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An aerial view of the Danube through Vienna at dusk.

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We went to DrupalCon 2017 in Vienna

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This year's European Drupal conference took place in Vienna, Austria ahead of the news that there will be no DrupalCon Europe 2018.

St. Francis of Assisi Church and the Mexikoplatz in Vienna

An incredible city

It's hard not to be excited about a city like Vienna. Whether it's spotting locations from The Third Man, visiting the world-famous landmarks or checking out an opera... not to mention Mozart and the beer and sausages amongst another hundred things this great city provides.

When we landed we were a little underwhelmed as everything seemed a bit grey and industrial and there was no sign of all the decadent architecture and food culture we were expecting. But as we've learned from before, conference centres are often built on the outskirts of a city for easy access so we got ourselves some subway passes for the week and headed for what looked like the busiest station!

Luckily what we discovered in the heart of the city was exactly what we'd been looking for. A vibrant and exciting hub of culture, music and food. It was great to see the sights and experience a bit of Viennese culture after the disappointing first impression.

We were also lucky enough to accidentally stumble across the bridge which looks out over the Danube and the St. Francis of Assisi Church. We spent a good half an hour crossing that bridge; stopping to take photographs and just soak up the incredible view.

When we returned to our lodgings (near the conference centre) later that day we discovered that we were actually a few minutes walk from the world famous Wurstelprater amusement park which was where famous scenes of the film The Third Man were shot. Turns out where we were staying was actually one of the most awesome parts of the city if you only knew to walk in the correct direction!

Considering we work in technology you'd think we might use Google maps once in a while! Facepalm.

The Messe Wien Exhibition Congress Center

The conference

The hot topic of the whole conference this year and the central theme to the Drupal founder's keynote (or 'DriesNote' if you will) was the decoupled conversation. Since I started working in Drupal in 2014 there has been much discussion of a headless Drupal but this year it seemed to be the only thing everyone wanted to talk about.

We are entering a new era in web design and technology. Single page javascript applications and decoupled front-ends are, without a doubt, where the industry is moving to and what it is standardising on. With Drupal's back-end and front-end so heavily intertwined, the big discussion is how on Earth we properly decouple the two.

Whilst you can already build decoupled front-ends using Drupal as a backend and using its REST API, I personally find it frustrating that so many display settings are baked into Drupal's back-end. For example, the manage display tabs for nodes, or the option to choose inline or above for labels on forms etc. In order for the front-end to truly be decoupled, Drupal's CMS needs to be solely concerned with the management and storage of data, and the not the display of that data. In other words, I can't see Drupal being truly decoupled until Drupal 9 due to the far-reaching API changes that would be required.

There were loads of great presentations from community members on 'Decoupled Drupal'. Here's a list if you'd like to discover more from the conference:

Besides all this, there was a huge amount of discussion around component driven design and tools like Pattern Lab and how to integrate them with Drupal. Interestingly we've been working with Pattern Lab in Drupal and investigating decoupled javascript applications using Vue for a good portion of this year so it's good to know a lot us are on the same page.

Here are a couple of highlights from the conference about pattern libraries and component-driven design:

There were, of course, lots of other discussions this year at DrupalCon. A few personal highlights include an introduction to the new out of the box theme coming to Drupal 8, a highly engaging introduction to CSS custom properties and the new grid system and an exciting glimpse into Houdini - the future of CSS.

As always the quality of the speakers at DrupalCon was fantastic and I sincerely hope we'll attend again in the future... that is if there is a future... but we'll get on to that...

A ride at the Wurstelprater amusement park

Beyond the tech

As always, DrupalCon isn't just about the conference. As the saying goes: "come for the code, stay for the community". Whether it's the nightlife or the days leading up to or, following on from, the conference itself you'll always be sure to find streams of the Drupal community getting up to all sorts of extracurricular activities over the course of the week. Vienna was certainly no exception.

Despite the usual Drupal tradition of visiting bars and pubs, this year the Drupal community's Austrian members organised a night of music in an underground club. The only words you could use to describe the genre was post-apocalyptic electronic dance music. I don't know who booked the band or what they were even called but they were seriously one of the coolest bands I've seen live. Wrapped in neon lights and performing all their own content with live instruments, it was something I've never seen before and will likely never see again!

The trivia night, as always was a thoroughly enjoyable night, and for DrupalCon attendees who skip this event please consider attending in the future. It's actually a really well organised and fun evening.

Of course, the child in me just had to visit the Wurstelprater amusement park and try out some of the rides. I had a crack at a couple of roller coasters including one where you lay on your front (see accompanying image) and a rapids flume. Vienna had plenty of things to keep us amused and I'd certainly return to explore more of the city and would recommend it to anyone interested in a trip to central Europe.

A lego businessman figure looking isolated and concerned

What will the future hold?

Sadly, the Drupal Association announced just prior to the conference that there will be no DrupalCon Europe 2018. The conference has long been losing money and attendance, and recent controversies within the community are also affecting the popularity of the CMS.

So where does this leave us? Well, we still strongly believe in Drupal as a business-enabling platform but it's becoming clear that it's definitely better suited to Enterprise applications over SMEs and charities. The legacy of the inter-tangled front and back ends is also becoming increasingly problematic for our more ambitious clients who are looking to the future.

For a long time, we've been evaluating other content management systems, front-end technologies and language/development stacks. Whilst we're not jumping ship yet, it's safe to say we have some strong thoughts on how we need to move forward so we can continue to innovate for our clients. It is likely that Drupal will play a diminishing role as the platform is becoming more niche and is no longer a "tool-to-reach-for" in all use-cases.

We're incredibly encouraged to hear that the Drupal community will self-organise an event for 2018 called Drupal Europe but our attendance will depend very much on how the next few months unfold. A world of opportunity awaits, with or without Drupal. Our focus at Real Life Digital is to improve our consulting processes and technology offering to clients so they get the full benefit of the underlying technology which makes a measurable impact on their business.

Darren Fisher - Designer & Frontend Dev

Written by

Darren Fisher

Designer & Frontend Dev

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