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Drupal and the Power of Community

We often are so focused on the future opportunities of collaborative technologies that we may not see the outcome of successful collaborative work right in front of us. The Drupal Open Source content management and community development platform is a powerful Web 2.0 system that is being used to facilitate distributed teams, publish blogs, host communities, and serve thousands of Internet websites. But the Drupal project itself is an example of how a large loosely knit group of people can produce powerful results.

You may not recognized the Drupal name but you have used the product. According to estimates the number of sites using Drupal is in excess of 50,000! These include MTV UK, Sony's MusicBox, Leo Laporte's TWiT site, NowPublic, The Onion, Spread Firefox, Linux Journal, and several political sites such as Vote Hillary, Draft Obama, and Chris Dodd for President. Web 2.0 darlings Flock and SocialText use Drupal on their corporate websites., 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) and numerous extensions available for the product.

One of the reasons Drupal is so popular is its robust and growing community of developers. Although architecture may not attract system integrators it can be a primary reason they stick around. The core Drupal development team, led by Dries Buytaert, has staunchy insisted on developing a platform that is modular and extensible. Because of this system integrators from around the world have used Drupal as the basis for thousands of websites.

As standard functionality Drupal provides support for things like blogging (both individual and group blogs), remote authoring (using tools like Windows Live Writer and Performancing), collaborative books (think wikis, but slightly more structured), RSS syndication and aggregation, and search engine friendly urls, to name just a few. But perhaps the most powerful capabilities come from innovations available in user contributed extensions to Drupal. Here are just some of the incredible things you can do with these extensions:

  • Easily integrate services such as Flickr, Amazon, Facebook, Google Analytics, Google AdSense, and online calendar systems within your website.
  • Support various forms of media such as flash video, podcasts, image and photo galleries.
  • Drupal can be a powerful content aggregator repurposing syndicated Internet content and can even leverage Yahoo's term extraction services.

The innovation doesn't stop at the corporate firewall. Enterprises can use Drupal's powerful taxonomy and keyword management capabilities as well as its support for single sign-on systems. Distributed authentication was architected into the platform from nearly the start of the project. The support for single sign-on is very good.

The core developers also incorporate significant user contributed innovations into the platform itself enabling the development of the next generation of extensions that continue to outpace offerings from competitive products such as those from Microsoft and IBM. For example, the team is considering adding native support for OpenID in a future major release. But, for now, support for OpenID is available as a user contributed module.

Why does the use of Drupal continue to grow? One reason is because a number of companies actively promote Drupal. The most prominent is Lullabot, a web development firm led by Jeff Robbins. Their weekly podcasts are incredibly valuable for anyone working with Drupal. Even developers not involved in Drupal would have found their recent podcast discussing PHP development tools insightful.

But there are many others in the Drupal community contributing to its success. There has been a recent explosion of Drupal screencasts explaining how to use, configure, customize, and extend Drupal. In addition, hosts local interest groups (my favorite is the Grand Rapids Drupal user group, they call themselves GRupal) as well as those interested in contributing to the community but who aren't software developers. For example, there are groups focused on marketing, education, and use within enterprises. A great example is the Drupal Dojo group. They host regularly scheduled web conferences and make screencasts available illustrating Drupal capabilities.

And there is interest in Drupal from large companies as well. Most notably, IBM DeveloperWorks published a series of tutorials that were written by engineers in their Internet Technology Group. The tutorials provide an introduction to site theming (customizing the website's appearance), module development (how to extend Drupal), as well as basic information about setting up a development environment.

Yahoo uses Drupal for internally managing user interface patterns and is also hosting an Open Source CMS conference in March. This will have a "sub-conference" covering just Drupal.

There is probably nothing in Drupal that products from the big vendors can't do and may have implemented somewhere. The difference is companies using Drupal are meeting customer needs faster and cheaper because they are sharing innovations within the community. This is resulting in a growing community that is increasing the pace in which new innovations are brought to market. Companies such as Optaros and SpikeSource, for example, are stepping in to service large corporate customers and deliver solutions quickly and inexpensively.

In my opinion, unless the large software vendors figure out a way to leverage a community to this extent their days of competing for Internet marketshare may be numbered. At one time we used to measure the success of Microsoft, Netscape, and Apache by tracking how many websites were hosted by a particular web server (Netcraft conveniently publishes these numbers). But, these statistics are becoming less important since systems like Drupal are increasingly being used and run on any number of webserver platforms.

In an era where Google is giving away services for free, the cost of deployment and the time it takes to bring innovations to market is becoming much more important. Many smart system integrators are recognizing the power of an open community like Drupal and are effectively competing in this new environment. Time will tell if the large software vendors can adapt.

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