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10/30/2009
03:27 PM
Michael Hickins
Michael Hickins
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WhiteHouse.gov Drupal Detractors Get Buggy

The news that WhiteHouse.gov relaunched this week running open source Drupal software raised eyebrows and hackles among knee-jerk anti-Obama types and a small cadre of ignorant bloggers.

The news that WhiteHouse.gov relaunched this week running open source Drupal software raised eyebrows and hackles among knee-jerk anti-Obama types and a small cadre of ignorant bloggers.Most online detractors referred to an article by Slate's Chris Wilson that laid out a number of reasons why the Obama Administration erred in picking Drupal, arguing that

If the administration had conducted a few polls among the swing demographic of Web site administrators, it would have realized that Drupal is pocked with political landmines.

Well, Wilson is an assistant editor at Slate, which may or may not mean he has any technical expertise himself. Not wanting to go down that road myself, I did some polling of my own, reaching out to Josef Bettancourt (JB to his friends), a Web developer with whom I've worked at a couple of different publications.

Here's JB's thoughts with regards to Wilson's main points:

  • "Drupal knows best. It's not that Drupal thinks you're evil. It just thinks you're ignorant… The software is suspicious of everything you try to do… Try to add some Javascript in the body of a page [and] the platform will have none of it."
  • JB's response: "Drupal does know best. It's a full-fledged CMS [content management system]; it doesn't want your writers dropping javascript all over the place [via the front end]-that's good security."

    In other words, developers can do what they like, but end-users have to follow the rules.

  • Drupal is impenetrable… If Drupal were an employee of the federal government, it would be the person who answers the phone at Immigration and Customs Enforcement who is unable to help you and unable to tell you who can.
  • JB: "There's so much to learn, but you can do a lot more with it. It includes a template engine and it has backwards-compatibility. It's very close to commercial grade software."

    And as more than one Drupal community member has commented, "I will help and so will several thousand other drupal admins/developers/maintainers…"

  • Drupal hates change… [It's] desperately in need of an overhaul but unlikely ever to get one because entrenched interests keep the forces of reform at bay.
  • JB: "You want to keep a stable environment; Drupal has a regular and consistent upgrade cycle, but it's not every two weeks like WordPress, which is really annoying."

  • Drupal is disorganized... Instead of displaying your pages in folders that you can browse, like you do on your personal computer, Drupal provides a nightmarish content list.
  • JB: Drupal is "one of the most organized" platforms with a built-in hierarchy or taxonomy. But developers can configure it the way they want.

  • Drupal is righteous. The open-source movement has done wonderful things for the Web. But at its core, it remains a religion.
  • JB: "It's not a religion, it's a very tight community."

    Go up two spaces to impenetrable. It's a community, and that's its strength.

    In the final analysis, open source software doesn't mean any chump can use it. Quite the contrary, it usually requires developers who are smarter than the average bear. But those smart developers can also rely on the collective experience, ideas and contributions of thousands of other developers who are themselves smarter than the average bear.

    There's also the security model to consider.

    Commenting on open source systems for electronic voting machines, Princeton computer science expert Ed Felten blogs

    security experts have long argued that public scrutiny tends to increase security, and is one of the best ways to justify public trust in a system.

    JB comments that, given how many hackers will try to crack into the Web site, WhiteHouse.gov will be an excellent test bed, and new security lessons will be contributed back to the Drupal community, making Drupal "one of the most secure applications out there."

    And best of all, the end result is greater simplicity for the end user. As JB noted, "Drupal is a beast to configure, but for the end-user, it's simple as pie."

    In the final analysis, that's the big deal about Drupal, and it's also the big deal about the goal of the new WhiteHouse.gov, which is to establish a better way for the government and the governed to interact in a meaningful way.

    It's obviously not there yet -- there's still no way to post comments, for instance -- but perhaps the Obama Administration is hoping to lay the groundwork for that.

    Wilson says "the new software represents the triumph of hope over experience."

    But you have to look at what experience we're talking about. In this case, the bulk of our experience since the advent of Web 2.0 (from 2003 to 2008) has meant a governing policy that assumed that less government is best, which turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Because the Bush Administration believed that government generally sucks, it staffed agencies with incompetents like Michael Brown, who made government look as bad as movement conservatives argued it was.

    The current Administration believes that competent government is best, and so it's natural that it would try to improve upon the tools the previous Administration used.

    Just as the current head of FEMA actually has experience managing emergency response teams, so the tool used to communicate with the public should have the best security and communications tools possible.

    The Administration may not be using it appropriately yet, but there's at least a foundation for hoping that it will, eventually.

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