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At the College of Life Sciences we have been faced with a problem in recent times. The success of rolling out Drupal as our content management system of choice has in itself caused its own headaches. As our users saw the flexibility of the system and the ease with which new functionality could quickly be developed, it became obvious that our ideal of having one install to rule them all, just wasn't going to scale in practice.
In order to make a site that was robust, we wanted the ability to have a staging environment. We did this by effectively having two Drupal installs. A live one that our main address pointed to, and a staging site where all the edits were made. Every hour a couple of drush scripts would run to mirror the staging site onto the live site. This system worked well when we only had one site to worry about. But as divisions and labs started to come along and want their own look and feel and break out of the corporate mould, the complexity rose and soon became unscalable. The site was built on Drupal 6, and unfortunately as the complexity rose, the performance of the site and of its sync process decreased. We also became increasingly nervous about creating new functionality that may or may not break existing sites. Due to resourcing, we simply didn't have the capacity to test each and every website every time we wanted to make a change.
We then discovered Aegir. Aegir is to Drupal as VMWare is to server infrastructure. It allows the administrator to create standard platforms and to then create sites based on those standard platforms very quickly and very easily in an automated fashion that drastically cuts down the administration overhead. Testing becomes a breeze as the admin interface allows you to quickly and easily clone a live site and then do testing on the cloned site before making the changes on the live site.
Upgrades also become a breeze. Need to upgrade to a new version of Drupal core? Easy, simply build a new platform and migrate the site using the admin interface. Upgrades are performed automatically and the end user notices very little if any interruption in service.
Is it really that easy?
Yes and no. Like all things Drupal, the learning curve can be high for the first time user. Given that it's still relatively new in the Drupal marketplace, best practice is still being written by those that are deploying it out. However we now have over 40 sites running on the sysytem and it has made it possible to manage a large multisite installation and still give users the on demand development that they desire without having to impact other sites.
I'll try to go into a bit more depth in later posts about the good and bad points about running an Aegir system, but suffice to say the potential of Aegir to revolutionise what we do is immense and makes the future a very exciting place to be.