Drupal is one of the most popular open source content management systems today. Unfortunately the default Drupal installation often requires a lot of customization to meet an organization's needs, so you have to rely on Drupal's thousands of extensions to tailor the software to do exactly what you want, and that takes time. It would be easier if you could install Drupal with all the extensions that you want to use straight out of the box – and you can do just that by using Drupal distributions.
Don't let the word "distribution" fool you into thinking that Drupal is churning out its own brand of Linux. In Drupal, each distribution contains the Drupal core, plus themes, extensions, and configuration for a specific kind of website. When you install a distribution instead of the stock Drupal release, you get all the modules and settings for that particular kind of website out of the box. The Drupal project hosts more than 600 distributions on its website, so unless you have a very niche kind of site in mind, chances are there's already a Drupal distributions that meets your needs.
For example, if you wish to create a commercial website with Drupal, you can use the Commerce Kickstart distribution. It contains Drupal core and the Drupal Commerce module, with all the dependencies installed and configured, and various other modules that you need to create a commercial website. Other popular distributions are aimed at online news sites, government and public policy organizations, nonprofits, schools, churches, content authoring, and collaboration.
You can only deploy a distribution when installing Drupal for the first time. Distributions are not a bundle of settings that you can apply to an existing Drupal installation.
When you start looking at distributions, you'll run into the term installation profile. Before Drupal 6, that term was quite different from a distribution, but the distinction has diminished in subsequent releases, and these days people use the two terms interchangeably, even though the two things are really different.
You can think of an installation profile as a building block for a distribution. You cannot have the latter without the former.
Installation profiles contain basic settings that configure Drupal for a particular type of use. An installation profile can tell Drupal to create certain content types or enable modules. A blogging profile, for example, can configure Drupal to create roles that allow multiple users to publish content on a site, enable the blog module, and configure some other settings. But if an installation profile relies on any external modules that are not included in Drupal core, you must fetch them yourself and place them in the modules directory manually.
Distributions, by contrast, contain not just Drupal core but also all required modules and themes, in addition to the specific configuration options.
The process for installing a distribution is exactly the same as that of installing Drupal. You need to create a database for the Drupal installation, make sure your PHP and Apache environments are properly configured, and follow the instructions to install the distribution.
For example, to install the Commerce Kickstart distribution, first download the tarball from the project page and uncompress it into the target directory. On my server I uncompressed it under the htdocs directory on a test XAMPP installation. Rename the directory to something appropriate, such as commerce-site or ck.
Next, create a database for your Drupal site with the proper permissions[as documented somewhere?]. You can use the MySQL prompt for this, or use phpMyAdmin. Keep the database name, username, and password handy, as you will be asked to enter these when installing Drupal.
Finally, take the default.settings.php file that you find under the sites/default/ directory and copy it under the newly uncompressed directory, changing its name to settings.php. Now point your browser to http://localhost/ck and proceed with the browser-based graphical Drupal installation wizard. When the installation is done, instead of the stock Drupal site, you will have a commercial site complete with purchase tracker and checkout cart.
The installation process is identical for almost all Drupal distributions, but you should refer to the INSTALL.txt file within the distribution's uncompressed tarball, and its project page or documentation, to make sure there aren't any additional steps you must take for a succesful installation. A distribution may, for example, require you to tune some PHP settings.
Distributions differ from stock Drupal in many ways. In addition to the extra modules and other additions, almost all distributions provide a unique administrative menu, because distribution makers frequently choose to improve upon the default administrative menu in ways that best fit the purposes of the distribution. Don't be surprised if the menu bar at the top of your installed distribution looks nothing like Drupal's default administrative menu bar. Some distributions create their own unique menu bars, while others rely on one of the many available alternative site navigation modules.
Even though the menus may look different, the administrative functions, such as managing modules, applying updates, and running cron jobs, are still the same whether you install Drupal via the stock release or a distribution.
Most popular distributions provide regular updates for Drupal core and the additional modules included in the distribution. Some distributions include custom modules that its developers create themselves. In such cases you have no choice but to wait for the developer to make updates available, and if the developer stop maintaining the distribution, you might get stuck with a Drupal site that is difficult to update.
Aside from that drawback, there's no reason not to choose a distribution for your website if you can find one that fits your needs. Just choose a distribution that is well-maintained, so you're not stranded with a site riddled with orphan code a few months down the line.
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