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

8/20/09Follow @wroush

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 eliminate those barriers to adoption. That’s why we created Acquia Drupal, which allows one-click installation of Drupal, including the LAMP stack [Linux, Apache, MySQL, and Perl/PHP/Python---the operating system, Web server software, database, and scripting languages, respectively, that underlie many websites]. Now, some people say, that’s okay, but what if I don’t have a place to host it? Well, Acquia introduced Acquia hosting, where you can host [a Drupal site] even if you still want to build it yourself. If you know Drupal, you can easily get set up on Acquia hosting in a couple of hours, and if you don’t, you’re still talking about maybe only two to four days to get used to it and figure it out. The next step is how to reduce that four days, and the answer is Acquia Gardens, which will look to people something like WordPress.com, in terms of ease of adoption.

Bryan House: Let me build on what Tom said about the market. There is the Web content management space, and there’s the social software space. The thing that makes Drupal really unique is that it started out as a discussion-board system, with users and roles and permissions as the underpinnings, and then it moved into the CMS space. The thing that makes WordPress so great is that they focus like a laser on usability in the social media segment, but you see them and other players in the CMS side trying to add things like roles and permissions, and it’s all bolted on.

The reason the community gets so excited about Drupal is that yes, you can use it to build sites with profiles and wikis and all the social media things, but for many people it’s also a Web application development platform where they can build lots of applications. For example, Phase2 Technology in Washington, D.C., built an app called OpenPublish that takes Drupal and integrates it with Calais, a Thomson Reuters program for open-source semantic tagging, so your content gets submitted to the Calais service, which does complete semantic tagging from the vast library that Thomson Reuter manages. Users can put in four tags and Calais will put in hundreds. This combination of social software, CMS, and a Web application framework is what we believe makes Drupal a killer app. The community is a really technical community because these are people who have run into a ceiling in terms of the flexibility and power of other platforms. But as Tom said, that is only a small part of the market—-there is a much bigger market of people who just want to build a great site. That’s what Acquia Gardens and our hosting do.

X: How will Acquia Gardens work?

BH: Acquia Gardens will be a completely non-technical users’ avenue to developing a Drupal site. You’ll be in a browser, and you’ll sign up for a domain name, and you’ll say “I want this type of site, and I want it to look like this.” We’re focused right now on a theme builder, that is, browser-based tools to design a custom theme, with a lot more flexibility than you’d get from WordPress or Ning or other site creation tools. Another difference is that you can also export the theme or the whole site, so that you can work on it locally, or you can move it to Acquia hosting or third-party hosting. The hosted service will be a subset of the complete Drupal project—we will not offer all 4,000 Drupal modules. But say you decide you really need to integrate your SugarCRM system with your Drupal site and SugarCRM doesn’t come with the package—you can pull [your site] off of Gardens and put it on your own server.

X: When will Acquia Gardens go live, and how will the pricing work?

TE: We will have something out in the first quarter of 2010. We’re demonstrating it at DrupalCon in Paris [the European version of the Drupal Association's semi-annual meeting] in two weeks, and we’ll have a healthy group of beta users using it starting this year.

BH: The pricing model is still to be detailed, but it will be much more of a SaaS [software-as-a-service] model, at $20 to $100 a month, depending on the types of services you use, rather than the $12,000 to $20,000 per year for our standard support subscriptions.

X: How do you deal with the fact that Acquia is a commercial company selling services around Drupal, but that Drupal itself, even more than being a bunch of code, is a whole community built around the free exchange of open source software?

BH: It’s a balance that we have to walk all the time, and Dries personifies that on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes he has to wear his Drupal Association hat and sometimes his Acquia hat. That means we have to be very open and transparent with the community. We don’t have surprise product announcements. If you look at our blog, you’ll see that Dries is very forthright about what’s coming down the road. We published our 2009 roadmap very early in the year. And we work with the community. Drupal is ultimately a meritocracy and you’re measured by what you give back. We want to make sure we do that.

For example, on the code side, Drupal 7 is now in development. One of the key elements about Drupal that has gotten knocked, to put it kindly, is its user interface. So one of the things we decided to do was to hire Mark Boulton, a world-renowned user interface designer, whom the Drupal Association had hired earlier to redesign the Drupal.org website, to redesign the Drupal 7 administrative user interface and rethink how it works. And we are committed to applying those patches to Drupal 7. Of course, it’s also in our interest to have Drupal be a usable product and not to have a giant learning curve, which frankly has been the knock.

We also built Acquia Search, which is built on Apache Solr, which is a distribution of Lucene [an open-source search engine]. And we deliver that as a hosted service, but we also contributed the code to the community, so that whether someone wants to use our cloud-based service or not, they can still take advantage of the improvements we made.

X: But being so closely tied to an open source project must make business a little trickier for you than it would be otherwise. You aren’t completely at liberty to innovate—whatever you do, it has to pass muster with the Drupal community.

TE: That’s very perceptive, and it’s something we consider whenever we make a major decision in the organization. The good news is that the culture of Acquia was created around this. With Dries, it’s inherent in his person, and our other founder Jay Batson is also very sensitive to this. Because it’s just part of our culture, it’s not something we struggle with, it’s just part of what we do every day.

Because the community is so strong, it’s very easy for us to garner enough talent to do a code sprint to add some major feature or functionality. That’s one of the pros. But you can also imagine some of the challenges that working with a community of that size brings to you. Many of the primary contributors who provide code to the Drupal core are Web designers, and the reaction when Acquia was created was that we were going to create this big service organization and take away their business. So we’ve had to be very sensitive to the fact that we’re not building websites, we’re building services, both human and automated, that are complementary to [designers'] offerings.

Anytime you have a community this size, there are going to be people who are doubters and people who are enthusiastic supporters and people who are waiting to figure out where you’re going. In the year we’ve been here we’ve won over probably the vast majority of the doubters we had, and now we’re getting to the folks who have been pessimists. I continue to work personally with some of them to help them understand how our strategy complements what they are trying to do.

X: Did you draw from the Drupal community to build your engineering staff?

BH: We’ve maintained very high hiring standards, with Dries and some of the early folks on our engineering team. But we’ve very much looked to the Drupal community, for people who are interested and can bring Drupal skills to the table. Peter Wolanin was a PhD research scientist in the pharmaceutical industry who was a major contributor to the Drupal 6 core and decided he wanted to work on Drupal full time. Robert Douglass wrote the first book about Drupal [Building Online Communities with Drupal, phpBB, and WordPress, from New York-based Apress]. I came from the content management space—I was at eRoom, and ended up [acquired by] EMC, and I was looking to go back to a startup.

X: What do you wake up worrying about at night? Are there two or three really key things that Acquia has to accomplish, or avoid, in the next year or two in order to succeed?

TE: Avoiding any kind of schism in the Drupal community is a good start. We absolutely think about that every day. In every major action, we talk about how do we make sure the community stays together. But Dries and Drupal are so tied at the heart, it’s in Dries’s DNA for that to happen. We just have to let him be an adviser to us.

Second, when you are starting with a product that is so powerful [Drupal], you have to make sure you continue to add value as a company. So we spend a lot of time thinking about what we can do for the community and what we can do next. A good example of that is that we have a survey running: “Okay, we’ve launched Acquia Search, now what would you guys like to see next?”

The last part, from my perspective, is helping enterprise users who are much more familiar with the traditional CMS vendors to understand the vast capabilities that Drupal has. The people in our organization, including Bryan and myself, have a long history of helping companies be successful with enterprise deployments. So, how do we tell people in the enterprise, who are trained in the traditional models, that this is the way forward, that open source is the new thing?

[Correction, August 19, 2009, 12:30 p.m.: In the original version of this article I described Joomla, along with WordPress, as a "souped-up blogging platform." I've since learned otherwise---a Joomla project contributor wrote to say that Joomla, like Drupal, is "really best for sites that [are] about the management of rich and diverse content types and as a framework for web applications.”]

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.avenuewebmedia.com Jose Onate

    “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.

  • http://www.dynamicalsoftware.com/open/source/corporate/site Glenn

    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.

  • http://gheo.info/ gheo

    great one,and well doen.keep up

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  • poopoo

    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

  • http://www.biztaxadvisor.com S Slotfeldt

    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.

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