Over the years Drupal distributions, or distros as they’re more affectionately known, have evolved a lot. We started off passing around database dumps. Eventually we moved onto using installations profiles and features to share par-baked sites.
There are some signs that distros aren’t working for people using them. Agencies often hack a distro to meet client requirements. This happens because it is often difficult to cleanly extend a distro. A content type might need extra fields or the logic in an alter hook may not be desired. This makes it difficult to maintain sites built on distros. Other times maintainers abandon their distributions. This leaves site owners with an unexpected maintenance burden.
We should recognise how people are using distros and try to cater to them better. My observations suggest there are 2 types of Drupal distributions; starter kits and targeted products.
Targeted products are easier to deal with. Increasingly monetising targeted distro products is done through a SaaS offering. The revenue can funds the ongoing development of the product. This can help ensure the project remains sustainable. There are signs that this is a viable way of building Drupal 8 based products. We should be encouraging companies to embrace a strategy built around open SaaS. Open Social is a great example of this approach. Releasing the distros demonstrates a commitment to the business model. Often the secret sauce isn’t in the code, it is the team and services built around the product.
Many Drupal 7 based distros struggled to articulate their use case. It was difficult to know if they were a product, a demo or a community project that you extend. Open Atrium and Commerce Kickstart are examples of distros with an identity crisis. We need to reconceptualise most distros as “starter kits” or as I like to call them “puppies”.
Why puppies? Once you take a puppy home it becomes your responsibility. Starter kits should be the same. You should never assume that a starter kit will offer an upgrade path from one release to the next. When you install a starter kit you are responsible for updating the modules yourself. You need to keep track of security releases. If your puppy leaves a mess on the carpet, no one else will clean it up.
Sites build on top of a starter kit should diverge from the original version. This shouldn’t only be an expectation, it should be encouraged. Installing a starter kit is the starting point of building a unique fork.
Project pages should clearly state that users are buying a puppy. Prospective puppy owners should know if they’re about to take home a little lap dog or one that will grow to the size of a pony that needs daily exercise. Puppy breeders (developers) should not feel compelled to do anything once releasing the puppy. That said, most users would like some documentation.
I know of several agencies and large organisations that are making use of starter kits. Let’s support people who are adopting this approach. As a community we should acknowledge that distros aren’t working. We should start working out how best to manage the transition to puppies.