Implementing Acquia Cloud Site Factory: What You Need to Know

Acquia Cloud Site Factory (ACSF) is a unique multiple site management platform that offers clients the ability to create, manage, and deploy many sites from one dashboard. Running many sites from one platform comes with a different set of challenges though that need to be addressed for enterprise clients:

Key Differences from a typical Acquia Cloud Enterprise project

  • Scale
  • Theming
  • Codebase
  • Resourcing
  • Estimating
  • Getting Sites Live

Scale is the most obvious difference. ACSF projects are building a platform for hundreds of different sites. When building one or a few sites on Acquia Cloud Enterprise (ACE) the time required to make a small change is just that; small. On ACSF - adjusting a small change on a hundred sites is not small at all. One small change on five hundred sites can be a catastrophic blow to your predicted margins and budgets on a project.

Theming is often "left to the designers" in ACE projects, because traditional Drupal theming can usually handle anything necessary one way or another. ACSF allows users to use the Theme Builder to write out CSS via a WYSIWYG interface. As such, there are restrictions on what can be created via the WYSIWYG and the CSS it can ultimately output to the sites. Traditional Drupal theming gives you free reign in the the theme directory, so you can use CSS, Javascript, template.php, tpl files, etc. The "advanced" tab of the Theme Builder does allow a bit more flexibility by allowing css to be manually entered, but definitely not the flexibility in traditional Drupal theming. The ACSF product team is working on productizing a way to remove theme-builder for the advanced themer. This will be a huge step in getting advanced themers onboard with ACSF and easing their frustrations with theme builder (which was admittedly, not designed for advanced themers).

With ACE, the client is going to have to maintain their codebase one way or another - either by keeping a Drupal developer on staff, or by taking advantage of services like Acquia's Remote Administration and Technical Account Managers. WIth ACSF (assuming SaaS), the client is handed a solid distribution and given a limited set of modules that are supported, available, and easy to install. This can be limiting to an experienced Drupal developer, but this is a huge advantage to a client lacking in technical staff resources.

Resourcing is always a big question mark when trying to estimate and implement new projects. With ACSF, the timeline should be much longer than expected for the estimated amount of development hours. The team should start small - and ensure that the client fully understands any implementation decisions that are made. Proofs of Concept (POCs) will probably be necessary to demonstrate the full effect, while reminding the client that scale will also be a factor.

Due to the differences called out above in scale, theming, and resourcing, extreme care should be taken when estimating effort required for implementing an ACSF project. Teams should start small and ensure that any technical implementation questions are defined in the discovery phase. Next should be an even smaller team developing POCs for the different possibilities around any of the questions from discovery. Once POCs are complete, full-scale implementation can begin. It would be smart to bring in a QA resource once this phase begins and have a dedicated set of eyes on quality while the total development completed is still a small percentage of the whole. In a project with scale of ACSF's potential, mistakes can easily become hard to recover from if not caught early.

With ACE implementations, the client is usually highly motivated to get the site(s) live, as it is the culmination of a long effort. With ACSF, clients seem to have as many business goals as they do sites, and they spend more time getting approval from different business users and don't actually get the first set of sites live in a reasonable timeframe. We as the product experts and service provider need to force our clients to work with us through the go-live stage to ensure that the first round of sites are pushed live as soon as possible, so that the business users can realize all the advantages and spend less time worrying about some of the "what-ifs."

Risk mitigation steps for your ACSF project:

  • Confirm requirements over and over and over again. Even on a fixed price contract with set requirements, have client demos early and often. This will ensure that client understands what is being done before the team is too far down the road to recover from a misunderstanding.
  • Get ahead of requirements where possible. Perform POCs whenever possible to show the capabilities and limitations of certain decisions. If the client isn't sure how they will theme their site going forward, a POC of how theme builder can work is a great thing to show the client up front so other plans can be made if necessary.
  • Lock in design / theme requirements before starting any work. Ensure that these requirements can all be accomplished via ACSF's Theme Builder. Re-evaluate requirements that cannot be easily accomplished with Theme Builder. Theme Builder is a good tool for those not familiar with the nuances of CSS and Javascript, but can be feel very restrictive to an experienced themer. If the client will only have non-technical staff for the future maintenance and launches of new sites, ACSF and Theme Builder will be their best option to protect them from bad CSS and Javascript breaking their site.
  • Get a QA/BA resource involved from the beginning. ACE projects typically bring QA resources on in the latter half of the project. Having someone on your ACSF implementation team with a dedicated and detailed focus on the requirements and the way they are implemented will pay dividends. Having this resource involved early also ensures that they don't need to QA hundreds of sites at the end, because they've been involved in the initial site-creation process. Make sure to factor this resource into your estimation before the project begins!
  • Engage the experts for the full term of the project's phase 1. Maybe that is just launching 3 or 4 sites and having templates created for another 3 styles. Maybe that means launching 10 different sites out of the hundreds that are supposed to launch. Keeping the experts engaged will ensure that the client team gets the hands-on training that they really need to be successful in repeating the right steps going forward in the future.

Acquia Cloud Site Factory is a great way to get hundreds of sites launched and maintained when used properly. Consider the above options before starting your next project, and determine if ACSF is the right fit for you.