Revisiting Backdrop CMS (a fork of Drupal 7)

The last time i spent installing and testing BackdropCMS was probably about 5 years ago when the first version was released. Since then i kind of forgotten about it due to continuing building sites with Drupal 7 and recently learning and building a couple of Drupal 8 sites.

So how did i end up revisiting BackdropCMS again. I recently came across an article by Jeff Geerling: Did breaking backwards compatibility kill Drupal? it took me back to the time when the Drupal community was going through a heated debate (but Acquia always had the final say). It was a time when most of the core team members decided it needed to 'get off the island', meaning it was time to make it part of the wider PHP ecosystem and not confine it to the 'Drupal way' in hopes it help to attract more PHP developers.

This resulted in the major version - Drupal 8, a complete rewrite from the ground up of Drupal to add Symfony PHP framework. This also meant moving away from Procedural coding and adopting Object Oriented coding. Basically, a whole new system with the Drupal brand and concepts on top of it and completely breaks backward compatibility. The changes were so drastic, it led to a few core members being upset with the direction the Drupal project was going and so decided to fork Drupal 7 and named it 'BackdropCMS' (or just 'Backdrop' for short).

So here we are today. Drupal continues to strive in the enterprise market as a niche product. As for Backdrop, has it taken up any traction yet? I am not quite sure as i have not been following Backdrop project since its inception. 

What is the reason that i am revisiting Backdrop? I still see it could be a good alternative for some of my clients that do not need the new features and power Drupal 8 has to offer, which could be overkill for their needs taking into account the heavy cost and time to migrate their site?

Everything about Backdrop is more of an enhancement of Drupal 7. After 5 years in the making, nothing has really changed. The difference is that it has a more polished design admin theme and many contrib modules added to the core. I was left feeling a little disappointed that no new features except for layouts has been included in core.

However, there is a good reason why the core team have not added new features and i do not mean features such as getting more contrib modules into core but new features like Block types. Perhaps, it is to do with maintaining an easy upgrade path because the initial idea  for Backdrop was to be a major version that will be easy to upgrade. So a lot of efforts went into trying to improve the UI instead (also partly for the fact that Drupal has had a negative reputation for being difficult to use). Personally, i disagree with this, it is only difficult for novice users because it has more advance features and these things will take time to learn. WordPress has always been compare to Drupal as being so much easier to use and i think that comes down a better ecosystem of paid plugin marketplace with no advanced features out of the box that users need to master. These plugins are often a complete set of suite (as such gallery, directory listing, visual editor, commerce and etc) build specifically to target novice users. Whereas, Drupal are often sets of many different modules to install to add functionalities to achieve similar results and lack of documentations can make things harder.  

What are the improvements added to Backdrop?

  • A more polished admin theme
  • Admin menu added.
  • Better dashboard with block help content to help first time users
  • Path alias and redirects now comes pre-installed. 
  • Media browser for uploading and adding images
  • Scheduler to schedule published content
  • All contrib modules and themes are displayed directly on Backdrop so you can install it from within your Backdrop admin UI (just like how WordPress does it as well).
  • Layouts, you can defined new layout regions for your content types, nodes, terms and pages. 
  • More colour settings in Appearance settings
  • WYSIWYG Editor added which is CKEditor.

These are some of the improvements i noticed during the test drive of Backdrop. There are more, you can see a list of updates at: 

What can be further improved on Backdrop?

  • Backdrop frontpage (ie, homepage) is plain and dull. There is no help on the frontpage but I guess that is okay as most of it can be found in the user dashboard. What i do want to see it is a demo content installation profile during installation process. This can be very help for newcomers who want to see how things are build out in Backdrop. 
  • It would be nice to be able to enable/disable the content blocks in user dashboard and add a basic website analytics with charts (for most content viewed, search keywords and etc).
  • Get rid of the choose image file button and just have the media browser to do both upload, select and insert media. Extend the media browser and add a search function, resizing and cropping of images.
  • I think the admin theme has served us well but it's starting to look dated. A beautiful modern design theme can encourage users to really want to use the product. Something like this should be the default admin theme:
  • Block system is still very rudimentary. Would be nice to introduce Block Types for the next major version. Drupal 8 already has this, why not in Backdrop?
  • I will like to see more Profile distribution, what happened to them for Backdrop?   

The development of Backdrop is slow but to be fair, there is a lack of core contributors and user base has not increased much either. As for contrib themes and modules, most of them have yet to be ported over to Backdrop.

During my test drive of Backdrop, it was obvious to see that it has taken many ideas and inspirations from WordPress to the point it is replicating some of the features such as choosing and installing themes and modules all done through the admin UI and soon an auto update feature as well.

Backdrop seems to target existing Drupal 7 users and for good reason, after all, it is a fork CMS offering an easier upgrade path without having to completely rebuild your site (in the case with Drupal 8 and higher). But this alone is not going to make Backdrop any more popular. It needs to attract new users and developers so they really need to work on marketing to revamp their website ( and content to attract a wider audience. Perhaps, they should setup a dedicated marketing core team to manage

Will i still recommend clients to upgrade from Drupal 7 to Backdrop? Yes and no. I can recommend to some clients (small and large) to upgrade to Backdrop when Drupal 7 reaches End Of Life (in Nov 2022). These are sites i know will not change for another 5 years to come and do not require to keep up with latest technology trends. It is websites that can be one step behind but slowly adapt instead of wasting resources and funds on keeping up with latest technology trends that will be of little benefit to them at present. So what is with the 'No' then? my concern is lack of new users and developers taken an interest in Backdrop. Without newcomers, it will be difficult for a project to survive. So will Backdrop by around in 5 years time? it is important to think about this because you do not want to move your clients to Backdrop only to find out it is no longer maintained. Contrib modules is another issue here, there are still many that have not yet been ported over. 

I will see what happens near the Drupal 7 End of Life to see if there will be a sudden uptick of Drupal 7 sites upgrading to Backdrop.    

I do want to congratulate the Backdrop core team members for their dedicated work on Backdrop development. The core team has achieved so much considering it is a very small team.


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