Drupal Core and Module Updates - What Every Drupal Website Owner Should Know

Everything In Life Needs Maintenance

When it came to driving, I was a late starter. I was in no rush really, content to simply ride my skateboard to get from point “A” to point “B”. But as with anything in life that catches up with us, it was inevitable. I got both my drivers license and a cheap car near the same time - the car being a parting gift from my parents who were moving out of state, leaving me with a fair chance at starting out life on my own. My experiences with cars were minimal. The car lasted about a year and struggled at that. (My wife spent our first few dates looking at me under the hood, trying to recover from breakdowns that would leave us standing still on cold nights). My second car was no different. It died because I didn’t realize the importance of regular upkeep and a frequent changing of oil on appropriate intervals. I was never really explained the importance of it. And with my carefree youthful attitude, I likely wouldn’t have cared. It took the school of hard knocks, and a lost car or two to learn me.

The Principle of Upkeep

And learn I did. As I became older I realized that most things would simply not withstand the weathers of life and events if there was not a certain amount of consistent, regular attention and upkeep given to them. This is a relevant principle in many things. Yes car ownership, home ownership and even close relationships. If not taken care of, time might weaken or break things down, and even in many instances leave it in an irreparable state. It is the principle of upkeep. And Drupal lives this principle.

Life after Launch

The site is finally launched! HOORAY! Big plans coming forth as you prepare your content, announce regular news items, post your blog posts, communicate with your customers, and sell products on your shiney new Drupal site. Of course you plan on getting full use of his bad boy! Lots of time and financial investment went into this website, and you proceed to wear it out. And wear it out you will. As time and events progress, your site will start to grow in content and receive changes big and small that will require a cleanup of some things, and readjustment of others. Drupal has ways of telling you that it needs certain things to be healthy and stable. Understanding these queues and where to look for them will allow you to help it continue serving you and your business as it has.

This Fine Community

Drupal comes with this large and vibrant community, that is passionate, dedicated and richly innovative. This conglomerate of volunteers has made Drupal it what is is today. A Drupal installation is made up of it’s core, which is the primary engine that runs it, and a collection of modules, that are snapped onto the core to extend it’s functionality, capabilities and even appearance. Modules are great, in that it allows us to have out of the box capabilities on our site without having to write all of the code ourselves. This community devotes their own personal time and talents making Drupal better, by contributing to the Drupal core or making and improving upon modules. Because nothing is perfect, or things can be exploited - often this code needs to be improved upon. The Drupal community addresses these improvements through feature updates and security patches. While the Drupal core is usually handled through one big update or security patch, modules are usually handled by the individual or entity that contributed that module.

Drupal Calls to Action

The good folk that work on Drupal have built in tools to let us know when we need to give our Drupal installation the attention it needs. Knowing how to use these tools and where to find them will help you to help your Drupal site stay healthy, running and up to date. Because some updates are more important or urgent than others, the Drupal community has created indicators to let us know this.

Know Where to Ask, Know How to Listen

For major security updates, the official Drupal site does a good job of announcing this in it’s security section. You can find that section by going here: https://www.drupal.org/security . Here you can find out about the latest security updates, how critical they are, what the exploit is and where you can find the update to patch it. You can also subscribe to the mailing list to receive these notifications if you would prefer that method instead.  Your Drupal administration panel is also a great way that your Drupal site indicates that it needs special attention. Logging into your site, you’ll likely notice immediately a big red box with a red X that there are security updates available for your site:

Clicking on the available updates link will take you to http://yoursite.com/admin/reports/updates/update section of your site. This page will be a listing of modules that need updating. It will also indicate if your Drupal core needs updating as well, along with a handy download link to download these updates. All security updates are indicated in red. Generally I recommend that you NOT download the updates this way, as there are more efficient ways of handling Drupal core and module updates.

And yet, there is a page that’s even better than this page to indicate what’s needed on your site. This page can be found here: http://yoursite.com/admin/reports/updates . Going to this address on your site will take you to a page that looks like this:

OOOOOOO Perdy colors!!!! ;). While the colors may be nice to look at, you’ll not likely want this page looking like a rainbow. As indicated in the illustration, red means Halt! Alert! Emergency! (feel free to add your own spicey adjective). These are critical security patches. You’ll want to address these right away. You’ll notice from the image above that this site has two security patches. One for Drupal core and one for the Accordion Blocks module. The yellow highlighted items are updates that are not critical nor are they security patches. However they will usually have some useful bug fixes or nifty new features that pertains to that module. You’ll also notice several green listings. These are good! This means that the module is completely up to date and nothing further is needed concerning that module. You’ll also ocassionally see some grey ones. If this is the case it usually means that it is a custom module. You’ll usually want to defer to your website developer or shop to handle anything that is needed with this module. Hence we see that Drupal uses a commonly adopted color system to indicate the type of urgency that is needed for it’s updates. As a general rule, I would recommend staying on green mostly, thank you very much.

Pace yourself, oh ye that procrastinate!

Of course as with anything else, consistent habits will bring you consistent results. Keeping your Drupal core and module updates on a regular and routine schedule will save you from a world of hurt. The more modules you have, the more often you’ll need to likely update. Naturally the longer you go between updates, the more complicated the update process can be. Often a module developer will decide that their awesome module will warrant a full rewrite, and it will change the codebase of that module entirely. There are often special steps to take when updating modules that have significant upgrades like this. Skipping releases or update cycles are often the root of complications that can happen. In the case of this image:

You’ll notice, several releases have passed since the last time this site was updated. There are 14 Core releases that have passed and 5 releases for the ctools module. This is a red flag indicator (pun intended) that there may be complications when handling these updates. (Insert Sad Face). Complications can of course equate to time, therefore keeping your site on a regular maintenance and update schedule will both save time and keep your website safe, secure and operational.

Who and How?

There are several methods and steps to updating your Drupal core and modules. Some use FTP and some prefer to use the Command Line Interface (CLI). While covering these methods will warrant a separate blog post, It is highly recommended that you keep your Drupal core and module updates out of the reach of children!! These kinds of updates should be handled by a experienced professional, who understands what to look out for and how to handle the complications that may arise.

Now Go Forth and Update!

Knowing what to look for and where to look is a great first step. At the very least, you’ll know when your Drupal site is asking you for something. Understanding this and addressing it on regularly scheduled intervals will keep your Drupal site happy and therefore will keep your business happy. And we’ll all live happily ever after. :)

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