The Absolute Beginners Guide to Drupal Distributions

| Drupal

One of the most common hurdles that Drupal beginners face is learning to navigate the modules area on

We often hear questions like, "There are over 10,000 modules! How we do know which ones to use and in which combinations?"

The answer is often to use a distribution.

Building your own e-commerce, intranet or a social networking site in Drupal can be intimidating. Imagine how much easier it would be if an expert had found all the best modules for your purpose and had combined them into one package. Imagine that you could download and install that package as easily as a normal copy of Drupal. That's what distributions can do for you.

Where to Find Drupal Distributions

Drupal distributions are considered important enough that they have two areas on the homepage.

  • Click the link on the left and you will get a detailed explanation of what distributions are.
  • Click the link on the right and you'll get a download page with over 400 distributions:

Examples of Drupal Distributions

Here are five examples of Drupal distributions that are designed to meet a specific need:

  • OpenPublic: Governments. It meets government accessibility and security standards that default Drupal does not.
  • Pressflow: Heavy-traffic websites. Pressflow is designed to improve Drupal's handling of heavy traffic. It's used to run
  • Drupal Commons: Social-networking. User profiles, networking groups and more are already configured for you.
  • COD: Conferences. It's often used to power the official DrupalCon sites.
  • Open Atrium: Intranets. It provides projects areas, calendars, case trackers and more.

Installing a Drupal Distribution

In most cases, installing a Drupal distribution will be exactly the same as installing a plain copy of Drupal. We're going to use the example of Drupal Commerce to walk you through installing a typical distribution. You can download this package from

The main difference during installation is that you will be given the option of choosing an installation profile during install.


The installation profile might also offer you the choice of some additional features. In the case of Drupal Commerce, you have the option of installing sample content:


This is the how the Drupal Commerce distribution looks like after install. You'll see that some sample content is in place. You'll also notice that the admin menu bar has been replaced and enhanced.


If you want to actually give Drupal Commerce a try, start with our tutorial

Things to Note: The File Structure of Distributions

When you install a distribution, you'll see the phrase "installation profile" used. This can cause confusion, so let's explain the difference.

A distribution is not an installation profile. The installation profile is underneath the distribution and site in the /profiles/ folder.

Take a look at the image below which is a screenshot of the Drupal Commerce distribution. All of the extra modules and themes are in the /profiles/ folder. They are not in the /sites/all/modules/ folder as you would expect.

  • Installation profile = all of the files in /profiles/commerce_kickstart/
  • Distribution = all of the files into the entire package, not just in the /profiles/ folder.

Notes of Caution on Using Distributions

Although distributions are powerful time-savers, it's worth being aware of some potential drawbacks:

  • Because of their complexity, many distributions are still only for Drupal 6.
  • They can be confusing for beginners. You do need some knowledge of Drupal before using them, otherwise you'll find yourself trying to reverse engineer some fairly advanced features.
  • It's not unusual for a Drupal distribution to have a radically different admin area design. The advantage is that the admin area is often good fit for the purpose of the distribution. For example, the image below shows Open Atrium which is designed for intranets. This admin area design works much more effectively for an intranet than the default Drupal design. The disadvantage is that distributions often need custom training. For example, normal books and training materials won't apply to Open Atrium so it has its own books and materials.
tutuploadsmedia_1341514816016.png gives a list of time when it is really useful to use a distribution on

  • Evaluating Drupal: Distributions are easier to setup and you can see real life examples of what Drupal can do.
  • Demoing Drupal: Before building a site for someone it can be useful to show them examples of how Drupal can be configured.
  • Learning Drupal: You can analyse real, working features.
  • Quickly building a site: If you're building a site similar to one provided by a distribution, it makes sense to start with a distribution. If you're changing too much though, it may make more sense to just start with stock Drupal and build from there, rather than try to undo and change what was setup for you.

About the author

Steve is the founder of OSTraining. Originally from the UK, he now lives in Sarasota in the USA. Steve's work straddles the line between teaching and web development.