- learn about the conceptual framework Hodges' model. A tool that can help integrate HEALTH and SOCIAL CARE, INFORMATICS and EDUCATION. The model is situated, facilitates person-centredness, integrated - holistic care and reflective practice. A new site using Drupal is an ongoing aim - the creation of a reflective workbench. Email: h2cmng @ yahoo.co.uk Welcome

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Mercer's Drupal 6 book - review

David Mercer's Drupal: Creating Blogs, Forums, Portals, and Community Websites introduced me to Drupal 4.7. When I learned of a new Mercer title from Packt I offered to review Building Powerful and Robust Websites with Drupal 6. If you are impatient and read only the first and/or last para of things then to cut to the chase - if you are new to Drupal and content management systems you need this book. So, go and buy it now!

I've been learning Drupal on-and-off (as spare time allows) since last summer. Reading this latest Mercerian effort I've undoubtedly benefited from reading the Drupal 4.7 text. The 4.7 title definitely got me up and running as a Drupal novice, so this formula and style is familiar to me. There are some physical changes: the paper on this latest offering (my copy at least) has better contrast. I could not find the exact font details, but the print size is larger and so there are fewer words per line which naturally helps readability. Consequently, the 4.7 book's 267 pages translates to 362 pages as measured to the last page of the index.

As a Drupal newbie myself I've struggled due to:

  • The whole client-server set-up and creating a database driven community.
  • Drupal's likeness to an iceberg:
    • what you can see - themes, modules, users, forums
    • what you can't see the MySQL, PHP, CSS, server, template and other files...
    • Oh yes, and the things that are on the water-line - blocks, menus, 'nodes and content'
  • Drupal files and folder structure
    • The location of core Drupal elements vs contributed elements (and your content)
  • Security, access and permissions
    • managing users
  • Upgrading and configuration
    • Drupal is very much a work-in-progress
  • Customisation - themes, styles, being 'original' - extending Drupal.
The first fifty pages provide an introduction to Drupal, how it all started with its creator Dries Buytaert; plus installing server software and Drupal itself. Several pictures of the Drupal website highlight this as a pivotal resource with its forums and great sense of community. Mercer had me wondering that you may not be pushing the envelope if you don't need help at some stage.

On page 32 'The Drupal Environment' a sentence states that readers '... might well prefer to dive straight in and make modifications to your Drupal site.' This seems a bit premature to me, as six pages later we are concerned with obtaining and installing Drupal. As this is my first book review the adopted convention is a stolen sentence or two from Packt's summary of the book, with my thoughts:

Chapter 1 introduces you to the world of Drupal and looks at where Drupal comes from, where it’s going, and what it can offer you. - The Drupal community is an invaluable resource and in addition to reading and struggling I've attended a user group, were everyone has something to offer and there is much enthusiasm and skills on tap. So Mercer highlights the web and forums as a source of support and might possibly have made more (even without specific details) of the number of local Drupal user groups and events. Nonetheless, this thorough introduction is capped off with an explanation about Drupal's status as an open source project and the licence. This more than anything explains Drupal's dynamic credentials. Guidance is provided here on building a website - including 'phone a friend' - and don't forget paper and pencil for planning and developing ideas.

Chapter 2 deals with how to get everything you need up and running on a development machine and also briefly looks at how all the requisite technologies gel together to produce a working Drupal site. ... - Going for a combined package, I tried ApacheTriad and XAMPP before settling on WAMP5 for the Apache server, MySQL and PHP5 software. The thing is don't give up. I installed-scratched Drupal a couple of times; my excuse - I'd give it some time ... and then leave it alone. ... Like many things in life, you need to devote and invest time on which to build your knowledge and skills (even a 10-15 minute session can help). This chapter is very informative whichever server approach you adopt. As the author advises - keep that admin password safe! Mercer's task here must be helped I believe by the Drupal 6 install process. Although not yet 'automatic' it has been greatly improved.

Chapter 3 sees us adding functionality to the newly created site. ... - At this point David Mercer had me wondering: I've heard that a lot of people try Drupal and other CMSs and give up. If there were CMS exit questionnaires what would they reveal? A DHTML menu module is used as a module example and needing to find this again it is there in the comprehensive index. Blocks and menus take some getting used to, well for me anyway. It is not necessarily that they are very complex - they are just cussed on 1st, 2nd, even 3rd acquaintance. If you forget to activate a block, a menu will not show. There are graphic handles for drag-and-drop operations within menus, which helped me to finally grasp things. Mercer's advice to check through the modules that are available for your version is well worth the effort. Yes, the number of modules can be overwhelming, but the diversity and scope provide a reason to forge on and there's more to follow.

Chapter 4 looks at the most general settings that all Drupal administrators need to contend with. ... - This chapter could be titled 'chicken or egg', since you need to understand the functionality of Drupal in order to commit to developing your site. There are a lot of options for site configuration and again it's good advice to take the time and check out the available settings, displayed here in pictures with descriptions. Try to appreciate early on the role of clean urls (and path aliases p.325); using two browser windows can help too.

Chapter 5 concerns itself with the topic of access control. ... - This chapter I will certainly be re-reading. It has prompted me to realise that for my new site a forum is vital. Although I've some static content to archive, this would be a waste of Drupal's power. Here roles are covered, with emphasis on planning and creating an access policy p.116. Throughout the book you are reminded about only giving users the permissions they need to perform task x, y or z and NO more. Mercer points out that what roles you have and what your site can 'deliver' overall is also dependent on administration. Are you a one-admin band or will you have some help? It is always difficult to anticipate the future, hence the need to plan an access foundation upon which you can build.

Chapter 6 gets to the heart of the matter by beginning the book's coverage on content. ... - This chapter sheds light blog entries, book pages, forum topics and pages with these content types just the beginning. The learning here is not just the 'what', but 'how' to administer content, plus distinguishing (or not) between nodes and content. When you are working on your site and styles remember the 'input format' section of this chapter - again really useful. I wondered why my drop capitals and table effects were not showing. It was just that some HTML tags were not allowed through the filter.

Throughout the book the work flow approach helps instill confidence by hand-holding step-by-step and yet also encouraging you to experiment alone. Another insight for me here is the wider potential of Drupal's RSS aggregator. You also realise how quick the publishing turn-around is these days, with the pictures of the feed aggregator dated 02/05/2008. p.166. I have in mind a collaborative book on Hodges' model, so the five pages devoted to the book content type proved essential reading. There are graphic handles for drag-and-drop operations within books, in addition to the menus as mentioned previously.

Chapter 7 gives you the edge when it comes to creating engaging and dynamic content. While this chapter doesn't require you to be an expert in HTML, PHP, and CSS it does introduce you to the basics and shows how, with a little knowledge, extremely powerful and professional content can be created. ... - There are some Drupal pearls here: taxonomy, the content construction kit (CCK) and HTML, PHP and content posting. There's even a brief intro to HTML. Time also for considered reading with descriptions of terms, vocabularies, thesauri and related Drupal elements. With some awareness of clinical terminologies and having read this and other Drupal sources perhaps I'm underestimating the power of Drupal?

The CCK section has me a little puzzled. My next task is to install CCK in Drupal 6.2 as Mercer suggests to see if it works. At the time of writing this review though the Drupal site states they are creating a preliminary, development version [of CCK] for D6 soon. As Mercer acknowledges the CCK is dependent on another module called Views, which is still not yet ready for version 6. In a way something like this is to be expected of a book that is first off the blocks. Mercer still sets the CCK up nicely though, as I'm tantalised by the possibilities, especially when combined with Views as I saw demonstrated at the NW England Drupal user group.

Chapter 8 gives you a run down of how attractive, functional interfaces are created in Drupal through the use of themes. ... - Time to get the hands dirty; first though as with the modules I've followed Mercer's advice and checked through the available themes. You could be excused for believing it is a waste of time poring over all the themes (although not that many are available for D6 as yet). On the other hand let physics work for you and (like me) you will gravitate towards a couple of themes. If bones are essential for structure, support and locomotion, then chapters 8 & 9 provide the meat of the book and Drupal.

Chapter 9 really adds the icing on the cake by looking at a host of more advanced topics. From dynamic and responsive content using JavaScript and native jQuery support to supporting opened and implementing actions and triggers, you learn to enhance your website and add that something special. ... - I blame Mercer 4.7 (plus some exciting demos) for prompting me to invest in a specific jQuery book. (The user group directed me to the seminal Drupal book - the 'Pro' title.) jQuery accounts for a brief but very effective five pages, that I hope to incorporate into my test site efforts very soon. Drupal 6 has seen a major emphasis on internationalization and localisation. This is very welcome functionality for me, that Mercer serves over about 15 pages. My new website must be global in reach, Drupal can deliver and Mercer shows the way. Translation files are still in the future for this Drupal student, but for languages, cacheing, throttling and performance I know where to go for help. OPENID could be a real scoop for user uptake and is covered in just over four pages and begs further investigation. The book is peppered throughout with urls and tips for more resources and reading.

Chapter 10 takes a pragmatic look at the type of tasks in which you will need to be proficient in order to successfully run and maintain a Drupal site. ... - Having backed up the database and run cron jobs manually, there is one major thing I've still to do and that is the non-trivial task of upgrading. The single appendix deals with deployment.

I've a lot yet to prove in terms of learning Drupal and demonstrating proficiency (a deployed website would help!). I'm convinced though that Mr Mercer is helping me move forward with this latest very instructive Drupal book. Significantly there is quite a team behind this title. I wholly endorse this summary from the Packt site:
Written in the same style as the original Drupal title, this book is a pragmatic look at the steps necessary to get a website up and running. Drawing on years of writing experience, David Mercer utilizes a friendly, engaging style that is both clear and concise – perfect for the Drupal newbie.

Good luck - I hope this review helps!

(Many thanks to Packt Publishing for the book copy and acknowledging their support of my blog: Welcome to the QUAD).

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