Interview with Dries Buytaert

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

Paige Finkelman, Contributor

September 10, 2009

7 Min Read

It's difficult to miss Dries Buytaert in a crowd.

Standing at least 6' 3" tall, his spiky head of blond hair is easily recognizable. Known in the open source world as the founder of Drupal, co-founder and CTO of Acquia and instrumental player in Drupalcon, it's obvious that Dries is a very clever and busy guy. I caught up with Dries at the recent OSCON 2009 in San Jose, CA and he graciously took the time to answer a few questions about how he manages to be so successful.

1) You are the founder of the Drupal content management system and CTO/Co-founder of Acquia. How did a Belgian like yourself get involved in CMS?

I was a student at the University of Antwerp in Belgium around 1999. I was doing web development with CGI and Server-Side Includes, but I wanted to learn more about technologies like PHP and MySQL. Also, at the same time, we had the need for an internal messaging system at our student dorm. So, I wrote a simple message board. Then when I graduated, I decided to move my internal message board onto the internet.

After I relaunched my internal message to the public internet as in 2000, I continued to build on it for a year or so and added a lot of features. More than anything, it was an experimental platform to learn from and apply new web technologies such as RSS feeds, blogging and content and user rating.

As my experiments evolved, they drew the attention of an audience that was also interested in the future of the internet. This audience provided suggestions and was active with state of the art web technologies and they increasingly began providing me with feedback. At a certain time the feedback took on such a level that I thought I should provide the engine to them so they could start their own experimenting and applying their own suggestions to it. This is how it got moved to open source, and also how the community started.

So it was mostly by accident, and it quickly got out of hand.

2) Why did you feel the need to form Acquia and what does Acquia contribute to the Drupal community?

Acquia helps accelerate Drupal usage by contributing to the advancement of Drupal, and by offering products, services, and technical support to simplify the deployment and management of Drupal websites.

As a thriving open source project, Drupal changes at such a rapid rate that it can be challenging to find the most useful and relevant modules, keep systems secure and up to date, and find real-time expertise and support to quickly resolve issues. By reducing or eliminating these issues, Acquia improves the effectiveness of organizations already using Drupal and brings the power of Drupal within reach of more organizations who are exploring Drupal for the first time.

3) There were over 1,400 at Drupalcon in Washington DC, 2009. What is driving this community's significant growth year over year?

A huge community has grown up around Drupal, with thousands of active contributors to the open source project, including more than 4,000 community-developed modules for extending Drupal functionality. Drupal''s thriving, vibrant ecosystem is the very reason that Drupal is so successful - it is its greatest strength.

4) There are a lot of open source projects out there today. What makes Drupal unique?

Drupal has been a pioneer from the start by embracing new technologies and being on the front lines when it comes to web development. But what separates Drupal is its modularity - the combination of a core package and then task-specific modules that can be added as needed.

This modularity was part of Drupal''s initial design. I was sort of shocked that most of the other systems didn''t have a modular design - to me, with my background as a computer science student, that felt like a very natural thing to do.

Drupal''s modular design makes it attractive to both technical and non-technical users. If you look at Content Management Systems, they have eliminated the traditional role of the webmaster. This role has evolved more into a role of content editor.

My vision for Drupal is to do the same for the developers (role). I think there is a lot of room to eliminate the traditional web developer. Eliminating might be a bit too strong, but re-define the role of the web developer at least. The way we try to accomplish this in Drupal is with a modular approach so users can build web sites quickly without having to do any programming. In other words, one does not have to be a true developer to build a feature rich and interactive web site. I hope we can make a big step forward with this in the next five years.

5) Can you name some of the biggest sites that run on the Drupal platform?

A diverse list of organizations are using Drupal including Lifetime Television, MTV UK, Universal Music, Sony Music, Warner Brothers Records, New York Observer, Forbes, The Onion, Harvard University, Amnesty International and tens of thousands more. I believe there are two primary reasons people have chosen Drupal. The first is the Drupal community - it consists of thousands of passionate, talented people who believe in the future of the Web and invest their time and energy to contribute to the project. Second, Drupal''s modular architecture makes it a flexible platform to build great websites.

6) What are the most common barriers to open source software adoption in the enterprise?

The biggest barrier is education - people are afraid of things that are unfamiliar. The good news is that "open source" as a category of technologies is pretty mature in the enterprise - particularly in the data center. Technologies like Linux, Apache, Eclipse and others are now standard tools in any data center infrastructure. The next step in this evolution is for business buyers, outside the data center, to adopt solutions built on open source applications, like Drupal.

7) How do you overcome these objections?

This is where Acquia comes in - Acquia gives organizations the confidence they need to adopt Drupal based solutions. They can access the same level of customer service support and guidance that they have come to expect from proprietary software products - in many cases, better customer service - while taking advantage of the innovation and value of open source Drupal.

8) What's next for Drupal? Can you share any future plans with us?

We are currently working on Drupal 7. We are focused on improving Drupal in a number of ways - adding lots of new features in core (e.g. a new database backend, better file and image handling, improved access control, theme system improvements) but also improving usability and scalability.

Longer term, I see tremendous opportunities for the semantic web and search. For Drupal, this means making Drupal emit structured information. Hundreds of thousands of Drupal sites contain vast amounts of structured data, covering an enormous range of topics, including product information. Unfortunately, that structure is hidden deep in Drupal's database and doesn't surface to the HTML code generated by Drupal. As such, search engines can't pick it up as a product, and they'd fail to include it in their world-wide product database.

Technologies like this disintermediate so many existing websites and organizations that it makes my head spin. It is too great an opportunity for us to pass up on. By adding semantic technology to Drupal core, I think we can make a notable contribution to the future of the web.

9) Is it true that the genesis of the name Drupal was actually a typo? What's the story there?

Yes. Initially, I wanted to register the site under the Dutch word "dorp" which in English means "village" or "small town". While registering the domain, I made an error and typed "Drop" instead of "Dorp". I was shocked to see that was still available, so I decided to keep the domain. As such, the first Internet website powered by an online version of Drupal was Drupal did not get its name until I released it as open source software in early 2001.

Thanks again for your time Dries!

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