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3/11/2011
11:39 AM
Tony Byrne
Tony Byrne
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Don't Get Run Over By The Drupal Bandwagon

Customers expecting a simple platform immediately discover that Drupal is friendly neither to developer nor novice contributor.

Drupal -- the open-source Community Platform + Web CMS -- is officially trendy.

How do I know that? Well, a short while back, within one week two people came up to me separately during meetings to express how "cool" Drupal is. What both people had in common was that neither of them had ever seen, let alone used, Drupal.

When a technology platform achieves that degree of cool factor, it means a bandwagon has started rolling. Last year it was SharePoint. This year it's Drupal. Whatever the platform's strengths, however, not all is well on the Drupal bandwagon. If you try to jump on and miss ... well, you might get run over.

Drupal boasts significant merits. It's an interesting combination of community Web-site-in-a-box and conventional Web publishing platform. Drupal has attracted the interest and expertise of integration firms large and small. It boasts a vibrant ecosystem producing a nearly bottomless collection of add-on modules. Drupal is open source and written in (the very accessible) PHP.

So what could go wrong? Actually, quite a bit.

Customers expecting a simple platform immediately discover that Drupal is friendly neither to developer nor novice contributor. Drupal consultants praise its extensibility, but if you don't have the time or resources to climb a steep learning curve, Drupal starts to get slippery, or expensive, or both.

Drupal, even in its latest version, is a resource hog that may require you to upgrade your gear. Moreover, Drupal -- or more notably its many modules -- gets targeted more frequently by those probing for vulnerabilities. Such is the price of fame. You can secure Drupal, but it takes ongoing attention.

Drupal's famous modules also vary in quality, performance, support, interoperability, and upgradability. It will take at least a year for Drupal 7 modules to be remotely as plentiful as they are with Drupal 6.

Finally, for better or worse, Drupal wasn't designed with traditional enterprises in mind, and when developers bump up against shortcomings like the ones described here, it isn't on anyone's priority list to fix them. A primary weakness here is that Drupal lacks support for real configuration management, which becomes a problem for large development teams or multi- environment implementations. Another weakness for Enterprise 2.0 deployments is Drupal's lack of native integration hooks.

It's no surprise that "I Hate Drupal" forums are dominated by two groups of critics: experienced developers frustrated by the limitations of the platform, and novice contributors overwhelmed by the complexity of its editorial interfaces. The latest version, Drupal 7, offers some remedy for both, with a more uniform and abstract infrastructure and a more usable interface. However, these changes aren't as radical as the Drupal community would have you believe, and they don't change the essence of the system.

Of course, none of these shortcomings is unique to Drupal, but that's just the point. These are early days for social computing. Drupal has at least 25 major competitors, and all of them can boast some unique differentiators of their own.

So don't default to Drupal -- or Microsoft, or Google, or IBM -- just because there's a lot of awareness of a particular package in the marketplace right now. Awareness is a marketing concept that cannot convey how a product will fit for you -- architecturally, functionally, and financially. It doesn't matter that Drupal is open source; hype is hype. So sure, look into Drupal, but then have some good reasons for picking it against its many alternatives.

Real Story Group analyst Adriaan Bloem contributed to this post.

Tony Byrne is president of the Real Story Group, an analyst firm that publishes independent vendor evaluations to help businesses invest in the right content technologies for their needs. Contact him at tbyrne@realstorygroup.com.

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