Four Kitchens

Aligning diverging websites with an upstream platform through Drupal

4 Min. ReadDevelopment

The Columbia SPS homepage
The Columbia SPS homepage

For higher ed institutions, the need to manage updates for multiple websites is an ongoing struggle. Each site should reflect the distinct identity of a given school or department. But as each website’s CMS, frontend design, and backend architecture diverge, any organization will need to grapple with the necessary upkeep.

Columbia School of Professional Studies (SPS) faced this situation with three separate websites. One site presents summer courses, another targets high school students with pre-college offerings, and the third is the traditional SPS website. Each domain serves a different audience and is managed by a small team.

As each website continued to diverge, users found it difficult to recognize them as part of the same school. Worse yet, the three websites were on two different versions of Drupal and had grown difficult to maintain, as one platform was reaching its end of life.

SPS came to Four Kitchens seeking an upstream solution to provide relief. In this preview of an upcoming presentation at DrupalCon Portland 2024’s Higher Education Summit, the Config Split module has a newer feature that cleared the way for an efficient resolution.

How an upstream platform streamlines diverging websites

Columbia SPS needed a solution that would resolve multiple nagging issues. In much the same way that a design system streamlines operations by creating a centralized content resource, an upstream platform enables multiple websites to share a single codebase.

Along with bringing the organization’s Drupal instances into alignment and reducing technical debt, the approach offered three core advantages:

  • Increased efficiency: Enable the university to maintain multiple websites with less effort. When you update code in one place, it impacts every site in the organization.
  • Greater consistency: Align user experience and simplify internal planning for site updates.
  • Streamlined development: Shared code, security updates, and component access. No matter what site Columbia’s team works on, they know what processes to expect.

To make sure each site could still offer a distinct experience, Columbia didn’t want to share content or merge each website into one. They primarily wanted to make each easier to manage for their team.

Offer shared (but distinct) experiences through Config Split

Creating an upstream platform for Columbia SPS hinged on the Configuration Split Drupal module. Put simply, this module allows you to apply a different configuration to a website to suit specific scenarios. You can use Config Split to make sure you only see error logs on your test environment (not your live site).

The Columbia SPS Summer Session website
The Columbia SPS Summer Session website

However, Columbia SPS still wanted its three websites to offer distinct features. To enable this flexibility, we used a newer feature in the 2.x versions of the Config Split module that includes patching and stacking of configuration changes. This feature allows Columbia SPS to apply part of a website configuration to each website.

For example, each university website may share the same article structure. But one website can support a distinctive CTA component at the bottom. Columbia SPS now has that flexibility — and it doesn’t cause chaos from a website maintenance standpoint.

With Config Split, Columbia can use a single code repository to maintain three sites that have their own distinct details within the same baseline features. We also provided SPS with a base demo site that keeps Config Split from allowing too much flexibility. Adding rules to settings.php provides a home for the logic for each site to make sure they follow the proper configuration.

Plus, the demo site functions as a mold if the organization needs to add a new website. Along with providing support for the organization’s current needs, the upstream platform provides support for the future.

Avoiding pitfalls of upstream platforms in higher ed

Implementing an upstream solution for Columbia SPS enabled the university to run its separate sites more efficiently and provide a more consistent experience. Just as importantly, the institution escaped the shadow of a Drupal 7 migration, which stands as a major benefit for the organization.

However, adopting an upstream platform carries its own complications. For all the advantages Columbia SPS gained, the organization also needs to be mindful of a few potential pitfalls of an upstream platform:

  1. Bringing distinct site features back into alignment is difficult: If Columbia SPS wanted to roll back a configuration that was previously split, the sites can be difficult to manage locally.
  2. Shifting priorities for Drupal updates: Platform updates must be made against the demo site first to maintain alignment between each web property.
  3. Increased work for developing multiple features: An upstream platform reduces complexity, but working in a single repository presents its own challenges. Creating distinct features for individual websites requires a little more work on the part of your development team.

Upstream platforms offer efficiency and consistency for higher ed

Navigating the specific needs for multiple websites is a persistent challenge for higher ed institutions. On the one hand, delivering a consistent experience drawn from a single codebase is easier to manage, especially for a small, centralized IT team. On the other hand, individual departments and schools have specific design and functionality needs. They should be able to offer website experiences distinct from the look and feel of your core website.

With an upstream platform, you gain the functionality to serve both needs. The solution introduces new complexity, but with an experienced development partner, a multisite platform allows your team to work more efficiently. Better still, if your organization needs to maintain multiple platforms as your websites have diverged, you gain key benefits from addressing needed upgrades.

Would this kind of solution help your organization? Let us know how we can help.


If you’re going to DrupalCon Portland 2024, please make sure to attend the Higher Education Summit to hear directly from Mike and the team at Columbia SPS.

Where: Oregon Convention Center (777 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Portland, OR 97232), Room C123-124

When: Thursday, May 9, 2024, 9:00am – 4:00pm

For tickets and session details, click here.