Don’t Learn the Hard Way: 4 Reasons Universities Have to Update their Drupal Sites

More than 26% of all .edu domain sites are built on Drupal, including 71% of the world’s largest and most prestigious institutions. We’re talking Oxford, Stanford, Duke, MIT, and every Ivy League in the US. And there’s a very good reason for that. From design, development, and content, Drupal offers a robust and flexible platform to help universities deliver A+ experiences to faculty and students alike.

But having a Drupal site isn’t enough. If you’re still using Drupal 7, you’re about to be four versions behind with the upcoming roll out of Drupal 11. But being outdated doesn’t just prevent you from hanging with the cool kids in class, it can mean serious complications to your site’s functionality and operations.

Here’s everything universities need to know about the importance of updating their Drupal website, and how Assemble can help you make the transition as seamless as possible.

Why So Many Universities Rely on Drupal

Drupal is a powerful and flexible open source CMS platform, offering a much more secure and scalable alternative to WordPress and other CMSs that lack the ability to accommodate large data sets. For universities, that means everything from campus websites, applications, scholarly publishing, and student portals can be managed and controlled through one core framework, while giving content independence to each unique department.

With a simplistic approach to multi-site capabilities, universities can have an almost infinite number of sites on the same Drupal installation, reducing overhead costs, increasing operational efficiency, and streamlining all site maintenance. Various departments enjoy the independence to cater their site content to their unique target audiences, with a modern and clean frontend experience and automated updates to simplify site maintenance. Timely updates and a robust infrastructure also ensure next-level protection of all student and faculty data.

And now, in the upcoming Drupal 11 release, that management is even easier than ever for less tech savvy faculty, catering to their desires for easier-to-navigate tools. The new page-building experience will now combine the strengths of structured content that comes with modern site building tools, such as WordPress. It provides a user experience that makes creating, modifying, and managing content easier for page editors. But at its core, it’s still far more secure and robust.

How the Latest Higher Education Tech Trends Come into Play

While many publicly funded higher education systems are often slow to jump on the emerging technology bandwagon, Drupal is helping ease widespread hesitations and facilitate smoother updates and integrations.

“We’ve noticed a growing trend among universities adopting decoupled or headless CMS setups,” stated Alain Martinez, co-founder and CEO of ParallelDevs. “They are leveraging frameworks like ReactJS (NextJS) and Gatsby for their user interfaces, while utilizing Drupal for backend management, which decentralizes the process of updating and maintaining multi-site interfaces, allowing different teams to work on frontend elements more efficiently. Simultaneously, backend development teams can execute major updates without causing any sitewide downtime during deployment.

“A key advantage of this approach is the ability to independently upgrade the system, enabling a complete rebuild of the website's visual design without altering the backend, and vice versa. Additionally, content producers can focus on creating content without worrying about its presentation across various front-ends. Styling and layout adjustments are managed by each frontend team, while front-end developers can rely on the consistent semantics of content fields and their relationships, as defined by content experts.”

Transitioning to Java Script frameworks for the front end has even more benefits. Connecting your Drupal site with this framework makes the integration of multiple third party platforms a lot more seamless. Whether it’s a subscription system, payroll platform, or CRM, by separating the frontend from the backend, scaling is easy.

But that’s not all. “This interface is also significantly faster and more flexible, which play a significant role in improving favorability in the eyes of Google,” Raul Solano, Co-founder & CBDO at ParallelDevs, shared. “Faster loading times and higher site performance help university sites rank higher in search, while providing a better user experience for visitors. For universities, that can be the difference between attracting top talent among students and faculty.”

And with more and more universities offering virtual learning opportunities, this flexibility is more important than ever. “We’re seeing a lot of schools creating new landing pages for students in fully remote or hybrid academic plans,” Raul added. “While in the past, this was typically reserved for graduate degrees, it’s become an option for younger students across departments. Schools are looking for ways to promote this new content through their digital platforms, adding new layers of functionality to accommodate new needs and requirements.”

5 Lessons in Keeping Your Drupal Site Up to Date

Drupal 7 has been the dominant platform serving Universities for years, but as it nears its end, it’s time to prepare for what’s next. By not updating your site, you’ll no longer receive updates, community support, or security patches, creating the perfect storm of potential security breaches and functionality issues. Here’s what we mean:

  1. Compatibility With every new version release, an old one becomes deprecated. Drupal 7 is up next. While your site won’t disappear in thin air, it will suffer significant bugs and issues that new updates are designed to fix. As new devices, code versions, web browsers, and software continue to emerge, these updates are crucial to staying compatible with the technology your audiences are using. If you don’t, everything from your security to your functionality will suffer.

  2. Support As an open source platform, Drupal relies heavily on its community to update core and modules, Themes, libraries, and perform security checks. Shortly after Drupal 11’s release, Drupal 7 sites can say goodbye to this support, leaving you on your own for all maintenance and updates. The biggest risk here is vulnerability to new threats and harmful implications to site performance, which reflect poorly on your school.

  3. Performance In addition to losing support, you also won’t have access to all the new enhancements, themes, and modules that are being released by the platform specifically for its newer versions. For example, Drupal 10 focuses on clean and maintainable code, removing deprecated APIs and upgrading to Symfony 5 and CKEditor 5. These updates designed to improve your site’s performance utilizing the latest technology and functionality won’t be relevant to your site. This can lead to errors, malfunctions, and broken components within your site — while your competitors take advantage of all the updates.

  4. Security Every Drupal site operates on a specific server, which relies on particular versions of software — from its database, PHP, and other dependencies. When new versions of the database or its software components are released, they often include bug fixes and shields against data breaches, malware, and more. So when it comes to security, it’s crucial to stay updated.

If that doesn’t convince you, having a Drupal site that is no longer compatible with the latest updates makes you a prime target for cyber attacks. These individuals seek out outdated software because it’s easy to exploit. Don’t let your site put a bullseye on its back.

How to Update Your University’s Drupal Site

Many hesitations around updating a website come from uncertainties around what will happen next. Will my site be down for a long period of time? Is the latest version proven to work? How much will it cost us? Will the look and feel of our site change?

While these are all valid questions, the answers will be different for everyone. Transitioning from Drupal 7 to 10 or 11 is a highly complex transformation that requires thoughtful planning and expert execution. And the longer you’ve waited to update your Drupal site, the farther behind you’ll be. So yes, there will likely be a more complicated journey ahead of you (hence another reason why it’s important to stay updated!). It also depends on whether you want to revamp your site with a fresh and modern look, or you’re happy with how it is now.

Your unique goals and situation will dictate your path to the latest and greatest from Drupal, so it’s important to ask the right questions and have a partner who can help you get there as smoothly as possible. To start, evaluate your specific needs, assess your current modules, decide on a decoupled or traditional architecture, and then contact Assemble to help. We partner with ParallelDevs to help make your transition to the latest Drupal versions as seamless and efficient as possible.

To learn more about how Assemble can be that partner for your university, contact our experts today. We’re in the business of creating A+ digital experiences, and that includes yours.