In the past I’ve struggled with the decision of whether or not to start a new Drupal project with a distribution. Since Drupal 8 has evolved I’ve noticed the decision has shifted from whether or not to use one, to which one is the right fit. Two things that are fairly new to distributions are sub-profiles and build tools, both of which have influenced the way I approach a new Drupal project.
Sub-profiles are a relatively new thing. While there is still some work to be done in how to manage dependencies and deal with more complex inheritance, inheriting a profile is now possible and in many cases recommended. One example is Acquia's Lightning distribution. Lightning does a good job highlighting the wheels you should not be re-inventing, while also serving as an example of a parent and sub-profile to the well known OpenEDU distribution.
Acquia's article about sub-profiles covers a helpful list of questions to start with such as: Does your new Drupal 8 site need media support? Does it need layout support? As the project develops and matures, are you ready to support the changes that will happen in Drupal core with media and layout, or anything else? As of version 8.3, things like media and layout were only stable enough in contrib, and in 8.4 were only partially moved into core. As of 8.5 and 8.6, workflow, media and layout are planned to be moved into core and stable and will considerably change your site's architecture and implementation. So, with a sub-profile, the specifications for which modules to use and how to use them are now inherited, and not the responsibility of the sub-profile.
The next thing to consider is how, or who, is actually building your profile. If you're not thinking about SaaS, (if you are, see Dries's article about making distributions commercially interesting), then you're really targeting developers. Since Drupal 8 development is now entirely composer based, you might want to checkout what profiles are already doing with composer. Here are some examples of composer.json configurations as well as open source tools that you can integrate with composer:
- Composer scripts - https://github.com/acquia/lightning/blob/8.x-3.x/composer.json - script hooks, (like post-install, pre-install), auto class loading, dependency management, etc.
- Robo task runner - https://github.com/consolidation/Robo - defines tasks in an auto-loaded PHP class RoboFile
- Phing build tool - https://www.phing.info - define tasks with a build.xml
- Testing - PHPUnit test helper methods and classes, as well as addon Behat features and commands
- Starter content - this currently is just a hook_install script that installs a view with a header, but worth trying out and building on
- TravisCI integration - with only a few modifications to an existing .travis.yml file you can setup continuous integration for your profile. The existing configuration already handles setting up your server, installing composer and configuring PHP, installing a local browser for testing, headless browser for testing (see composer hooks), installing and re-installing Drupal (see robo), running tests (see behat, phpunit), and development tools for moving files around in your local development environment.
Using a combination of sub-profiles with these build tools have made starting my new Drupal projects more efficient. There is a lot of helpful material out there to learn from, contribute to, and build on. Hopefully this gives you a great start to focusing your new Drupal projects as well.