Drupal: open source evolution?

For many years it has been reported that open source philosophies inspire increased transparency and liberty. There are certainly indications that commercial organisations have moved towards an open source culture particularly in software industries. And now there is increasing business potential for open source software ventures. People often think of open source as something you do for altruistic purposes (=for free) but Drupal may just be an indication that open source is evolving.

The Drupal CMS, has been a distinguished figure in open source software developments, allowing geographically-separated individuals or communities to easily publish website content. Since its beginnings in 2000, Drupal’s ideology has been heavily focused on community and collaboration, adopting an open policy on its source code, free for anyone to modify. No-one at Drupal could have ever anticipated the scale to which code has been reused/remixed/recycled in the creation of new modules and new functionality. And here lies Drupal’s uniqueness: it is maintained and developed by a community of thousands of users and developers communicating via forums and IRC channels. Community and collaboration are Drupal’s lifeblood.

Peter Brownell is just one of the developers who have been instrumental within the Drupal community, contributing to numerous modules and running the London Drupal Users Group. He also runs his own Drupal consultancy (Code Positive) and for this reason he came to Ravensbourne College to share with students and staff some Drupal wizardry.

Better known as the Greenman in the online world, Peter presents some of the key issues about Drupal such as how it compares to other CMS' , an overview of useful new modules, how the code base is structured, and the issues that a Drupal administrator must be aware of such as security and upgrading (although I will not try and re-articulate the later of these things since my explanations would be far inferior to the excellent documentation which is already available on the Drupal site). But what I am most interested in is how the project as a whole runs.

It is often said that one of the characteristics of open source projects such as Drupal is its decentralised  and self-organised nature whereby there is no central organisation (or no guidance from the centre) shaping Drupal's future compared to alternative open source CMS such as Joomla which is defined by a road map. But how do projects such as Drupal become so successful without anyone taking it forward? I had always imagined some kind of natural phenomenon to be the cause, perhaps comparable to the effortless lyrical synchronisation of thousands of people singing at football matches.

It surprises me when I learn that Drupal.org operates more like an ecosystem, with clearly defined structure of responsibilities whereby its founder and Lead Developer Dries Buytaert, has the ultimate say on everything. Below him, 10-15 key developers and an additional 50 programmers are actively maintaining the core system. The users are at the bottom of the food chain but their involvement is no less important since it is their suggestions which feed into the platform itself. This kind of structure has been a key factor in its global success.

Critics of the open source movement have always suggested that these projects are not really as self-organizing as their proponents claim and that open source projects success is based on having a strong central manager, even if that manager is a volunteer (see: The article Open Source Projects Manage Themselves? Dream On. by Chuck Connell . Eric Raymond response to this criticism,   and Chuck Connell answers here) .

To give a sense of how quickly it has grown and the scale on which it is used, Drupal.org, the project's home site, is one of the busiest Drupal sites serving over half a million software downloads a month. This includes downloads of Drupal itself (about 80,000 a month). There are also approximately 600 modules to plug-in to Drupal and 5-6 new plugins created every day. If you're a developer the only requirements you need for creating plugins are having a CVS repository.

On the global commercial stage, Drupal is now powering an increasing amount of enterprise level applications, adopted by international organisations large and small. MTV is just one example.

However its decentralised and openness is a double-edged sword which means that although its development can move quickly and with diversity in different directions, it constantly needs updating with security patches, it is not backwards compatible and the added expense of time because of speed of change.

“What does make Drupal stand out is the fact that Drupal is at the centre of a rapidly growing economy.” (from http://www.the-greenman.net/node/9) Peter’s Drupal Consultancy is a testament to this. Drupal has evolved into much more than just a CMS but a solid framework for web 2.0 developments. “As more web applications are built on top of Drupal, there will be significant commercial pressure to develop new functionality. Although many Web2.0 developments built on Drupal will be closed source, these new businesses will often find themselves needing functionality that is not in their core business. Rather than developing this side functionality themselves, we should take the collaborative spirit of Web2.0 to heart and encourage businesses to fund others to develop this fringe functionality. If a few businesses were able to collaborate on this funding, then we would see amazing things happen.”

In its early days Drupal was an obvious CMS solution for NGO's keen on pushing open source as a platform that was supporting communities not feeding the coffers of large organisations. These organisations didn’t need to be sold Drupal. Drupal’s target audience has always therefore been very clear: people who want to build website (community) and actively maintain it.

However, Drupal has started to move away from NGO environment and increasingly adopted by organisations large and small such as Sony's MusicBox, Leo Laporte's TWiT site , NowPublic, The Onion, Spread Firefox, and several political sites such as Vote Hillary, Draft Obama, Jerry Brown.

As well as being a tool for political campaigning by some of the more switched on politicians aware of the internets ability to reach new audiences and generate 2 way conversations. Another good example of this is CivicSpaceLabs (charity / commercial arm of civicpace), purely a consultancy for NGO's driven by social enterprise and originally built out of Howard Dean campaign.

Peter gives 3 reasons rationale for using Drupal: web projects not locked into any 1 vendor. Drupal has now gathered enough momentum to be considered economically viable with a thriving open source and individual community of developers that will be available to assist in re-development later down the line. Its stable base is another reason why Drupal is a safe CMS to use. Clients do not have to worry about reliability. Its flexibility modular and extensibility means that clients can make it work in the way they want it to work.

The current economic challenge for Drupal org is to increase developer base, increase visible skills, so companies feel confident that in a years time Drupal developers won’t have faded into obscurity, and that they will easily be able to find people with the skills necessary to develop their site. So choosing to be a Drupal developer is not about giving you a warm fuzzy feeling or because you like open source, but about providing a useful web tool. The key for them is in encouraging people to put money aside to upgrade after a years time and really use as tool and develop it.

The technical infrastructure is such that Drupal also works well in commercial environment. On large scale commercial projects communication between coders has always been a problem. Keeping up with the progress of other coders code is a mammoth task in itself. But Drupal’s modularity provides a methodology where constant dialogue with others coders is no longer necessary. Anyone can write new modules and hook them into the “assembly line”. For this reason alone, Drupal provides organisations with a rapid tool for application development (as well as a stable platform). Other factors such as the node system mean Drupal is very flexible and allows greater re-usability and ultimately this meant Drupal became popular very quickly. The other key technical aspects central to its success is its tiny core which means fast to download, and low on resources,

Perhaps Drupal isn’t always the right solution, Wordpress or Joomla will probably suffice where you only need a blog or fairly static website. However, alongside LAMPs Drupal pretty much completes the open source web developers’ tool kit.

There were loads more things Peter discussed but hopefully someone else will blog about the aspects which interested them.

Peter is involved in a load of other interesting stuff on the web. I particularly like the ideology of his company The Organisation “Technology and methodology for agile business” which provides what is described on the website as providing “Tribal Engineering….The-Organization.com builds environments for collaboration…We seek to make the best possible use of the most powerful technology on earth: human cooperation.”

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