Want to build and manage a website, even though you're not a programmer? There's a service that can make that wish come true — at no cost to you!
Information Services and Technology (IS&T) has officially released the MIT Drupal Cloud Service. 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 easily create and manage your own website.
In a nutshell, this service lets you build and update a multi-functional, feature-rich MIT website. It provides:
- A content management system customized for MIT's needs
You can opt for a simple, template-based website or take advantage of built-in tools to change fonts, colors and other design elements. If you're an advanced user, you can customize your site extensively.
- A website hosting service
IS&T keeps the Drupal Cloud up to date 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 authenticate using Touchstone.
Drupal and Its Themes
The MIT Drupal Cloud Service is based on Drupal, an innovative open-source content management platform that powers websites around the world. Drupal is a gigantic toolbox full of widgets and modules, with a fairly steep learning curve. The MIT Drupal Cloud service provides a simpler interface and workflow that meets the needs of beginners, but also allows for extensive customization.
In Drupal, the term "theme" refers to layout, a website's look and feel. The Drupal Cloud 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.
IS&T's Drupal Cloud Team expects the MIT Adaptive Theme, the service's default theme, to get the heaviest use. It offers several built-in tools for customizing fonts, colors and other design elements. The website for the Swager Group, a lab in the Department of Chemistry, is one example 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. It's easy to read and navigate and 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 may find it matches 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 made use of Drupal Cloud's advanced tools — custom content types, views and the CSS Injector module — to achieve a unique look and feel.
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 input from the community.
Getting Started, Getting Help
If you're interested in using the MIT Drupal Cloud Service, IS&T encourages you to explore the website first to get familiar with what's offered. For starters, browse the About Drupal subsection of the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), under the Help menu. It covers basic 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 get started. Answer a few simple questions and choose a URL. In a day or so you will 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. 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 create 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 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. The IS&T Drupal Team encourages community members to use this section to ask and answer questions, share tips, and provide feedback on the service. If the team sees an issue in the Community thread that needs to be addressed, they'll respond.
The Drupal Cloud Team expects the new service will generate a lot of interest from individuals, including MIT students, and from groups and labs that have limited budgets. And DLCs that do have budgets can now spend that funding on content and design enhancements rather than development.
Another benefit for Schools and DLCs is that they can save money and effort by streamlining the development of multiple websites. In the Drupal Cloud pilot, IS&T partnered with Chad Galts and Kris Brewer in the School of Engineering, who used the service to rework several of the School's websites and create a number of new ones. They also identified websites that were being hosted elsewhere and moved them to the Drupal Cloud. Brewer, the School's webmaster, has provided useful suggestions to help improve the Drupal Cloud Service; closer to home, he offers training sessions to staff 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 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. 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!"