Drupal gains ground down under

Computerworld speaks with Drupal's lead developer and several Drupal shops about the open source CMS used in a growing number of organisations around the world, including the Prime Minister’s office.
Agileware's Justin Freeman

Agileware's Justin Freeman

The open source content management system (CMS), Drupal, continues to gain popularity both locally and internationally. The CMS powers several new high profile websites including the Prime Minister's site, launched last month and designed by Canberra-based company OPC IT and ABC's three digital radio websites – Dig Music, ABC Jazz and ABC Country. Internationally, it is used by organisations as diverse as Obama's administration in the US to Greenpeace to McDonalds.

Two years ago, Drupal's lead developer, Dries Buytaert, told Computerworld that his five-year goal was to see many more people using Drupal in many more places to build increasingly complex websites. With a number of attention-gaining Drupal sites launched around the world since then, it seems that Buytaert is on his way to achieving that goal.

Buytaert is predicting that, as has been the case in other countries, the recent launch of large government websites like the Prime Minister's and the ABC sites will trigger further Drupal adoption in Australia.

“This is certainly the pattern that I've seen throughout the rest of the world. First, there are many small sites and eventually a few higher profile Drupal sites launch. This generates a great deal of enthusiasm in local Drupal communities because it validates the work that so many people do, generating momentum for new Drupal opportunities,” he said.

“The most recent example of this phenomenon was in the US when the Obama administration launched the site. It gave Drupal tremendous visibility in web development communities in the US and around the globe, resulting in new interest in Drupal in the public sector at the federal, state and local levels.”

Buytaert sees Drupal as not just a CMS, but more as a “social publishing system [that] enables site owners to seamlessly integrate content and community on a site. Depending on the site, visitors can become content contributors as well as share interesting information with their own network of friends”.

The Prime Minister's site and blog and also the ABC sites, he said, are both good demonstrations of how Drupal provides a technology platform to encourage audience engagement and participation.

“What is unique about Drupal is that it plays in so many different markets. It's great to see people use Drupal to provide transparency in government, to express themselves online in their personal blog, to run a non-profit for a greater good, to enable groups of people to collaborate online, to run a company's intranet, or to run a high-traffic media site,” he said.

Buytaert is pleased with where Drupal is positioned today.

“The combination of content and community capabilities in a single technology platform that appeals to both application developers as well as traditional end users is a great place to be and Drupal is paving the way in this technology area, disrupting many proprietary web content management technologies in the process,” he said.

“It is a great time for open source technologies and Drupal is thriving in this environment.” There are now more than 400,000 Drupal sites around the world, and has a million unique visitors per month.

“[It is] not the prettiest Drupal site, but it is the very heart of the Drupal community - the enthusiasm and passion that Drupal generates among developers around the world – it’s amazing to watch,” said Buytaert.

Drupal verus Joomla, TYPO3 and other Content Management Systems.

Simon Hobbs and his Melbourne-based company, Em Space, is responsible for establishing about about 20 Drupal sites, including one for Lonely Planet. The company's sole business is in building Drupal-based websites for government, not-for-profit organisations and enterprise clients. Hobbs reviewed several systems when setting up his business about five years ago. These included Joomla (then called Mambo) and TYPO3.

“They all try to do the same thing: enable you to create websites out of the box. But at the end of the day you are also looking for something that is a framework that you can build upon as well as something you can design how ever you want and make it look how you need it,” he said.

Hobbs also briefly looked at WordPress as an option, but its focus was on being a blog application and it did not have the breadth that Drupal offered.

“If people come to us and say they would like to have a simple site or a blog, we will often recommend that they go with something like WordPress, but Drupal is definitely the choice for the more complex sites.” When reviewing systems, the main thing that Hobbs was looking for was a clean separation between the functionality and the design.

“I eliminated Joomla at the time because it did not have the same clean structure as Drupal. There were a few key features that Drupal also did a lot better out of the box. The best one being the URL alias [which enables you to] have a clean URL eternally pointed to a page,” he said.

Hobbs admitted that Joomla has a better reputation for corporate-style websites that are clean and tight-looking and that Drupal for a long time has had a reputation of looking really ugly out of the box. He also said that Drupal had a steeper learning curve than Joomla, but it was a worthwhile one for the additional features you gain.

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The framework around Drupal also appealed to Hobbs, which is, he said, a very important consideration to take in to account when assessing open source projects to base a business upon. “The Drupal administration handles a lot of the administration but they have a publicised rule that they can not dictate the direction of the software. That's really important because Mambo was managed by a board where some of the members tried to control the project and that's when it all went crazy and Joomla split off,” he said.

The most challenging Drupal project Em Space has done, according to Hobbs, was for Victorian Chamber of Commerce.

“We did a carbon trading site where businesses could sign up and show their products. The real challenge was that we were starting to go up the chain and deal with a client that was more demanding than past ones. They had legal teams that were very demanding and there was a high expectation for outcomes,” he said.

“There was also a lot of development around what the site was going to do before we even got to see those requirements and the requirements sometimes conflicted with what Drupal does out of the box, so we ended up doing a lot of fighting with Drupal.”

It is easier, when working with Drupal, to get involved from the start of a project and develop the requirements in negotiation with the client, according to Hobbs.

While Drupal does not make up the whole of Simon Roberts' open source consulting business, it plays an increasingly important part.

Taniwha Solutions, which started in New Zealand and has been in Australia for four years, is responsible for developing about 20 professional Drupal sites, including work for the discovery channel and several community portals.

“I was personally involved in the Drupal community - as a hobbyist initially - but more people started asking me to help them out with this or that. So we started to offer Drupal support and services professionally and add it to our portfolio. Since then we have hired three Drupal developers.”

Roberts said that although WordPress and PHP-nuke may look nicer out of the box, they are more difficult to extend and maintain.

“As Drupal's community continues to grow, the pace and breadth of development will too,” he said.

Justin Freeman decided to base his Canberra web development business, Agileware on Drupal after initially trying Joomla. His company now creates around four Drupal-based sites per month.

Freeman said he chose Drupal over Joomla for a variety of reasons, but his choice was always going to be open source.

“My focus has always been around open source and about encouraging customers to use the power of open source to reduce cost, time-to-market and development time,” he said.

“Prior to starting this business I was working as a consultant and watching massive enterprise projects burning up a lot of time and money and delivering very little in terms of ROI and outcomes. At the same time I was watching Linux and the open source scene mature and I thought not enough people were out there working with it. People don't market open source so I wanted to set up a company that championed open source projects.”

When setting up his company, Freeman initially started working with Joomla, “which is a great system, developed locally [in Melbourne]; great for a turnkey website and to get something that looks very pretty up and running very quickly.”

Freeman believes, Joomla is developed more for designers and Drupal for developers.

“Joomla is very popular with graphic designers, but it gets very hard as soon as you want to get behind the scenes and do some integration work or extend some modules in a particular way.”

To put some numbers on this, the company had a module that it needed to develop for a customer in Joomla. “It took over a week to just to get our head around what we actually needed to do. Then we decided to move the customer over to Drupal and had the module developed by the end of the day! That was Drupal 4.7 which wasn't as pretty as it is now but the core of Drupal, even then, had much better documentation and better community support. It had a whole API that you could use easily,” Freeman said.

“With Joomla, you had to write to the core code to make changes and it wasn't a good development environment to work in. Drupal has a great user manual for developers but on the Joomla side there was nothing.” Owen Lansbury's company, PreviousNext, has deployed about 20 medium to large scale Drupal projects in the past two years after undertaking an extensive comparative analysis of CMSs and zeroing in on Drupal. The research found that Drupal was the most flexible and scalable product to meet clients' needs (primarily in the publishing, broadcast and government spaces).

“There are definitely CMS products out there that are faster and easier to deploy, so arguments around why to use Drupal tend to be based around the benefits of choosing a mature open source product that has a proven track record on thousands of projects, a highly active developer community, and the flexibility and scalability to suit most project's requirements,” Lansbury said.

“Drupal also provides clients with long-term security by not tying them down to a single developer or vendor.” Lansbury said that another attraction of Drupal is that you can use it for almost anything you can set your mind to.

“[This is] also it's danger, as clients are sometimes tempted to try and squeeze too many features into a website which can throw up a range of unforeseen consequences. Drupal doesn't mean you can short-cut good project management and development practices, and we always try and guide our clients to define a consolidated feature set before a project commences,” he said.

PreviousNext is responsible for the main portal of the New South Wales Government at, a number of projects for the ABC, the State Library of Victoria and a division of the Seven Network. “Our focus is to help large organisations like these make the transition to open source technologies confidently and securely through a range of measures, including the training and long term support services they would expect to receive from a proprietary CMS vendor,” Lansbury said.

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Challenges of making money from open source

Hobbs, Roberts and Freeman all believe there are challenges involved in basing a business around Drupal, but the challenges are more to do with making money from open source software. And, they say, it’s worthwhile in the end.

“The real challenge is that you are dealing with clients that want to be provided with a warranty and open source doesn't work that way,” Hobbs said.

“Also, the closed source companies can lean on yearly license fees which enable them to have an ongoing income. We don't have that option. Everything has to revolve around the awareness that there will be no recurring revenue so you can't easily hire sales people and peripheral talent.”

Hobbs said the real challenge for an open source company comes down to how to ensure that there is ongoing money coming from the client that allows you to do ongoing maintenance.

Even though it might be harder to make a profit, the payoff for basing your business on open source is the freedom and flexibility to do interesting things and be at the cutting edge, Hobbs said.

“You just need to make sure that you cover your time and pay everyone at the end of the day.” That, he admits, is an ongoing challenge.

“We are still pretty small. There are other shops out there that have their own internally developed tools and they might have about 80 staff. We might look successful in that we have been around for a while now and we are well positioned in the open source market and the Drupal market in Australia. It's a learning process and we're getting there but, most importantly, I very much enjoy what I do.”

Roberts thinks the challenges around legalities, licensing and warranties with open source are becoming less of an issue as Apache, Linux and PHP become increasingly 'mainstream'. However, there is still a challenge, he said, in selling the open source ethic to clients.

“I haven't had a problem selling Drupal as such, but there is still a little bit of a cultural difference when dealing with corporate customers. Some clients will let you distribute interesting modules back to the community. Other clients will want to hang on to it and not let you donate it back to the community because they are thinking that their software is part of their competitive advantage,” he said.

“I will often try to negotiate with these clients and explain the benefits of releasing code back to the community. I would say that more than half of my clients will eventually contribute modules back to the community because they realise that by doing that they suddenly have hundreds of people willing to maintain and extend this module which they don't have to pay for.”

Roberts points out that the viability of a business is through the business model and not through the implementation of software.

“It is reasonably straight forward to make a clone of sites like Facebook or Twitter or MySpace. The actual code used to make those sites is not the differentiator. There are plenty of clones of those sites, in fact, but none are doing as well as the original,” he said.

Freeman, siding with Hobbs, says that the challenges of being an open source company are still significant.

“I looked at a government tender earlier this week and the tender was for a document management system. The requirements stated that it must be a proprietary system, but one of the appendices was an open source software guideline which stated that the government must consider open source software,” he said. “So you have one hand not knowing what the other is doing.”

Freeman says that public government tenders often state a requirement to comply with their infrastructure which normally is normally Microsoft-centric and rules his company out from bidding straight away. “You can actually run Drupal on Microsoft servers – even on SQL servers - and integrate it, but they will still generally find a reason to knock you out of the running.”

Agileware's success, Freeman says, in gaining enterprise and government contracts is largely to do with the fact that it partners with the likes of Novell and Red Hat and occasionally IBM.

“Those companies will go in with their platforms and hardware and you get in to the enterprise that way but unless you have someone on the inside that is on your side or you have a unique business case - where there is no proprietary company doing the same thing - it is really hard to get in.

“From a government's perspective, most of the IT is outsourced, so its hands are really tied in terms of what the contractor is prepared to do. There is not much flexibility for change.” Freeman points out that as an external contractor for government, it is easier to write web applications than it would be to fill most other IT roles.

“That does take a lot of the walls down straight away because you don’t need to write anything on their desktop or impinge on their infrastructure, you just need the Internet access. Then it just comes down to the client deciding whether it is ok for the data to be housed and managed outside of its data center so there's opportunity there.”

Freeman said that while there may not be a lot of money in open source, working in the area keeps life interesting.

“It is a challenge and I think someone has to do it. You learn a lot as well. As a software developer, peer review is really important so getting the feedback from open source communities is crucial and being able to learn from others,” he said.

Freeman said that Agileware's most challenging Drupal implementation was the one it did for the Australian Medical Association, the AMA.

“We took them from a Lotus Notes-based content management system, migrated all the data, massaged it, reformatted it, and put it back into a Drupal site. We had that on a repeatable process fairly early on. It was an interesting one because there was so much data moved across but then we also had to show people how to use Drupal and use Drupal as a social platform for their members,” he said.

“We've also done some interesting one with Defense where they are implementing a social portal internally which is an interesting project that has been in production for six months.”

Drupal growth

There's already a strong core of the Drupal community in Australia with regular meet-ups in most capital cities. This is also growing community forum online at Drupal Groups, with 484 members.

Hobbs thinks that Drupal might be at a tipping point in Australia, spurred by the launch of the Prime Minister's site and the ABC sites.

“For a long time Drupal was just another product but we've had a couple of key wins with the ABC websites and the Prime Minister's website. Those sort of high profile websites don't just happen if there is no precedent. Generally, there is someone from inside the organisation or department to champion open source and Drupal,” he said.

“The PM's site was a bit of a surprise. I'm sure the prime minister doesn't know that his site runs on Drupal but it forms a great precedent, particularly for the use of open source in government.”

Hobbs said that there are well attended Drupal meet-ups in Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Tasmania. There is also talk of an Oceanic Drupal meet-up and also an official Drupal conference in Australia. Roberts agrees that Drupal's star is on the rise.

“It's been a bit behind the growth in the US and it has also been behind Joomla and WordPress in popularity locally but it seems like we are catching up. We've had a few meet-ups and camps now and there is now always a bunch of us from Australia at the international conferences,” he said.

“Clients are beginning to come to us asking specifically about Drupal as opposed to just asking for a website or a solution.”

Freeman also senses an increased activity around Drupal.

“There are more companies getting on board and the whole community is growing quite rapidly. Government departments are recruiting Drupal developers internally now, so that is good. Land and Water Australia, unfortunately, is being wrapped up at the end of the year, but those people will move to other departments and champion Drupal from the inside.”

Lansbury agrees that there is a spike in Drupal based projects launching in Australia.

“Over the past six months [there have been sites] as diverse as the Prime Minister, Lonely Planet, Fairfax Digital, Sanyo and even McDonalds using Drupal in various ways. Globally, there's been an enormous shift to Drupal across most industries, from universities like Harvard and MIT, major government sites for the Obama administration, entertainment sites including Universal Music, Sony and the Emmy awards, and non profit organisations such as Amnesty International, Oxfam and Greenpeace,” he said.

“The main reason for this uptake is clients have now realised they don't need to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a CMS product to get a rich suite of functionality out of the box and a stable framework on which to develop customised features. This also means that Drupal based sites can be pushed to market faster and that most ongoing maintenance of a Drupal site can be managed by an existing internal team with a bit of HTML/CSS and PHP skills.”

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The Drupal Community

Both Hobbs and Roberts said that the nature of the Drupal community was a large factor in their decisions to base their businesses on Drupal.

“It was actually the community that attracted me to start with. I have used lots of content management systems over the years, including enterprise systems during the mega buck seven-figure deals, but the Drupal community is much more friendly and engaging than the communities around a lot of these other products,” said Roberts. “Once I got in to it and I had a look at the code, the architecture is also really good.” Hobbs said that when he was first dabbling with Drupal, the members of the community showed a certain attitude towards open source that he liked.

“There is a total lack of discrimination. There really is a strong ethos in the Drupal community - you are accepted even if you don't have all the skills,” he said. “Maybe you are a designer or you have basic skills and have never written a patch or made a contribution to a project. You will be hand-held through the process so that you can make your first contribution. And many people like that that have gone on to be major contributors. I definitely felt this ethos is stronger in Drupal than in other communities.”

Hobbs said that the project leader, Buytaert tends to take a leading role in stepping in and telling people that are being discriminatory.

“People that don't like that level of leadership will go and find another project to work on where it is ok to bad mouth people. The downside to having such a strong project lead is that if he goes off and does a different thing or gets hit by a bus there would be a big question mark over what the community would do. There are positives and negatives to having a strong project leader, I guess.”

Buytaert admits he actively encourages an open and non-discriminatory ethos.

“One of the great things about the Drupal community is the willingness to share and collaborate. The community leads DrupalCamps around the globe as well as the twice annual Drupalcon events in North America and Europe - these are all volunteer efforts dedicated to Drupal education and advancement,” he said.

“Given the size of the Drupal community and the more than 4,000 modules, it is hard for any one person to stay on top of all the things happening with the technology at any one time. Participating in the Drupal community, whether on, on IRC or at a local event, is important to understanding all the things you can do with Drupal.”