Multisite Governance, Site Delivery, and Other Issues Related to Managing Many Sites: Part 2

March 25, 2016
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This is Part 2 of an interview with Will Eisner, Senior Director, Product at Acquia. Will’s primary focus is on Acquia Cloud Site Factory, which helps organizations create and manage many sites, from a dozen to thousands.

In Part 1, Will discussed how companies often discover, to their dismay, that they are running hundreds of Web sites, on many different platforms. In this section of the interview, Will describes how Site Factory addresses that problem.  

The interview was conducted by DC Denison, Senior Editor, Technology, at Acquia, who is represented by the letter “Q.”

Q. What’s the Acquia Cloud Site Factory approach to the “many-site challenges” we discussed last time?

Site Factory allows for the delivery of sites based on a standard digital experience platform that can combine some of the components that are the same for all the sites, specifically the codebase and the underlying platform. On top of this common base, other components can vary by site, specifically: configuration, content, and the theme.

The unique balance that we try to strike with Site Factory is between governance and creative delivery. In terms of governance, when you need to do an urgent security patch, or a non-urgent marketing automation integration change, for example, you have one codebase to update and one place where you need to test that change across multiple sites. Then when you deploy, all your sites get this upgrade at the same time. You can have confidence that they’re all running the upgrade. By having a common digital experience platform, platform teams provide site visibility, trust, and control. The ultimate goal for the platform team is be a full digital site service provider.

Q. That’s the governance part, right?

Yes. It also allows organizations to split up responsibilities and gracefully manage change. There can be one team that’s responsible for the digital platform, including the codebase. Other teams are then enabled to build sites without having to maintain the platform.

Q. What is the creative delivery part?

The creative delivery comes from the core flexibility that is built into Drupal. Each Site Factory site has its own database in Drupal. That means that each site has its own content, its own configuration, such as what data types it supports, and its own selection of modules that it is going to take advantage of. So even though a module might be in the codebase, not every site has to use it. Site Factory also supports a concept of “per site theming.”

Q. What’s per site theming?

It means you can have a theme that resides in an external repository and you can apply that theme to your site, even if it isn’t in the platform codebase. This is useful when creative people are working on a particular site and they want to create custom themes without having to make changes to the underlying codebase.

Q. How does site delivery in Site Factory work from the perspective of a creative team?

Delivering a site in Site Factory is different, and easier, than what many creative teams are used to. Site Factory provides a self-service Web interface where you can copy an existing site or create a site from scratch. Now that, for starters, is very different from what creative people are typically used to, because probably they are used to filing a ticket for that or asking the dev team to create a new site for them. Site Factory just lets them do it through the Web.

After they’ve created the site, it’s a regular Drupal site. They can use Drupal mechanisms to configure it: to put the content in that they want, configuring modules, etc. They can also create, as I mentioned, an external theme that they can hook up to the site. For a site builder, the ability to do all that without talking to a developer represents a high degree of creative agility.

And all of this happens in the context of a managed code base that is scalable for the organization.

Q. So you’re trying to balance managing some things for all sites, and some things for individual sites. Without going crazy.

Right. In Drupal, themes are very powerful, in terms of the visual and behavioral flexibility that they provide. We have a pharmaceutical customer that uses Site Factory to create hundreds of sites. All the sites are using the same underlying codebase but they look and behave radically different from each other.

There’s one site that looks like a traditional drug info site with a banner on top, and then there’s another site that looks totally different, with parallax-style scrolling and completely different navigation.

You can do a lot with Drupal themes and still be built on a common codebase.

Q. One Site Factory customer, a major music label, is a good example of the variety you can get: the rappers’ sites look completely different from the folk singers’ sites, and from the heavy metal dudes’ sites -- but they are all Site Factory.

You’re right, there are definitely some cases where we have within the same Site Factory instance radically different looking sites.

Of course, for some other customers, they actually want all the sites to look or behave the same.

Q. Like department sites in a university.

Or government departments. Of course, Site Factory can support that, and of course, it’s even faster to create a site that looks very similar to an existing one because you don’t have to customize its appearance.

Next time: How more people are now responsible for company websites, and how to set things up so that’s not a problem.

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