Blogging Platforms - Why I Chose Drupal and Which Useful Resources Helped Me Get Started

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When creating this blog, I faced the question of what blogging platform to use: Hosted blogging, Wordpress or one of the many CMS systems out there? Here's a discussion about blogging options and why I chose Drupal as my platform of choice, plus a couple of really useful resources that helped me tailor it to my blogging needs.

The Options

  • Hosted Blogging: I've been blogging on a hosted blogging system for more than 5 years now. It's called blogs.sun.com and it works very well. It runs the Apache Roller Weblogger software which runs on Java and is customizable and which I can generally recommend.
    Hosted Blogging is a great solution if all you want to do is just blog. Other examples include the Wordpress service or Google's Blogger, Posterous, which is all about simplicity and ease-of-use and my current favourite: Tumblr. But in my case, I wanted to take full control of my blogging presence, so I preferred to run my own blogging platform.
  • Wordpress and other dedicated Blog software: The next option is running a dedicated blog software on some hosting platform. The Wordpress Platform seems to be the most popular choice here (BTW, check out Hal Stern's upcoming new book "Professional Wordpress" if you want to get serious about Wordpress), and I've had the opportunity to get to know it from the inside through my work with Systemhelden.com. Other popular dedicated blogging platforms include Movable Type, Serendipity and Lifejournal.
    But I wanted something more powerful. What if I want to add community features to my blog? Or perhaps I'll come up with my own kind of content in the future. Or how about adding a webshop for beautiful quilts created by my wife? Hence, what I really wanted was a full-featured Web Content Management System.
  • A full-featured Content Management System: It became clear to me that what I really wanted was a full-featured, configurable and expandable content management system that would give me full control of my web presence, including the ability to write my own stuff if needed to, still simple enough to set up so I could get going quickly.
    A few months ago, I had a conversation with Scott Mattoon where he mentioned Drupal. I've heard about it before and he explained to me what Drupal's about, which sparked my interest. I checked out some docs and fell in love with its combination of simplicity, power and the vibrant community of Drupal developers and users providing a rich set of modules, themes and documentation to get inspired from. Just to make sure I did my due diligence, I made it a point of finding a good alternative but none of the other CMS contenders really struck me as a powerful enough alternative.

Drupal for Blogging: Great Power Comes With a Price

Drupal's power lies in its modularity: Everything's a module in Drupal, and each module can be switched on/off and customized at will. Drupal has a clear layered structure with a clean separation of content and presentation. Drupal modules are as generic as possible: Any functionality introduced by a module is available for any other module to use (where it makes sense) and Drupal comes with a powerful Content Construction Kit that allows users to define their own kind of content, drawing from any module's features.
But great power comes at a price: First, there's a learning curve to climb (but that's no problem if you're a tech geek like me) and second, you must set up and tailor Drupal's modules to your needs. There's no out-of-the-box blogging with Drupal, you first have to construct your site the way you want it to be and essentially enable all blogging related features by hand.
Which inevitably brings up a number of questions: What modules do you need to blog? How do you configure categories and tags? What about permalinks, tag clouds, comments, trackbacks and whatnot?

Useful Resources When Blogging With Drupal

After having got my hands dirty for the last couple of weeks, here's my own list of resources that helped me tailor my Drupal installation to my blogging needs:

  • The Drupal Homepage: This is obvious of course, but never underestimate the power of RTFM. I must say that the standard Drupal documentation is very good. Start with the Understanding Drupal article to get the basic ideas into your head. Then follow the Installation Guide. Now you have a basic Drupal site going and you can start playing with its features. Browse the Administration Guide for more detailed information or head straight to the Drupal Cookbook to see some hands-on examples on how to get along.
  • The O'Reilly Book: Documentation is great, but real-world examples and an informed outside opinion is better. So when digging into a new topic, it's good to have one or more books to resort to. I found "Using Drupal", published by O'Reilly. It gives you a quick and thorough overview of the Drupal system and philosophy, then it describes a large variety of case studies in more detail, each one introducing new concepts, modules and ways of running your website, and each with a detailed description of requirements, hands-on examples and step-by-step guides. If the documentation gives you all the pieces, this book shows you how to put them together. You can pick up "Using Drupal" on Amazon or save a tree by downloading an electronic version directly from the O'Reilly site (More on O'Reilly's highly laudable ebook policy in a future article).
  • Useful Web Articles: But Documentation and Books can get you only so far. You'll end up having very detailed questions like "What modules are needed for all the typical blog features?", "How can I separate Tags from Categories?", "How can I tweak my theme to do X?". This is where I spent most of my Drupal Googling time, searching the web for answers. Here are some links that proved to be useful to me.
    • Here's a basic shopping list for setting up Drupal as a blog. Useful to get the basics done.
    • Onyxbits has a very thorough and well-written Guide to running a single blog on Drupal. It comes with useful tips and tricks, thoughtful insights into the do's and don'ts of running a blog and it lists just the right amount of modules to install in order to turn your Drupal installation into a full-featured Blog.
    • Configuring modules can do the job most of the time, but at some point you'll need to tweak the themes by hand through editing their PHP sources. The Drupal site has a quick and dirty overview on creating a subtheme out of whatever theme you use now. The nice thing about Drupal themes is that they're object oriented: Subthemes inherit most features from their ancestors, you only need to tweak individual files or PHP functions. The rest will automatically be inherited, even through mutiple levels of subtheming, and any updates will automatically add new features to your subtheme.
    • More on the design side, Presentation Zen, one of my all-time favourite blogs, recently had a great article about choosing color themes. I stuck a few of my favourite photos together with GIMP to produce a logo image and fed it into Adobe's Kuler. It created a harmonic set of colors that seamlessly blend with the image which I applied to Drupal's default "Garland" theme.
    • Someday, I'll want to change the default "Garland" theme into something more individual. Mogdesign has 25 really beautiful themes reviewed that help you get a good feeling for what's possible and what features to look for in a good theme. I certainly will start theme-shopping there someday!

I realize that Drupal is not for everyone - this is just my own slightly more geeky approach to blogging. You may prefer a different CMS such as Joomla or Magnolia (which is very interesting because it's based on JSR-170). Perhaps you're more the Wordpress type or prefer a hosted blog provider, everyone has their own approach to blogging. In case you end up using Drupal like me, I hope that the links above will get you started quickly!
What are your favourite Drupal blogging resources? Which sites, books and tutorials helped you get the most out of Drupal for blogging? Let me know by dropping a comment below!

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