10 Web Services and Tools for Drupal Developers and Agencies

Drupal Developer Toolkit: Web Services for Agencies and Freelancers

Last week I started a series with you all: Upgrading Your Drupal Developer Toolkit. In today's tutorial post, we'll work through web services that any freelance Drupal developer, small consultancy, or agency will find useful within their tool set of outsourcing methods.

Web services that focus on software-as-a-service (SaaS) are often excellent returns on investment for small business. They help eliminate the need for internal expertise that otherwise might have to be provided for by an employee, contractor, or partnership often underutilized. Daymuse is a successful web development consultancy, but we couldn't reasonably hire a full time accountant with our current workload. This struggle, where small business may have workers who "wear many hats", is apparent in industries outside of Drupal and web development. However, there's several industry-specific services that I think may help you reduce costs and frustration. Let an external web service reduce the weight of some of those hats. I'd like to shed some light on our experiences with web services and what we've been using happily over our last seven years of experimentation.

10 Web Services to support your Drupal Business

My service recommendations come from the point of view of a relatively small web development company. They won't be for everyone, but I find they work well for us. Of course, they can be useful outside the realm of the Drupal content management system (CMS), too! Tweet us your own recommendations and feedback!

1. Team Communication: Slack

Slack sits somewhere between email and instant messaging. It's a sort of expanded IRC with a slick interface. You can easily attach files and share links (with teasers embedded). You can group conversations by channels: a channel for each project or client so that a conversation will retain context as you switch between them. Slack is abundantly cross platform with a quality desktop, mobile, and web app. The free pricing level has suited our needs so far just fine.

Slack is the newest addition to our team's arsenal of tools, but it's already become part of our routine.

2. Project Planning: Basecamp

​If you're too small to have a dedicated project manager sporting a slick PMP, Basecamp is about as close as you're going to get to having your team internally manage projects efficiently. The simplistic, web-based tool allows teams to create projects, task lists, assign priorities, and comment on topics. Think of combining forum software with a checklist and then adding some project management specific niceties.

I've been using Basecamp for years. Competitors have come and gone and there's plenty of competition in the service offering. There's no useful free option for Basecamp, but the $20 per month level does provide for several ongoing projects and a small team to collaborate. Most importantly, external parties (think clients) can handle using Basecamp without much training. Basecamp also offers an excellent, free, mobile app. If you're still managing projects via email and spreadsheets, Basecamp offers an excellent boost to your team's productivity.

Basecamp is simple project management because that's all it needs to be. Watch out for complicating this process more than need be.

3. Accounting and Payments: Freshbooks

When Daymuse first started, I'd track time on projects with a stopwatch and a spreadsheet. When I wanted to send an invoice to a client, the process would look something like this:

  1. Call up an invoice template in Word
  2. Frustration begins modifying content as I break the layout
  3. Contemplate why we're still using Tables for layout in Word docs, frustration rises
  4. Send email, forget to attach invoice
  5. Cry and repeat

I'd forget who I sent an invoice to and when. I tried keeping track via a calendar app, one more thing to deal with. I couldn't easily accept credit cards without creating a PayPal invoice. The layout of the invoices was somewhat haphazard and the emails themselves were similarly inconsistent. It was unprofessional.

If I ever wanted to gather statistics for how the business was doing: profit, expenses, time-to-pay per client, and so on—I'd have to fire up a spreadsheet and lose a bunch of time doing that instead of real work.

Freshbooks changed all of that. Time tracking is now a simple process of clicking start/stop and selecting an appropriate project/task. Invoices are cloned and modified in minutes. Payment reminders are automatically sent and customizable. Clients can pay with credit cards directly from the invoice. I can bring up reports on just about any financial aspect for the business and monitor trends. All of this can be easily shared with external tax professionals. Freshbooks also offers a lovely mobile app and can sync with Basecamp.

Freshbooks made everything to do with money, easier. Their plans start as low as $108/year. Ignoring all the headache and time saving, making the process of time tracking easier will make up for the cost by helping you properly bill for your Drupal expertise.

4. Payroll: Gusto (previously ZenPayroll)

If you've taken on Payroll as a small business, you already know what a difficult process it can be. Good luck setting up all the necessary tax payment processes, following all the dates to make sure money goes to all the right places at the right time. There's also serious implications to making mistakes here: fines and interest add up. Keep being a Drupal expert and avoid becoming a Payroll expert. We switched from a local provider of Payroll services (who did a fine job) to an online provider to better fit our processes.

After reviewing several options, Gusto seemed to be the best choice. Their custom service is excellent. Every time I've had a question or issue, they're easily available via phone or email. We also saved money as Gusto's pricing is very competitive. Gusto offers an excellent mobile app and syncs with Freshbooks.

5. Cloud Hardware, Website Hosting: ​Amazon Web Services (AWS)

We reviewed all the major "cloud" hardware providers before choosing AWS to build out our infrastructure. All of our services exist within the systems provided by AWS. Our data backups are stored in AWS snapshots. We use RDS for our databases, which provides MySQL as a service with automatic regional failover. Virtualized, easily scalable hardware means it's easy to spin up an additional Varnish instance as anonymous traffic grows or Memcache instances to protect your MySQL backends from unnecessary repeated selects. We route client emails over SMTP (well supported Drupal module) through Amazon's Simple Email Service (SES). This lets us avoid worry about spam and yet another support need. If you do technical work on the web, Amazon likely offers software-as-a-service solutions to make your life easier, outsourcing one of the technical balls you're trying to juggle internally.

We've also been experimenting with Digital Ocean for certain, smaller, one-off projects. Their pricing starts at $5/month for a service we've found to handle a basic Drupal or Wordpress instance largely because all of Digital Ocean's offerings are SSD based. The least expensive plan only has 512MB of memory which is admittedly too little for all but the most basic Drupal sites, but the $10/month plan kicks it up to 1GB which will certainly support most small or local business informational Drupal websites. Like AWS, Digital Ocean generally targets technically savvy users: this isn't a service that I would recommend non-technical small business owners to try to DIY your own Drupal with. Digital Ocean does offer one-click Drupal installs (as well as Wordpress and other popular CMS), though.

Drupal Cloud Website Hosting

I would be remiss not to mention the two big players that provide Drupal-specific web hosting: Pantheon and Acquia. Pantheon provides a more developer-centric platform with an excellent GUI for managing development environments and migrations. Their backend is Rackpace. Acquia targets larger organizations, with its bread-and-butter being larger corporations looking to offload all Drupal-related web management. Acquia's backend is Amazon and is corporate arm of Drupal's founder.

While Daymuse competes with both Pantheon and Acquia for managed hosting customers generally, they both operate at higher volume levels and are more hands off. We've worked with both Acquia and Pantheon at every level of their service offerings with various clients, often acting as experts supporting the clients' interests when evaluating options. I think Pantheon is an excellent solution for a savvy freelance Drupal developer or small firm that wants to offer hosting as part of their package without building out an infrastructure. Acquia's managed hosting can be a good (though expensive) solution to outsource a large chunk of an internal IT offering, avoiding an in-house team of SysAdmins, DevOps, etc for large organizations.

If you're a small-medium business, non-profit, higher ed., or regional government: consider looking into small-medium agencies that specialize in your software and offer managed hosting. Often, they'll be able to offer you the one-on-one attention you need while providing managed hosting services at reasonable costs. That's exactly what we do.

6. Domain Services and Registration: Dreamhost

Domain registration has become one of the more mundane tasks in a web developer's life. Years ago, it was incredibly expensive to purchase your own dot com. Now, there are dozens of registrars available that provide low-cost registration. There's also a lot more choice in domain extensions: more than just .com, .net, .org and the restricted .gov, .edu, or country-specific extensions. The newest top-level domains (TLDs) are more descriptive and niche. Down the street from my office is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts which with their latest redesign moved to http://vmfa.museum. These newer TLDs should reveal an immediate expectation for users when browsing, but it is a significant change on the web and hasn't really caught on just yet. The envy of the web world is still short dot coms.

All of Daymuse's domain registrations have been through Dreamhost for the last several years. They aren't the least expensive registrar, but they do provide quality, direct customer service and include private registration for the domain. Private registration allows domain registrars to obfuscate the WHOIS information for the domain owner, keeping contact information, name, and mailing addresses hidden from public view. We've been pretty happy with Dreamhost. Their domain registration rates haven't seen an increase in quite some time and annual renewals don't tend to be anymore expensive than the initial registration which is sometimes a "gotcha" with other registrars.

In recent months, I've also heard great things about Hover, though I nor Daymuse have ever used them. The general consensus seems to be that they target the slightly less tech savvy folks who'd like to register a domain and not have to understand all the intricacies of DNS and the like. The impression I get is that they help guide you through that process and assist in transfers or associations. Have you had experience with Hover? Tweet me what you've thought about the experience!

7. Email and Calendar Hosting: Google Apps

Our email and calendar system has been provided for by Google Apps since it was first released as a public service and associable with domains. Since then, Google Apps has come out of beta and the baseline account costs about $50 per year per user. Google Apps offers more than just email and calendar, but for those two services, I think business should generally err on the side of caution. Google is a big name and will likely be around for a while yet to come. That's something you want with your email and calendar services. Google Apps is also strongly cross-platform: whether mobile or desktop, Apple or Windows Phone, you'll be to access your email.

We work with a number of healthcare industry clients where HIPAA compliance is an issue. Google Apps does offer HIPAA compliance when dealing with PHI data, but only through their paid accounts. If you're under one of the grandfathered free accounts, you're out of luck.

8. Virtual Conference Calls: Uberconference

​Love it or hate it, conference calls are still a thing. Even if you're a disciple of the Rework mentality of avoiding them, if you want to do business, you'll run into a need for conference calls. For quite some time, I tried to make sure Daymuse would outright avoid them or relegate them to a more leisurely Skype call. Too often, it became more trouble than it was worth: no Skype accounts on the other end of the conversation or the need to call in via a landline. We went hunting for a virtualized conference call solution and found just what we needed about a year ago: Uberconference.

They offer a free pricing tier that I suspect will work for most small business. The service offers digital connection (mic and headphones over the web), call in via a provided number, and screensharing. They also have lots of other nice features such as: SMS reminders, call recording, and mobile apps. Of the several conference call services I've tried, Uberconference is easily the winner for small business like us. They also have hilarious hold music.

9. Web and Application Uptime Monitoring: ​Pingdom

​Do you need to monitor a client's web project uptime to meet an SLA? Want to be notified if a website you support or work with becomes unavailable? Perhaps you just want to know what average uptime on a particular domain is. Pingdom offers this type of domain monitoring service.

Pingdom can go much further than simple up/down monitoring:

  • Are certain pages performing poorly?
  • Do certain interactions (login, then select a nav item, then create a report) running slowly?
  • Is site performance trending towards slower performance?

The service has a lot to offer. At its heart, the easy to configure and free domain uptime monitoring with notifications is hard to beat. It's incredibly useful for just about any freelance web developer or Drupal consultant.

10. Newsletter and Mailing Lists: ​Mailchimp

​Email marketing and the classic newsletter concept has seen a resurgence in recent years. While social media and mobile web initially seemed like a death knell for traditional email, its actually been propping up one of the Internet's original use cases. Email is now available for us on our smartphones, complete with instant notifications, 24/7. All your apps, services, and contacts have a central, default location to reach you: your email.

For that reason, most web properties will want to have some sort of email outreach for users or customers. We've been recommending Mailchimp now for years to clients to solve the problem of handling automated email generation, sending, and subscription handling for large subscriber sets. Mailchimp's free account level is plenty functional for most small business and is the service we use internally for newsletters. While there is a place for custom-designed email templates, Mailchimp offers cross-platform compatible designs which help avoid the incredibly painful process of designing cross-platform emails. Mailchimp is also well-supported in Drupal or Wordpress.

Building a Web Developer Toolkit Series

Web Services serve as another key tool on a Drupal web developer's toolkit. They can help cut out some of those extra hats you've been wearing and balls you've been trying to juggle. Not only can they reduce this effort on non-core competency work (i.e. your web development work), but they can even create a boost in productivity and revenue. Making it easier for your team to track billable time, manage projects, and get work done means a boost in efficiency: more work, more money. What web service mentioned could help you be more productive?

Looking for more in our series on building a web developer toolkit, perfect for freelance Drupal developers, consultants, and agencies?

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