Acquia on Why Web Publishers Love Drupal—And How the Startup Balances Business With Belonging to an Open-Source Community

So you want to be a Web publisher? First you’ll need the modern equivalent of a printing press: a content management system (CMS). There are many to choose from, each with its own committed proponents.

If you’re a big company, you might spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an enterprise-class system like EMC’s Documentum. If you’re a lone alpha geek, you’ll write your own CMS, or even hard-code your site in HTML. If you’re a small organization and you don’t care what’s under the hood, as long as it’s easy and it works, you may gravitate to a souped-up blogging platform like WordPress.

But if, like a growing group of publishers, you’re somewhere in the middle—with a moderate budget, ambitious technical requirements, a willingness to tinker, and some familiarity with open-source infrastructure tools like Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP—you will likely be drawn to Drupal. Originally authored by a Belgian named Dries Buytaert, Drupal is a free, open-source content management system that powers something like half a million websites around the world, including the Federal IT Dashboard recently launched by Vivek Kundra, the Obama Administration’s chief information officer.

Independent Drupal developers have written thousands of “modules” or extensions that give Drupal-powered sites nifty capabilities like syndication, video integration, and e-commerce. But as even Buytaert will admit, Drupal isn’t exactly easy to use—a beginner can easily spend days figuring out how all the pieces fit together, as opposed to the minutes it might take to start a WordPress site or Joomla site. Which is part of the reason Buytaert founded Acquia, a Boston-area startup that provides subscription-based technical support and site hosting to Drupal users and is building a larger software-as-a-service business around the free CMS.

Dries Buytaert
Thomas Erickson
Bryan House

This week, I was one of the final visitors at Acquia’s Brickstone Square location in Andover, MA—the company is about to move its 40 employees to new offices in Woburn to be closer to the Boston-area software talent pool (and, according to one employee, to get away from the draconian parking-lot attendants at Brickstone Square, who did, in fact, leave a nasty little imitation parking ticket on my car). CEO Thomas Erickson and marketing director Bryan House walked me through the features that make Drupal different from other content management systems, and explained Acquia’s ambitious plan to launch a cloud-based service called Acquia Gardens, where publishers will be able to create Drupal sites without having to download or manage any code. (If that sounds a lot like what WordPress already does, that’s the point—“to allow non-technical users to take advantage of Drupal,” House says.)

I’ve written about Acquia before, at the time of its $7 million Series A round in 2007, the testing and release of its branded version of Drupal in 2008, and its $8 million Series B round just last month. But this was my first opportunity to grill the startup’s executives about their business strategy, what they’re doing to make Drupal more user-friendly, and the unusual position Acquia occupies relative to the Drupal Association, the non-profit organization for the developers who write the core code and modules that give the CMS its power.

You might think that Acquia is to Drupal as Red Hat is to Linux, but that analogy doesn’t quite work. For one thing, Red Hat charges for its version of Linux, while all versions of Drupal, including Acquia’s, are free. Imagine that Linus Torvalds wasn’t merely the gatekeeper for the Linux kernel but also chief technology officer at a company aiming to be the central source for Linux support; that’s the somewhat precarious position Dries Buytaert, and therefore Acquia, occupies. So the company has to be extra careful not to make changes that might alienate the thousands of volunteer Drupal developers. “In every major action, we talk about how do we make sure the community stays together,” says Erickson. “But Dries and Drupal are so tied at the heart, it’s in Dries’s DNA for that to happen.”

Here’s a condensed and edited version of my conversation with Erickson and House.

Xconomy: How would you describe the place Drupal and Acquia occupy in the social publishing world? On a superficial level at least, it seems that Drupal is very powerful because of all the modules people have written, but WordPress is a lot easier to use. Xconomy publishes on a customized version of WordPress, by the way.

Thomas Erickson: You’re absolutely right, there are areas where Drupal is way ahead of the alternatives, and areas where we’re going to be catching up for a while. Drupal’s origins were very different from WordPress’s or Ning’s or other places. Our community is extremely diverse, and we power some very high-powered websites around the world, and the folks who use it absolutely love it. WordPress started out with simple blogs, and making it easy for anybody to blog—it wasn’t about building websites or the other great things that Drupal has become.

But Matt Mullenweg [the founder and CEO of Automattic, which runs WordPress] and Dries are good friends, and they compare notes and they talk about where the market is going. We believe there is definitely room for several players in the space. This market is only in its very infant stages, and we recognize that people are going to want to make different choices.

So Drupal is harder to adopt right now than WordPress, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Having said that, a big raison d’etre for Acquia is to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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11 responses to “Acquia on Why Web Publishers Love Drupal—And How the Startup Balances Business With Belonging to an Open-Source Community”

  1. Jose Onate says:

    “But if, like a growing group of publishers, you’re somewhere in the middle-with a moderate budget [and] ambitious technical requirements[…]” – That phrase represents most of small businesses and startups today gravitating towards tools like Drupal in an effort to reign on expenses without sacrificing their ambitious technical requirements.

    I find that clients that contact our development company online to request Drupal have already done extensive homework to compare all sorts of options. Most haven’t used Drupal before, come from MS technologies and their original plan was to build their own platform from scratch until the reality of costs and timeframes sent them on the quest that ultimately leads to Drupal; even as it represents an unfamiliar, albeit promising territory.

    On Acquia,
    Acquia’s mission and approach has been a blessing to the commercial aspect of the Drupal community in providing a virtual safety net for project managers and stakeholders who used to shy away from Open Source out of fear of being left to their own devices with unsupported software.
    If nothing else, the existence and success of Acquia is paramount in allowing Drupal to compete at the same level with “real” software (read: software backed by a big-enough liable company). For our small development company, the silent aura is that if at any point in the development process the client loses any level of trust in our team, there is always an Acquia-or-similar to fall back on. With that in mind, project managers have a much easier job selling the platform to upper management (and themselves), giving Drupal a fighting chance to shine for itself, and often coming up easily on top.

    Drupal is not easy,
    Neither is building your own professional, modular, advanced framework. Once a company faces the need for a brilliantly architectured CMS, and realizes that neither alternative to build one or buy one seems particularly attractive, it becomes apparent that Drupal is important specifically because it is so much more complex than WordPress or similar one-trick engines.

    IMHO and from where I’m standing, the place of Drupal in today’s tech world is not amongst simple engines, but as a solid, richly engineered and complex framework for medium-sized web projects. From this angle, WordPress (nor anything else I’ve seen) can compete at the same level.

  2. Glenn says:

    While it is true that someone who feels intellectually taxed just writing email is not going to be able to install drupal, it is also true that drupal is one of the easiest CMS offerings to deploy. The value proposition of drupal is such that it no longer makes any sense to create a brochure-ware site of static HTML pages.

  3. gheo says:

    great one,and well doen.keep up

  4. poopoo says:

    Drupal is only an attractive option for medium-size companies and projects because it is the only option. Drupal is mind-bogglingly complex for the novice computer user. Drupal’s framework doesn’t make things easier for a programmer or “tech guy” it actually makes things more time consuming and frustrating.

    Often to create a robust site, so many user-contributed modules are required that the modules start to slow down the site and conflict with each other. Soon the Drupal site finds itself crippled by its own diversity and slow as hell.

    After installing and configuring about 12 Drupal sites myself I am so frustrated with the platform I no longer recommend it to clients unless they 1) absolutely need the functionality of a particular Drupal module 2) specifically request drupal

  5. As a relative novice, I would be at loss what to do with a CMS such as Drupal or Joomla. The only way I would consider using Drupal would be as part of a template generator, such as Artisteer.