the end of the book, because shouldn't the developer analyze the client's business requirements before beginning any work on their future website? But this chapter does belong at the end, because most of its topics will make a lot more sense to the reader after she has learned the basics of a Drupal site. The only confusing aspect of this material is the author's recommendation to add 25 percent to both the amount of estimated time to complete a project and also one's hourly rate, with no explanation for the rate increase. Nonetheless, the chapter presents some worthy advice on how to be a more effective Drupal site builder.

The book's four appendices briefly cover search engine optimization for Drupal sites; Drush (a command-line shell for Drupal); a survey of more than 50 useful contrib modules; and usage of the Views module to address some common query-building needs. Note that the Views carousel module — which is one of two image slideshow modules listed — was deprecated awhile ago.

All of the chapters except the first are capped off with summaries, which add no value to the book and consist mostly of unneeded reminders that begin with "I talked about", "I then talked about", etc. One of the summaries (page 214) states that a particular website was used as an example, but it wasn't even mentioned in the chapter itself. A strength of the book is that there are plenty of screenshots throughout, and most of them are helpful. But their captions typically repeat information stated immediately before the figure, and thus add unnecessary text.

Readers may become disappointed with an overall sense that the book was not crafted and edited properly, perhaps in a desire to rush it to market in order to cash in on the growing interest in Drupal and the release of Drupal 7. Any such urgency could account for the poor decisions in the production of the book. Some of the material appears unfinished, or at least unpolished. For instance, Chapter 1 ends quite abruptly, with no chapter summary, unlike all the others. The first part of a sentence on page 184 is completely missing.

It is not always clear as to which problems are caused by the authors, and which by the publisher. As a minor example, many of the module names are incorrectly presented in all lowercase (especially in Chapters 6, 7, and 11), in some cases rather pointedly (e.g., "cck") and in others a bit confusingly when in mid-sentence (e.g., "views"). Was that the author being sloppy, or an overzealous copyeditor who did not realize that title case is appropriate for the proper names of the modules?

Some of the problems could only originate from the author. There are countless instances of weird and perplexing instructions, such as "log on and log in" (page 266). On one page alone (127), readers will encounter "Make sure the configure it after saving if applicable" and "Configuration, Languages… should be screen text style". There are numerous errata: "postgresql" (page xvii), "blog" (page 15; should read "block"), "minimum the PHP requirements" (21), "Drupal 7-1 to 7-2" (35), "ä" (60), "of [a] single" (68), "of [the] fields" (74), "per-configured" (76), "a decimal [point]" (77), "be round[ed]" (77), "by [a] user" (83), "how which fields" (85), "requires updated or not" (131), "delimeter" (163), "ie" (175), "This [is] where" (196), "comments are will" (198), "aka" (226, 270, and 278), "is usually means" (240), "site to bake" (243), and "described in earlier in the chapter" (248).

The pace of explanation varies tremendously, from one section to the next. For instance, several paragraphs might discuss fundamental Drupal concepts slowly, with full explanations, and then only a page later the reader is entangled in fairly advanced topics, with little or no preparation. Many readers will find appealing the informal conversational style — although in a few instances the wording is unintentionally humorous, such as the phrase "most exciting" transformed into "most excitedly" (page xxi).

Other problems can only be laid at the feet of the publisher, such as incorrectly bolded words, even for individual characters in words (e.g., pages 87, 110, 233). The publisher chose to use the smallest font of any technical book I've ever seen, and consequently people with vision limitations may have difficulty reading the text. Also, many of the screenshots are rather pale; in most cases this is not a problem, but some of the images look fuzzy. In contrast (no pun), the image in Figure 9-4 is an unreadable black rectangle containing a stack of smaller gray rectangles, and the background is effectively indiscernible. Readers will wonder how the production team let that obvious problem slip through the cracks. The image used for Figure 4-15 evidently had its right side chopped off. Several of the pages contain small gray and brown lines, dots, and splotches; but those blemishes may be limited to my copy of the book.

Writing and releasing a book prior to the final release of the software, is always fraught with danger. Some of the Drupal-generated warning and error messages mentioned in the book differ from what would be seen using the final 7.0 version, which was not available to the author during the writing of the book. This is likely also the reason why the list of core modules (Table 1-1) is missing the Options module and includes the now-absent Profile module. But that would not explain why the critical System module is missing from the list. Also, the "Secondary menu" mentioned on page 56, is now gone, although secondary links are still part of Drupal 7. In terms of theming, the default site theme is Seven, and not the venerable Garland; also, the Minnelli theme (page 63) — Garland's fixed-width counterpart — was excluded from the final 7.0 release.

In essence, this book was not well executed, and yet it has a lot of promise. A second edition — perhaps for Drupal 8 — could rectify most if not all of these problems. The author's passion for Drupal is evident and inspiring: He shares hard-won and sincere advice for avoiding disaster in working with clients and working on their websites. Also, he notes in the introduction that 10 percent of all profits from the book will be donated to the Drupal Association. Although it is in much need of polishing — and in some places a full overhaul — Foundation Drupal 7 provides information and guidance that would be helpful to anyone who wants to learn how to use Drupal for creating websites.

Copyright © 2011 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

This book is available on Amazon


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