The creator of the CMS Drupal reveals how the platform got started by accident and why being open source is the key to its success.
While open source content management system Drupal now underpins a huge number of websites around the world, it was created, according to its founder Dries Buytaert, “sort of by accident”.
The software which now powers 7.2 million websites – including sites for the White House, Whitehall, Nasa and Greenpeace, was devised in a college dorm room in Antwerp, Belgium in 2000.
”All I wanted to do back then was create a message board so I could share messages with the other people in my dorm,” said Buytaert.
Rather than use an existing message board system Buytaert decided to build one himself using the then relatively new technologies of PHP and MySQL.
”I figured that I would spend a few nights building my own so I could learn these technologies, so that's effectively what I did, although I ended up working on this for 12 more years,” he said.
That’s because Buytaert didn't stop at building a message board, but instead started moulding Drupal into a more sophisticated offering.
”I got hooked on the web and I started watching a lot of new trends and adding these to my message board. For example, RSS feeds were just being defined back then and I was one of the first people to implement RSS feeds. Another is I saw public diaries becoming a phenomenon, so I added a feature so that people could maintain a public diary. The phenomenon became blogging,” he told TechRepublic.
”Eventually what happened was that little message board that was an experimental platform to play with MySQL and PHP evolved into an experimental platform to explore different types of emerging web technologies.”
Upon leaving university Buytaert took the decision to make his message board publicly available via the internet, so that he and his friends could stay in touch.
After going public the board attracted an audience interested in the emerging web technologies that Buytaert was building into the site, and who would suggest additions and tweaks to the CMS.
”I said 'Instead of me implementing all of your suggestions why don't I make it available as open source and you can use it as your own experimental platform'. I spent 30 seconds thinking about a name and uploaded to my site expecting maybe a dozen people to download and use it.”
But the community of Drupal developers didn’t stop at a dozen, and as the user base grew so did the size of organisations relying on the software: the point Buytaert realised Drupal had transcended its hobbyist origins was when he received a call to say that Nasa had begun using the CMS platform.
”It was a wake-up call, this realisation that there was this serious organisation using Drupal. I felt it was for real now because, these organisations have an important goal and are using my software to fulfil their mission.”
The importance of open source
For Buytaert, Drupal owes much of its success to being open source, which has allowed thousands of developers to produce plug-ins that extend the abilities of the platform.
Drupal has some 15,000 plug-ins, known as modules, that extend its functionality and is sometimes described as a “no-coding” platform, a reference to the fact that the skill in using Drupal lies with knowing which module to choose to deliver a feature, rather than always programming a module yourself.
While Drupal’s community of developers help keep the platform up to date with the latest technologies – a Google Plus module was available within 12 hours of the social network being released – Buytaert says that the breadth of plug-ins can be confusing without guidance.
”It's very difficult for customers to figure out which of these modules they should use. For instance, if you want to build an image gallery the good news is there're 12 different image gallery modules, the bad news is how do you pick one.”
To help guide Drupal potential and existing users Buytaert set up Acquia in 2007, a US-based firm that bundles Drupal and its modules into packages that are easy for enterprise to match to their needs.
Buytaert credits Acquia, which also provides support and cloud hosting, with boosting Drupal’s use by enterprise and national government.
”We helped get the White House on Drupal and did some amazing things that helped to get the ball rolling across the world. About two per cent of all the websites in the world run Drupal today. Things have been going extremely well. Acquia has grown from just two people when we started to 180 people today.”
However the wider growth of Drupal, Buytaert said, stems from the ecosystem of companies, which employ more than 100,000 people, building and hosting Drupal sites. These companies “have invested back in Drupal because they're invested in the technology”, he said.
In some ways Drupal is a victim of its own success, Buytaert said, with demand for Drupal experts to build and support sites using the CMS currently outstripping supply.
”The biggest challenge that we have right now is scaling. The demand for Drupal is so high that we need more Drupal experts in the world,” said Buytaert.
”That's a challenge, but if you are a Drupal developer you are in a good spot because many of them make a lot of money because of the high demand.”
Other challenges for the Drupal community relate to continuing to update the core Drupal platform. The next release, Drupal 8, has promised to introduce native support for HTML5 and improve the CMS’s ability to output content in multiple formats such as XML and JSON.Drupal also faces competition from proprietary CMSes, such as OpenText's web content management software, SDL Tridion and Sitecore, as well as fellow open source CMS WordPress.
The effect of success
Buytaert’s long-term goal for Drupal is nothing less than for it to “be the dominant platform for building websites”, with a more immediate aim of driving up use in Europe with the aid of Acquia.
And Buytaert ambitions for the platform doesn’t mean that he isn’t appreciative of the success that Drupal has had so far.
”You see large organisations like Amnesty or Greenpeace and governments all around the world, from Whitehouse.gov to data.gov.uk, and they are all using Drupal. It's very rewarding for me to help enable them to fulfill their mission.”
And although it has been a long time since Buytaert was the sole curator of Drupal in his dorm room in Antwerp, he says he still plays an active role in the community.
”In the early days I did everything myself, I wrote all of the code, I maintained the website, wrote the documentation. Today it's literally thousands of people who are helping. I'm still the project lead and lead technical architect but I'm also the spokesperson behind Drupal, so do a lot of marketing things. There's a lot I don't do anymore and I do miss writing code as a software engineer, but it's just not the best use of my time. My time is best spent enabling others to write more code,” he said.
”As long as I keep learning I think I'll keep having fun.”