Drupal 9: what you need to know

The latest major version upgrade to Drupal is on the horizon. So will this mean a big change for people with Drupal websites? What do you need to do and how quickly do you need to act? 

Here's what we've heard about Drupal 9 so far, and what you need to know if your existing website is based on Drupal 7 or Drupal 8.

Number 9 shown as an orange neon sign on a black background

The latest major Drupal release – Drupal 9 – is due on 3rd June 2020. Will this mean major upgrade headaches for organisations with Drupal websites? We looked into it to find out... 

Drupal has long been IE Digital's CMS platform of choice, and it's a popular option for many organisations. IE clients using either Drupal 7 or Drupal 8 include the likes of Sexwise, Legal Choices, Career Ready, the University College of Osteopathy and Local Authority Building Control (LABC), while other blue-chip Drupal users include Estée Lauder, Terrence Higgins Trust and NASA. 

Naturally the news of a major release presents a few questions for these organisations, but the good news is that there is plenty of time to get your house in order.

What we know about Drupal 9 so far

The upgrade is prompted by how much Drupal relies on many third party libraries. Drupal 8 adopted semantic versioning, with features reaching us in smaller, backwards-compatible minor releases; but third party library updates can’t be guaranteed to be backwards compatible, so changes that impact backwards compatibility always have to be issued with a major release.

For example, Drupal 8 uses the high-performance PHP framework Symfony 3, which reaches the end of its life cycle in November 2021. This needs to be upgraded with a major release – in this case Drupal 9 – or it will break backwards compatibility.

Drupal 9 will bring a big cleanup of deprecated code, to make way for new improvements and better practices. A full list of everything that will be considered deprecated in Drupal 9 is dropping on 4th December, so keep an eye out for that if you want to know more.

Drupal’s third party libraries will undergo some changes, including updates and removals. You can view the full list of changes here, but updates include Symfony, Twig and CKEditor.

There are no new features expected per se, and the main benefit of Drupal 9 will be the security fixes that will occur after November 2021.

Tips for a panic-free upgrade to Drupal 9

Because Drupal 9 was built within Drupal 8, its technology will have been tested thoroughly in Drupal 8 – the first time this has been possible for a major Drupal release. The upgrade provides no new features and only removes depreciated code and updates dependencies, so this major release should be the smoothest yet.

In a post for the Drupal blog, Drupal founder and project lead Dries Buytaert wrote that “as long as modules and themes stay up to date with the latest Drupal 8 APIs, the upgrade to Drupal 9 should be easy [and a] 12- to 18-month upgrade period should suffice”.


Dries-note Drupalcon Nashville 2018 by Susanne Coates – Flickr (Creative Commons)
Dries Buytaert speaking at Drupalcon


I'm still on Drupal 7 (or earlier) – should I wait for Drupal 9?

Because lots of websites will still be using Drupal 7 in 2020, support for D7 will continue until November 2021 – at which point support ends for both D7 and D8. This means no more official community support, automated testing or updates by the Drupal Security Team.

So in theory, you have plenty of time. However, since Drupal 7 to Drupal 8 is a much bigger leap than the upgrade to Drupal 9, it’s a good idea to start thinking about your Drupal 7 to Drupal 8 upgrade now. A clean upgrade to Drupal 8 will make the transition to D9 really easy later on. In other words, if your site is due a refresh, you may as well go for it with Drupal 8, rather than wait.

There’s advice for preparing your D7 site for D9 here.

I'm on Drupal 8 – do I need to upgrade?

For those with a D8 site, your upgrade should be as painless as doing a minor version upgrade (e.g. 8.6 to 8.7), providing you are not  deprecated APIs. You can check whether you do by using some of the available tools. The best way to prep if you have a D8 site is just to keep everything up to date. 

Again, the key date is November 2021, when support for Drupal 8 will cease. So you'll have a year and a half after Drupal 9’s release to complete your upgrade. 

How long will Drupal 9 be sticking around?

Drupal 9’s life cycle is as yet unknown, but will depend on the life cycles of its big dependencies.

IE Digital's advice for Drupal users

The upgrades are coming - so the best way forward is not to fear the upgrades but to embrace them by making a plan. The better prepared you go in, the easier it will be to transition to Drupal 9.

If you’re looking to build a new website using the Drupal platform but you’re concerned about the impending changes, don’t be! The Drupal 9 major release looks to be the most seamless one yet, with the least disruption to existing sites.

Need a helping hand? IE Digital are experts in building Drupal websites. We'd be delighted to advise you on yours.