University of Waterloo

Established in 1957, University of Waterloo enrolls over 40,000 full- and part-time students. It has been recognized as as Canada’s most innovative university for 28 years (Maclean’s 2020), and ranks #2 in Canada for computer science and engineering (U.S. News and World Report 2020). It boasts a world-renowned co-op program, a Nobel Prize winning faculty member, and alumni in 151 countries.

University of Waterloo desktop design


Waterloo currently runs its 950 sites on a single Drupal 7 multisite system. With Drupal 7 approaching “end of life” (end of maintenance, updates, and security support) in November 2022, it has initiated the process of moving to Drupal 8/9. In addition to modernizing the codebase, Waterloo seeks to simplify its system and content architecture, better serve its content maintainers, and streamline and improve platform maintenance.

Migrating University of Waterloo website from Drupal 7 to Drupal 8/9


The scale and complexity of Waterloo’s current platform create significant challenges. The codebase shared by its 950 sites includes approximately 400 contributed and custom modules, and a theme system with multiple layers of dependencies. This makes for tricky maintenance, with many interdependencies and potential conflicts.

The content architecture includes a large number of content types and widespread use of structured HTML with embedded entities for custom page layouts. A key hurdle in this migration is drawing out those custom page layouts from their current rich text fields and reworking them into Drupal’s new Layout Builder.

This complexity means that the team cannot rely solely on automated, out-of-the box migration.

With hundreds of content maintainers and millions of monthly pageviews, it is critical that the move to Drupal 8/9 preserves data integrity and minimizes business disruption, all while meeting the deadline set by Drupal 7’s end of life.

University of Waterloo tablet design


Evolving Web provided training and consulting to the Waterloo team. We conducted an on-site workshop and virtual work sessions where we gathered requirements, identified key challenges, and discussed Waterloo’s goals. After distilling these insights and researching possible solutions, we presented our recommendations in a final report that included an extensive systems and situational audit, and a roadmap for the new content architecture, platform migration, devops, and change management.

Our approach to helping Waterloo achieve its goals is focused tightly on simplification: simplified architecture, simplified migration and rollout, simplified editor experience, simplified maintenance.

  • Moving from a single shared codebase to site-by-site installations drawn from a shared repository, with minimal per-site customizations
  • Simplification of theme hierarchy and module selections.
  • Reduction in the number of content types, with currently embedded content types shifted to custom blocks or block types.
  • Modernization of the editor experience with Layout Builder. 
  • Migration roadmap with guidance for breaking the process into manageable chunks, extracting rich text layouts to Layout Builder, and progressing from simple to complex.
  • DevOps guide for code maintenance, continuous integration, and testing with GitLab, Pantheon Upstream, Jenkins, and Behat. Read more about our experience with Patheon Custom Upstreams for universities here.
  • Detailed recommendations for Drupal core tools, contributed modules, and third-party tools with step-by-step introductory tutorials.
University of Waterloo mobile design

Why Drupal?

While Waterloo’s legacy Drupal 7 system made staying with Drupal an intuitive choice, its features and benefits made it the right one. Higher education has been a driving force in the evolution and adoption of Drupal since its early days.

Today, 71% of the world’s top universities use Drupal, and it’s easy to see why. It is highly scalable, API-driven, fully customizable, integrates well with widely used tools and services, and implements today’s security best practices.

Drupal 8 includes features and tools for compliance with web accessibility standards, and its themes are designed to be responsive by default. Furthermore, as an open source platform with a thriving, engaged community of users and contributors, Drupal is well-suited to the spirit of collaboration and innovation that is so key to the University of Waterloo’s culture. 

University of Waterloo students