Drupal’s Release Cycle: Understanding What’s Next
We’re officially two years past the release of Drupal 8.0.0, arguably the most important release of Drupal to date. Drupal 8 is loaded with game-changing features and has more now than the day it was released. All this is thanks to what may be one of the least talked about, most impressive features: a completely overhauled release cycle.
Whether you realize it or not, if you use Drupal (7 or 8) you are affected by these changes and should have a clear understanding of what’s in store for the Drupal project while planning future projects and budgets. To shed some light on what the future holds, I’ll walk through how releases have worked in the past, how they work now and what we have to look forward to. As an added bonus, we’ll briefly discuss the pros and cons of migrating from Drupal 7 to 8, so stick around until the end!
The Past: How releases worked through Drupal 7
Until Drupal 8 was released on November 19, 2015, Drupal was known for a notoriously slow release cycle that focused on security updates and bug fixes in supported releases. These releases are numbered as incrementing versions of the major release - for example, 7.1, 7.2, 7.3, all the way up through the current major release: 7.56. Active development and improvement were typically focused much more on the next major release of Drupal. This allowed core developers to direct a lot of development time towards large changes in upcoming releases of Drupal, which could leave current versions of Drupal core feeling relatively stagnant. The D7 release cycle relied on the contrib ecosystem to fill gaps in functionality that may have been better suited to Drupal core.
The Present: How does Drupal 8 release updates and how does this mesh with the Drupal 7 release cycle?
With Drupal 8, the dream of frequent feature updates in core has become a reality. With the release of Drupal 8, Drupal core has officially moved to a number system called Semantic Versioning. The basic idea of Semantic Versioning, sometimes called “semver,” is to regulate when and what features are released as part of a software project. Rather than using versions with just two numbers, Drupal 8 uses three, for example, the current release of Drupal 8 is 8.4.3.
With Semantic Versioning, each number has a distinct purpose: the first number is the major version (8), the second number is a minor release (.4) and the third number is a patch release. Each type of release has specific requirements that I won’t get into here, but you can visit the release cycle page of drupal.org for more detailed information. On top of the requirements for each type of release, there are specific dates and times they will--or can--occur. A major release occurs much less frequently than the other two. In fact, major releases are infrequent enough that there is not a set schedule for future major release of Drupal. Minor releases are scheduled every six months, so we can expect two minor releases in the upcoming year (2018). 8.5.0 will be released on 3/7/2018 and 8.6.0 will be released on 9/5/2018. Finally, patch releases have a month release window that can be used to address bugs in the current minor release.
If you skimmed that last paragraph, slow down and pay attention here. The most important thing to know about minor releases in Drupal 8 is that only the most current, stable minor release will receive security updates. Occasionally, there may be an exception if a minor release is really new, but I wouldn’t count on that happening often, if at all. To further clarify, Drupal 8.4 is the current minor release, so if you’re running 8.0, 8.1, 8.2 or 8.3, you will not receive security updates and are at risk.
Now that we’re all clear on the Drupal 8 release cycle, it’s also important to keep in mind that this does not change anything about the Drupal 7 release cycle. Drupal 7 is still supported by the community but is essentially in maintenance mode. At this point, we strongly advise against building any new sites on Drupal 7 unless you have a very compelling reason to do so - we haven’t had a reason to build a new site on Drupal 7 in over 18 months.
The Future: What do we have to look forward to?
The future looks very bright for the Drupal project. Drupal 8 is a truly powerful platform that is capable of supporting a huge variety of enterprise projects and ambitious digital experiences. The release cycle adopted by Drupal 8 helps push the project forward in a lot of major ways because it makes rapid iteration much more possible.
The most exciting part of this whole thing is this: Drupal 9 will not be a completely breaking update in the same way every major release of Drupal has been. What this means for Drupal 8 site owners is that Drupal 9 will not require a ground-up rebuild!
That all sounds good, but when should I upgrade?
This is a tough question to answer because the reality of a site rebuild/upgrade can mean such drastically different things to different people. The Drupal community supports two current major releases of Drupal, meaning that right now, Drupal 7 and 8 are both supported and actively receiving security updates. No release date has been announced for Drupal 9, but as soon as Drupal 9 is released, Drupal 7 will no longer receive security updates and will become a potential vulnerability issue for anyone still using it.
At the very least, it is absolutely the right time to start planning and budgeting for a Drupal 8 build. You can count on a much less complicated upgrade process in the future. Moreover, Drupal 8, along with the ecosystem of contributed modules, is stable, powerful and a vital tool for anyone looking for an innovative, ambitious web presence.
For more on Drupal 8, download our whitepaper: The Case for Drupal 8.