10 free Drupal modules that make development easier

If you're using Drupal to develop and administer your website, these add-ons can help.

When it comes to open-source content management systems, Drupal really stands apart from Joomla and WordPress, its closest competitors, for several reasons.

The payoff for using Drupal is the development of very tightly configured sites that perform well and scale excellently. This is why many developers are willing to put up with its idiosyncrasies.

However, because it's built around nodes that hold content of various types, working with Drupal is not for the timid. Still, it would be nice if some things were a little less complicated. Enter modules.

Unlike most Joomla modules and plug-ins, Drupal modules are simple in form, and iterative in approach. There are no big, all-inclusive mega-modules in this list. In Drupal, that's what really makes a module a popular favorite: Easing the burden of administering Drupal.

So here are 10 add-ons that I've tried and that you may find useful:

None of these modules is going to win any glamor awards. But in terms of ease of use and making Drupal a better CMS, they're all winners.

Backup and Migrate

7.x-2.4 Certified for: Drupal 5/6/7 Price: Free

If there's one thing every website developer needs, no matter what content management system is being used, it's the capability to quickly and easily back up the site so it can be restored or moved.

Why Drupal doesn't have this capacity in its core tools is beyond me. But Backup and Migrate is a module you can add on your own. So add it, already.

It's a pretty uncomplicated module to use. You can either fire off a backup immediately, or set up a scheduled backup at your convenience.

It's not difficult to set up Backup and Migrate to back up your site.

I ran through a test backup and then restored the site on a clean server with a bare Drupal 7 installation; the process ran flawlessly and speedily. This was a marked difference from a similar module on the Joomla CMS I recently looked at, which needed another add-on to perform a restore.

With the scheduling options that are built in, there should be no excuse to ever lose your site.

Context

, Development SeedVersion tested: 7.x-3.0-beta4 Certified for: Drupal 6 Price: Free

While many pages on a website are meant to be uniform in how they are displayed, there are some pages that should have their own look and feel. The home page, for instance, nearly always looks different from a standard content page.

In the past, Drupal admins would have to use the different options available within each Drupal theme to set the appearance of a special page. What Context does is enable admins to define contexts for a site and manage how and when these contexts control the look of different parts of the site.

A better way of conceptualizing this might be thinking of a context as a "section" of your site, which is how the project maintainers describe it. For each context, you can choose the conditions that trigger this context to be active and choose different aspects of Drupal that should react to this active context.

Setting up a context in the Context module is not exactly something that leaps out at you. Once you get the hang of it, though, the usefulness of this module becomes clear.

Context enables admins to define contexts for a site to control the look of different parts of the site.

I like this module for what it brings: A powerful way to set page appearance without going deep into Drupal's theme-management tools.

Custom Contextual Links

7.x-1.5 Certified for: Drupal 7 Price: Free

Anyone who's administered a Drupal site for any length of time knows that moving around the administrative tools, even in Drupal 7, can sometimes be a long process.

Even the little context menus that you can click in the upper corner of content nodes don't help much if you're trying to get to a setting that's not on the menu. Wouldn't it be nice to actually get a menu command to show up on that context menu as a shortcut?

If you said yes, then you'll be happy to download and install the Custom Contextual Links (CCL) module, which enables you to do precisely that.

Custom Contextual Links (CCL) lets you build your own menu commands.

Easy to use, this is a nifty little module that can make life much simpler for admins who are tired of digging around Drupal's admin links.

Delta

, ThemeGeeksVersion tested: 7.x-3.0-beta11 Certified for: Drupal 6 Price: Free

Delta is a very iterative module, in that it adds a really cool feature to Context's feature set.

Delta lets admins configure theme settings based on node types, context or groups of paths. You can then save those theme adjustments in Delta and have them get displayed when a particular context for your site -- such as a special sign-on page -- is shown.

In other words, it lets you create custom themes for Context to use when it needs to.

The interface with Delta is very similar to that of Context's. This is a good thing in that you can create and edit templates in Delta much the same way as you can in Context. It's not so good because there's still that learning curve for Context.

Delta help you create custom themes to use with Context.

Delta and Context, working together, can give your site a lot of visual flexibility for different sections, without a lot of theming hassle.

Display Suite

7.x-2.0 Certified for: Drupal 6/7 Price: Free

Because Drupal lays out site content in boxes and nodes, one of the things that's tricky for Drupal site admins is the capability to create more interesting ways to lay out pages.

This is typically done by using template files and configuring them just so, one by one, until you get the look and feel you're shooting for. This is one area where Drupal's granularity can just get in the way -- tweaking a site's layout should not involve a lot of digging through configuration screens.

This is where the Display Suite module can be really helpful. The module will let you quickly apply custom layout settings to the site as a whole or to individual content nodes, such as articles. That level of detail is very useful, because depending on the article's length or importance, you may want to display it differently from other articles on the site.

Display Suite can customize the display of individual content nodes easily.

You can tweak the positioning of elements of the article node, and if you're using Drupal 7 there are even preconfigured layout settings that you can choose from the Layout drop-down menu. That feature alone makes this module a must-get for any serious Drupal admin.

Field group

7.x-1.1 Certified for: Drupal 7 Price: Free

At first, it's not easy to understand what Field group actually does. The project's description merely says it "groups fields together." Well, okay, thanks.

Dig into it a bit more, though, and all becomes clear: Field group lets you take the fields of any Drupal form that you create and display them in whatever way you want. So you can create a multi-page form or use tabs, accordion controls (expandable panes or tabs) or other Web page wrappers to separate fields and make them easier to use.

It took me a bit of time to figure out how Field group was put together (it only shows up, after all, on nodes that actually contain fields to manage). But once that problem was solved, then managing field groups was a simple matter.

Field group lets you take the fields of any Drupal form that you create and display them in whatever way you want.

Is Field group an indispensable module? If you are not really worried about forms on your site, then you can probably skip it. But if you do have forms that you want to make more user friendly, this is the module to use.

Media

, Advomatic and Palantir.netVersion tested: 7.x-1.2 Certified for: Drupal 7 Price: Free

Working with Media was a pleasant experience, if only because it's something that I have come across before on Drupal sites.

Until recently, dealing with media files in Drupal has been a cumbersome process, at best. It was never something that was pleasant or unpleasant -- just something to deal with in the course of creating content.

Media changes the game. It's faster than the Drupal core tools and more intuitive. In an article editor, just click on the Image icon, and you can choose from a local file, select something already stored in the Media folder or pull something in from the Web via its URL -- even a YouTube video.

Multimedia content is easy to add with Media.

Media offers, very simply, functionality that must be in your site's tool collection.

Menu block

7.x-2.3 Certified for: Drupal 5/6/7 Price: Free

Since menus are a big part of Drupal's infrastructure, it's a little surprising that the menu editing and configuration controls in Drupal are as limited as they are.

Menu block gets around this problem by enabling a much deeper level of menu configuration within Drupal.

Menu block enables a much deeper level of menu configuration within Drupal.

It was nice to be able to play with the menu settings with this tool. I was thinking about all of the things that I wish I'd been able to do with menus the last time I worked with a Drupal site, and found myself a bit bitter that Menu block wasn't available then.

But it's here now, which is all that matters. Save yourself some menu headaches and grab this module today.

Views

7.x-3.5 Certified for: Drupal 6/7 Price: Free

Lists within Drupal are funny. Like everything else in Drupal, they are keyed to display in a certain way based on the parameters of the node type in which they are located.

This means that if you want to display a list (or anything else within a content node) differently, you will have to modify the entire content type. Or, you can use Views.

Views, according to its creators, is a smart query builder for Drupal that displays any sort of list, like forum posts, tables of content or what have you, in a specific way, based on the query you build. This means you can sort or filter the content of the individual list and come up with an interesting content node like, say, a list of unread forum posts.

List parameters can get updated fast in View.

This is not a module that's going to win a lot of popularity awards, because it does only one thing -- but it does it very well. It's a pretty nice tool to have in your Drupal toolbox if your site uses a lot of list-type content.

Workbench

7.x-1.1 Certified for: Drupal 7 Price: Free

Drupal has a lot of power under its hood, which makes developers and site admins very happy. Content managers and providers? Not so much.

The very simple Drupal interface that makes life happy for coders can be downright confusing to those people who just want to go in and post an article or a blog post. This is something that Joomla and WordPress do quite well, and it's a problem for Drupal users.

Workbench is a big step towards solving that problem. It's a very simple interface that lets users add, delete and edit content easily (based on business and organization roles, not just Drupal's user roles). Once installed and enabled, it sets up a nice little My Workbench page to manage content.

Workbench is a very simple interface that lets users add, delete and edit content easily.

The impact of this app can be great, because content providers need a place to be able to come in and just work with what they do best: content creation.

Brian Proffitt is a veteran IT writer with experience in open source, mobile and big data technologies. An unrepentant Hoosier, he can be followed on Twitter: @TheTechScribe.

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