New MIT Drupal Cloud Service Allows Users to Create and Revise Multi-Functional, Feature-Rich Websites

16 August 2013

Dallas: Want to put up and manage a website, even if you are not a programmer? There is a service that can make that desire come true – at no cost to you!

Information Services and Technology (IS&T) has publicly released the MIT Drupal Cloud Service. Whether you wish for starting a blog, promoting a group, providing information about your department, lab, or center (DLC), or share visions about your research, you can now simply create and manage your own website.

In a nutshell, this service allows you put up and update a multi-functional, feature-rich MIT website. It offers:

  • A content management system customized for MIT's needs: You can choose for a simple, template-based website or take benefit of built-in tools to change fonts, colors and other design elements. If you are an advanced user, you can tailor your site extensively.
  • A website hosting service: IS&T keeps the Drupal Cloud advanced with security patches and popular software modules, so that you can focus on content.

The service is open to any member of the MIT community who can validate using Touchstone.

Drupal and Its Themes

The MIT Drupal Cloud Service is based on Drupal, an inventive open-source content management platform that powers websites across the world. Drupal is a huge toolbox full of widgets and modules, with a fairly steep learning curve. The MIT Drupal Cloud service offers a simpler interface and workflow that fulfills the needs of beginners, but also enables for extensive customization.

In Drupal, the term "theme" refers to layout, a website's look and feel. The Drupal Cloud service provides two MIT-specific themes and four Drupal themes. Both of the MIT-specific themes feature responsive design, which exhibits an easy to use format on any device — from desktop monitor to tablet or smartphone.

IS&T's Drupal Cloud Team anticipates the MIT Adaptive Theme, the service's default theme, to obtain the heaviest use. It offers numerous built-in tools for modifying colors, fonts and other design elements. The website for the Swager Group, a lab in the Department of Chemistry, is one instance of a website built using the MIT Adaptive Theme.

The MIT Administrative Theme is simpler, more of a template and less focused on design options. Its simpler to read and navigate and gives a good starting point for those new to Drupal and website management. In spite of its name, the Administrative Theme is not designed only for administrative organizations: many individuals and groups in the community may find it suits their needs.

At the other end of the spectrum is the MIT Public Service Center 25th Anniversary Site. While it, too, is based on the MIT Adaptive Theme, its developer employed Drupal Cloud's advanced tools — custom content types, views and the CSS Injector module — to attain a matchless look and feel.

Besides themes, the Drupal Cloud Service offers MIT-specific modules like Events, which binds in with the MIT Events calendar, and a Touchstone module for sites that need MIT certificates. The Drupal Cloud Team will add more themes and modules over time, based on input from the community.

Getting Started, Getting Help

If you're concerned in using the MIT Drupal Cloud Service, IS&T supports you to discover the website first to get recognizable with what's offered. For starters, browse the About Drupal subsection of the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), under the Help menu. It covers fundamental concepts and terminology, how to create a site and how to get ready to build a site.

You can then click the Create a Site button on the home page to begin. Reply to a few simple questions and choose a URL. In a day or so you will have a basic site with clear information on how to populate it with your own content.

One key thing to remember: the MIT Drupal Cloud is based on a self service model. In an extensive pilot phase before the launch, IS&T worked with MIT customers on over 100 sites to refine the Drupal Cloud Service and make it easier to build a website and manage content. Now that the service has launched, IS&T is adopting a community 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 build a site you'll be up the creek without a paddle. First, there's the extensive Help section. The FAQ is written in orderly, book-like chapters and centers on vital information. For instance, the "How Do I Work with Blocks in Drupal?" Q&A is a good preliminary point for learning about the structure of a theme.

The Resources page lists other sites that give relevant documentation and how-to videos, including videos from drupal.org, GotDrupal and lynda.com.

You can also join the MIT Drupal Cloud forum and post your questions in the Community section of the site. The IS&T Drupal Team supports community members to use this section to share tips, ask and answer questions and give feedback on the service. In case the team sees an issue in the Community thread that needs to be addressed, they will reply.

Huge Expectations

The Drupal Cloud Team anticipates the new service will produce a lot of interest from individuals, including MIT students, and from groups and labs that have inadequate budgets. And DLCs that do have budgets can now use up that funding on content and design enhancements rather than development.

One more advantage for Schools and DLCs is that they can save money and effort by streamlining the development of several websites. In the Drupal Cloud pilot, IS&T partnered with Chad Galts and Kris Brewer in the School of Engineering, who employed the service to revise several of the School's websites and build a number of new ones. They also recognized websites that were being hosted somewhere else and moved them to the Drupal Cloud. Brewer, the School's webmaster, has provided helpful suggestions to help pick up the Drupal Cloud Service; closer to home, he offers training sessions to staffs who maintain School of Engineering 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 serve the community better. The team also continues to check with community members, through an Advisory Committee and informal meetings. If you would like to see their functionality getting executed, post your idea to the forum or make use of 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. Says Kevin Leonardi, communications coordinator for the MIT Public Service Center: “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. 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!”

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