In August, Information Systems and Technology (IS&T) launched the MIT Drupal Cloud Service for building and managing websites. This open-source content management system offers one standard for all of MIT — at no cost — while also enabling customization.
Since the service’s launch (including a pilot phase), 500 websites have been created using it. Of these, 140 are completed, public-facing sites. They range from the main website for the School of Engineering — along with sites for 21 labs and programs within the School — to the orientation website for new employees.
Far from “cookie-cutter,” these sites showcase the diversity and creativity of the MIT community. If you’d like to see for yourself, check out this Drupal Cloud slide deck, which features home pages from research, education, and administration websites at MIT.
What Drupal Cloud offers
Whether you want to start a blog, promote a group, provide information about your department, lab, or center (DLC), or share insights about your research, you can now create and manage your own multifunctional, feature-rich website using Drupal Cloud. Programming skills are not required.
The content management system is customized for MIT’s needs, providing both simple templates and built-in tools to change fonts, colors, and other design elements. Advanced users can customize extensively. IS&T keeps Drupal Cloud up to date with security patches and popular software modules.
The service is open to any member of the MIT community who can authenticate using Touchstone.
Drupal and its themes
Drupal Cloud is based on Drupal, an innovative open-source content management system. Drupal is a gigantic toolbox full of widgets and modules, with a fairly steep learning curve.
Drupal Cloud provides a simpler interface and workflow, as well as themes. In Drupal, “theme” refers to a website’s look and feel. The service offers two MIT-specific themes and four Drupal themes. Both of the MIT-specific themes feature responsive design, which displays a user-friendly format on any device — from desktop monitor to tablet or smartphone.
The MIT Adaptive Theme, the service’s default theme, is getting the heaviest use. It offers several built-in tools for customizing fonts, colors, and other design elements.
The MIT Administrative Theme is simpler, more of a template and less focused on design options. Easy to read and navigate, it offers a good starting point for those new to Drupal and website management. Despite its name, the Administrative Theme is not intended only for administrative organizations: many individuals and groups in the community have found that it meets their needs.
In addition to themes, the Drupal Cloud Service offers MIT-specific modules like Events, which ties in with the MIT Events calendar, and a Touchstone module for sites that require MIT certificates. The Drupal Cloud Team will add more themes and modules over time, based on community input.
Getting started, getting help
IS&T encourages potential users to explore the MIT Drupal Cloud website to get familiar with what’s offered. The About Drupal subsection of the FAQ, under the Help menu, covers basic concepts, terminology, and site creation and preparation.
To get your site started, click the Create a Site button on the home page, answer a few simple questions, and choose a URL. In a day or so, you’ll have a basic site with clear instructions on how to populate it with your own content.
One key thing to keep in mind: the MIT Drupal Cloud is based on a self-service model. As Team Leader Mike Rossetti observes, “The service is offered in the spirit of MIT: it’s a ‘here it is and use it for whatever you want to use it for, make the best of it, teach yourself’ kind of platform.”
That doesn’t mean that, once you’ve created a site, you’re on your own. First, there’s the extensive Help section. The FAQ is written in orderly, book-like chapters and focuses on essential information. For example, the “How Do I Work with Blocks in Drupal?” Q&A is a good starting point for learning about the structure of a theme.
The Resources page lists other sites that offer relevant documentation and how-to videos, including videos from lynda.com, drupal.org, and GotDrupal. You can also join the MIT Drupal Cloud forum and post your queries in the Community section of the site. If the IS&T Drupal Team sees an issue in the Community thread that needs to be addressed, they’ll respond.
A big thumbs-up
The service has generated a lot of interest from individuals, including MIT students, and from groups and labs with limited budgets. And DLCs that do have budgets are now able to spend that funding on content and design enhancements rather than on development. Another benefit for Schools and DLCs is that they can save money and effort by streamlining the development of multiple websites.
For its part, the Drupal Cloud Team has been educating MIT partner vendors (e.g., developers and designers) about the service so that they can better serve the community. The team also continues to consult with community members through an advisory committee and informal meetings. If there’s functionality you’d like to see implemented, post your idea to the forum or use the feedback form in the Community section of the Drupal Cloud website. If the feature would benefit the Drupal Cloud community, the team will add it to the service roadmap.
Last but not least, word on the street — and in the Cloud — is good. “Since the service itself is free, a relatively small investment in design and custom development went a long way in ensuring we had the look and functionality we envisioned,” says Kevin Leonardi, communications coordinator for the MIT Public Service Center. “Adding and editing content is a breeze, particularly because of the custom content management menu and the user-friendly text editor. After managing a static HTML site, this system has been a very welcome change!"