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Mediacurrent – Maximizing the Potential of Component-Driven Drupal Development with Gatsby

Caitlin Cashin
June 28th, 2019

In our recent webinar, Gatsby for Agencies and Teams: Better, Faster, Smarter, Ben Robertson talked with us about adopting Gatsby at Mediacurrent and how it transformed their development process. Ben is a frontend developer at Mediacurrent where he has established frontend development best practices and led Drupal development projects.

About Mediacurrent

Mediacurrent is a web strategy, development, and design agency with a team of about 80 employees. They use open source tools to build enterprise-level websites for a diverse array of clients including Weather.com, Guardian Insurance, and Georgia Tech. Mediacurrent is a strong supporter of open source culture and the Mediacurrent team are active members of the Drupal community, contributing code and hosting events across the country.

Component-Driven Development for Complex Sites

One of the things that excited Ben about working at Mediacurrent was their component-driven approach to building client sites. Rather than creating libraries of page templates, web page designs were broken down into their component parts which were then built completely outside of Drupal in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Meanwhile, the client’s style guide would be generated using KSS-node which could then be incorporated into a basic Drupal structure. Once that structure was in place, individual component files were imported wherever they were needed.

“I thought this was an awesome workflow. It gave us a single source of truth for each component. The same template was used by both frontend and backend developers. We could reuse that same component anywhere it was needed, and it let the frontenders focus more on frontend specific concerns like semantics and richer interactivity and accessibility.”

Or at least, that’s what the component-driven workflows were supposed to do…

Trouble in the Integration Layer

Unfortunately, things were not so simple. In addition to the component templates themselves, the frontend team had to code the logic for integrating the component templates with the Drupal CMS data. Placing the logic in the template files made them overly complex and difficult to read, but placing the integration logic on the Drupal side meant writing PHP, which was outside the frontend team’s comfort zone. The frontend team also didn’t necessarily think about or understand all the particulars of how the CMS data is fed into the component templates when they were building them, which meant additional time had to be spent reconciling the templates with the data.

Finally, they were running into performance issues. The typical complex Drupal site is always going to have a variety of performance issues that could originate in the server, hosting environment, instances of bad PHP, issues with file compilation or bundling, and many other spots. Troubleshooting these issues would then require advanced knowledge of Drupal that could only be found among the backend team.

Despite their best efforts, their component-driven process was being undermined by the quirks and inefficiencies of having to stand up sites within the Drupal CMS. The frontend and backend teams were frustrated with the amount of effort they had to put into making the integration work, it was pulling their focus away from the frontend and backend work they were actually there to do, and it was costing the company money.

Effortless Integration and Performance with Gatsby

The Mediacurrent team launched their first Gatsby project in 2018, and although no one had any previous experience with Gatsby, they were able to meet the project’s tight budget and timeline.

Gatsby’s use of GraphQL turned integration into a smooth, direct process. The simplicity of GraphQL’s syntax meant the team no longer had to spend their time writing complicated integration logic. GraphQL queries could be written to align almost perfectly with JSON objects, speeding up the integration process significantly and eliminating the kind of maintenance required by their previous integration methods.

Performance also became a low-effort task, thanks to Gatsby. Because Gatsby sites are static HTML, the Mediacurrent team no longer had to worry about their PHP or server performance. Plus, Gatsby’s built-in pre-loading and pre-fetching capabilities blew the CMS’s performance-enhancement tools out of the water.

“It’s incredible. Like incredibly fast and incredibly easy to set up.“

The frontend and backend teams experienced new levels of productivity. They no longer had to waste time passing integration problems back and forth or troubleshooting esoteric CMS issues. With Gatsby, the frontend team could focus on the frontend and the backend team could focus on the back end, and any new issues that appeared could be pretty clearly identified as belonging to one or the other.

“With the Gatsby site, if something is running slow on the frontend, you know that it’s a frontend problem because, for the most part, everything is rendered in real-time. You can’t get away with saying, ‘Oh, the user shouldn’t have uploaded that large of an image,’ or, ‘Drupal didn’t concatenate my JavaScript in the right order.’ But on the flip side, if something is not available in the API, you know for a fact it’s a backend issue. The separation lets backenders do what they like and excel at it, and it lets frontenders do what they like and excel at it.

Looking Ahead: New Opportunities for the Team, New Opportunities for the Agency

The clarity that Gatsby has brought to frontend and backend responsibilities has empowered the frontend team to develop more advanced frontend skills. Gatsby offers a great new way for team members to start working with React, and, because it solves a lot of backend integration issues, they’re seeing that more projects can be accomplished entirely by frontend developers.

As Ben and the Mediacurrent wrap up their first successful Gatsby project, they’re already leveraging it in other ways. They recently integrated Gatsby into a new Drupal install profile called RAIN, and they’re excited to see how much more efficient their processes are in current client projects. Their new level of efficiency makes it more practical and profitable for the agency to take on smaller, frontend focused projects; and every Gatsby build opens them up to more React projects in the future.

Everyone is looking forward to new growth and bright future with Gatsby.

To learn more about Mediacurrent’s work with Gatsby, check out Ben’s Gatsby Days presentation — Move Fast, Don’t Break Things: Trends in Modern Web Dev with Mediacurrent, or read about one of Mediacurrent’s client projects in “Digital Display With Decoupled Drupal 8 & Gatsby”.

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