A Big Drop in the Bucket for Drupal
Apparently, the days when a computer science graduate student can invent some cool Web software and raise a few million dollars to build a company around it are not over. Brand new (less than a month old) North Andover, MA, startup Acquia announced yesterday that it’s raised $7 million to market software and services in support of the popular Web publishing system Drupal, invented by Dries Buytaert, a PhD candidate at the University of Ghent in Belgium.
Like the Linux operating system, the Apache web server, and the MySQL database system, Drupal is a free, open-source program with a large community of volunteer developers and users. And Acquia’s CEO, Jay Batson, says it will remain so. Rather than creating and selling a proprietary version of Drupal—or “forking” the system, in geek speak—Acquia will work on specialized distributions of the software and help organizations deploy it on a larger scale. “We will be to Drupal what Red Hat is to Linux,” Batson says.
Drupal has been downloaded from the community site Drupal.org hundreds of thousands of times and is the primary content management system behind tens of thousands of websites, from major publications such as The Onion and Linux Journal to smaller sites such as the World of Warcraft fansite Almost Gaming. Perhaps the most famous Drupal site was the Deanspace website used to organize Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.
While several competing systems, such as WordPress and Joomla, are also free and open-source, many Web publishers prefer Drupal because it has a simple core with dozens of pluggable modules that handle features such as posts, comments, forums, polls, RSS feeds, user accounts, and site access. Volunteers have developed hundreds of additional modules supporting features such as shopping carts, webmail, event listings, and multimedia hosting.
Drupal is so widely used, in fact, that the time has come for some professional support, according to Batson. “Drupal usage has roughly doubled every year for the last six or seven years—and as it reaches a bigger mass, doubling means a lot,” says Batson. “It is being used in some pretty substantial places. And those people needed something more than just a volunteer community behind the system. At the last DrupalCon in Barcelona, a couple of major people stood up and said ‘Dries, what are you going to do about this—it’s been great as a community, but as it goes to the next level we need a different kind of organization behind it.’”
Acquia debuted on November 30, with the vision of supporting the Drupal community as it grows even larger. For example, the company will open a Drupal technical assistance center and will build its own equivalent of Red Hat’s Linux network, which the older company uses for jobs like distributing automatic updates and upgrades. “When I examine the landscape of open source projects that have had big impact on the technology industry, I’ve concluded that projects which have had the biggest impact (usually) have a well-capitalized company behind them,” Buytaert wrote on Acquia’s blog. “If we want Drupal to grow by at least a factor of 10, keeping Drupal a hobby project as it is today, and taking a regular programming job at a big Belgian bank is clearly not going to cut it.”
With the $7 million in Series A funding, Buytaert won’t have to take that bank job—the bank has come to him. North Bridge Venture Partners of Waltham led the round, with additional funds from Sigma Partners of Boston and San Francisco’s O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures. Batson says the company will use the financing to staff up, to launch a few introductory services, and to market Drupal on a scale that’s been beyond the resources of the volunteer community. “We are going to build a really world-class team, number one, and build out an initial set of stuff to service the community, number two,” says Batson, who founded wireless voice-over-IP company Pingtel and sold it earlier this year to BlueSocket. “Number three, we will grow the visibility of Drupal beyond the people who know of it today.”
Acquia isn’t one of those completely random, made-up company names by the way. It’s reminiscent of aqua, as in water, and Drupal is an English transliteration of the Dutch word druppel, which means drop, also as in water. (How water relates to content management systems is a bit more obscure. Legend—or rather Wikipedia—has it that Buytaert originally called his software “dorp,” from the Dutch word for “village,” but mistyped it when he was checking for a domain name for the earliest version of the software, and liked the sound of “drop” better.)