Four Kitchens

Meet Aquifer: A build system for easier Drupal development

7 Min. ReadDevelopment

What is a build system?

Build systems simplify the development process by leveraging a single tool to handle dependency management, automate tasks like testing, consolidate steps to compile/deploy the product, reduce repetitive steps, and streamline onboarding.

Using a build system often leads to using an organized directory and file structure which can be reused across projects, reinforcing best practices, simplifying the process to ramp up new teammates, and making maintainable choices (StackOverflow by haylem). It helps debugging across environments as well.

While build systems have been in use in software projects for decades, they’re newer for web projects. Web development used to be limited to serving static assets (HTML, CSS, JS, and images). From there, the industry started having the server execute pieces of the source files to adjust the output dynamically (SHTML, Perl, or PHP) to do things like add modification dates, include reusable snippets, etc. But over the years, this “dynamic content” gave rise to full CMS-based websites. The change may have happened gradually, but these really are full applications now. They should be managed as such, especially enterprise sites or sites with large/revolving development teams.

We use Aquifer as a build system for Drupal.

At Four Kitchens, we saw several pain points in developing and maintaining large Drupal sites—problems that boiled down to not having a build system, particularly around ramping up new developers on projects quickly. We wanted to streamline this process, but discovered that in the Drupal world there are few boilerplates or shell scripts that supported a Drush make workflow. None were cross-compatible. So Patrick Coffey started the Aquifer project, supported by many other Web Chefs at Four Kitchens.

Aquifer is a command line interface that makes it easy to scaffold, build, test, and deploy your Drupal websites. It provides a default set of tools that allow you to develop, and build Drupal sites using the Drush-make workflow. In addition, Aquifer ships with an extensions system that allows you to add additional tools to your project.

Aquifer is now running on all Drupal 7 and Drupal 8 new builds at Four Kitchens, supporting dozens of Web Chefs, contractors, and client-side developers.

Business value

On my current project, I’m the Product Owner. This means that in addition to managing requirements, being the client’s advocate, and planning releases, I am also the steward of the client’s money. Anything that can be made “easier” or “faster” equates to more functionality for the money spent, and fewer billables overall.

Aside from the technical benefits below, having a build system generally, and using Aquifer specifically, has benefited this and other projects around Four Kitchens in the following ways:

  • Fewer manual steps for creating or updating a development instance allows team members to onboard faster and helps them switch between branches without regressions.
  • Consistent code quality makes code reviews easier with a higher rate of acceptance on the first pass.
  • Eliminating core and contrib code makes code reviews faster and highlights patched code for extra scrutiny if that is a necessity.
  • Each of the following pain-points grows as the project gets older or bigger, challenging a site’s overall maintainability.

Drupal development pain points solved

Core and contrib code in the repo

Old way: Using git or another distributed source control system is essential, but most Drupal sites are constructed by including Drupal’s core and all contributed modules and themes in the repository. This makes a huge repo full of code you didn’t write and aren’t responsible for. Then you have to sort through that when you review PRs.

New way: Build systems would call core and contrib “dependencies.” A build system fetches dependencies as needed. Aquifer leverages Drush Make to download the specified versions of core and contrib modules on each build. This keeps your repo lean, free of code outside your project.

Managing updates

Old way: Use Drush (or download) updates to modules and/or core as needed, then commit it all as a giant changeset (or, if you’re crazy like me, spend more time splitting it up).

New way: Adjust the drush.make file as needed with the newest or preferred version of the module you’re using, then build and deploy. This makes changes very visible, yet also quite simple:

  • You can git blame the drush.make file to figure out exactly when which components were updated and by whom.
  • Sometimes you don’t want to update a module unless it’s a security release. In the “old way,” you’d either need to remember to reset that module’s directory pre-commit or fiddle with locking the module version in the Update config. This way, you can update what you want and not update what you don’t want.

Fear not, the Drupal Update module will still offer notifications as usual.

Managing patches

In the course of Drupal development, you will likely one day need to alter a contrib or core file. Doing so in an organized and responsible way is the key to maintainability (aka “not breaking your site”).

Old way: Get the patch from D.o, apply it and add the patch to the repo (preferably in a separate directory so it isn’t wiped out in an update), and commit it all. Then, if the patched component is ever updated, make sure you didn’t lose track of the patch, apply it again (hoping it applies cleanly), and commit. If you’re not using a patch from D.o but instead writing code yourself, you need to make sure you’re making patches and applying them this way! There is no system in place to ensure developers actually do this but code reviews.

New way: You cannot directly edit core or contrib code because it will be downloaded anew on each build. Instead, Aquifer will apply all patches in the patches directory during build. This way you will:

  • Never have confusion about whether a patch was applied or not.
  • Never have any untracked modification of a contrib or core file which would be wiped out in an update.
  • Be notified easily if a patch doesn’t apply following an update.
  • Everyone on the team can easily see what has been patched and how.

The refresh: Avoiding database config, keeping database sync’d to code

We all know not to do development or site building work on production. But Drupal’s database does hold overrides that can occasionally sneak in. If your local database doesn’t match the code you’ve checked out, you may not see bugs or regressions until they clash with config in production. Also, there’s no way to review those overrides in a unified way (at least in D7).

Old way: Check out the code you’re working on. Copy down the Production database or a backup. Run something like drush features-revert-all (fra) and drush cache-clear all (cc all) multiple times, then an updb and assume all overrides are cleared, all changes in the code have been applied, and any new update hooks have executed. Then, unless you’re using the Master module, enable things like fields_ui, views_ui, devel and disable anything that is production-specific.

New way: Check out the code you’re working on. Copy down the Production database or a backup. Run aquifer refresh. Get to work with confidence that your instance is up to date with your code.

Refresh can be customized for your project, but we usually have refresh run these steps in order:

  • Rebuild registry (refreshes Drupal’s autoloader cache, drush rr)
  • Set the Master module scope to local (enable all the dev modules/tools automatically)
  • Clear all caches
  • Execute the Master scope change
  • Run all update hooks
  • Revert all features
  • Execute a final cache clear all

Code quality and automated testing

Old way: Install and separately execute additional toolchains for code linting and automated testing.

New way: Aquifer Coder can lint all PHP and JavaScript in your repo (which is only your own code) with aquifer lint to ensure adherence to Drupal coding style and standards for better consistency and code sharing.

Additionally, use Aquifer Run to execute post-build commands to prepare your frontend assets, execute tests, or any other repetitive tasks. In the future, there will be dedicated Aquifer extensions for different testing frameworks or frontend toolchains, but using Run in the meantime reduces the number of manual steps.

Using Aquifer for your projects

How do I get started?

Check out the Aquifer Quick-start Guide. A few hints I’ll add:

  • We strongly recommend using nvm to manage your Node.js and module versions. Installing Node from Ubuntu or Homebrew packages leads to lots of outdated code and permissions issues, which snowball.
  • Never use sudo for anything in this process. Aquifer uses NPM modules to download its extensions and prepare files to be executed by your web server, which may in turn save cached files in some directories. If some part of this process is executed with sudo, soon you’ll have a mess of files owned by root, pushing you to use sudo more, all executing code from the Internet with elevated privileges, which is a major security risk. Web Chef Matt Grill wrote NPM Doctor to help get yourself out of that spiral.
  • Occasionally, Aquifer can’t find your installation of Drush and provides a somewhat cryptic error message about it. Adding a line in the paths section of my aquifer.json file fixed this: "drush": "/home/tsmith/.composer/vendor/bin/drush",.

Can I use it on a project which already exists?

Yes! Aquifer uses a Drush Make workflow, so what you need is a makefile. Drush can generate this for you:

  1. In an existing Drupal site, execute drush make-generate drupal.make
  2. Create a new Aquifer project.
  3. Copy in that makefile.
  4. At this point, you’ll need to bring in your custom code into the Aquifer directory structure
  5. From there, aquifer build should generate a build directory that looks just like your existing docroot. After testing it thoroughly, you can use Aquifer Git to deploy your project to the existing repo for deployment.


Using a build system streamlines the development process, particularly across multiple developers working on a single project. By reducing errors in repetitive steps, keeping the code repository lean and well organized, enabling a one-step build, ensuring high code quality, and providing a way to prevent database conflicts with the code, Aquifer has become a demonstrably valuable part of the Four Kitchens development process.