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Open source Drupal takes Gardens path to big business

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Open..and Shut Even as we rapidly approach a future where most software lives on the web, with acronyms like HTML5 and SaaS pointing the way, it's easy to overlook a primary building blog of yesterday's web, Drupal, and its effects on the future web. Drupal founder Dries Buytaert claims that Drupal already powers one per cent of the web. Could it do more?

Drupal, at the most basic level is an open-source content management system. But this belies just how expansive it has become, with thousands of add-on modules and millions of developers. Drupal is not a product. It's a community. A massive, ever-growing community.

This has led to explosive sales figures at Acquia, Buytaert's company that sponsors a fair amount of core Drupal development. But it also suggests huge potential for the Drupal community to extend Drupal from yesterday's simple framework for building brochure-style websites to tomorrow's web application framework.

Buytaert is clearly thinking along these lines. In a recent conversation we had on the possibilities afforded by HTML5 and web application frameworks like SproutCore, Buytaert suggested he sees Drupal becoming a useful framework for building mobile applications, in addition to all that Drupal already does. But I think he meant more than that. I think he believes Drupal can become the framework for building mobile applications and, hence, for making Drupal the common development environment for applications whether they live at "http://www" or on your Android device or iPhone.

Knowing Buytaert, I wouldn't bet against him. He's a nice enough guy when eating frites and drinking beer off Grand-Place in Brussels, as I was fortunate to do a few years back, but he's a dogged, determined competitor, as Jive or other Acquia competitors could tell you.

And he's got an army of developers behind him.

Does Drupal and, by extension, Acquia, have its challenges? Of course. As Gartner's Larry Cannell points out, Drupal still has its work cut out for it in the enterprise market, and faces an array of low-cost competitors who are increasingly adept at competing with open source's disruptive appeal. Buytaert claims 100-plus enterprise customers already, including the BBC, Sony Music, FedEx, and a range of others.

But more must be done to marry the power of Drupal's open-source web framework approach with the relative ease of an application in order to seriously catch fire in enterprise accounts. Fortunately for Drupal, this is exactly what Acquia has been building with Drupal Gardens.

For all the power the Drupal community offers, it may well be Acquia's Drupal Gardens that decides the battle. Drupal has widespread adoption but remains a bit difficult to use and to scale. Ironically, a few years back Drupal was criticized for being too lightweight for truly "enterprise-class" websites. Such projects were said to require something like Interwoven to manage. Now the inverse is true: Drupal is considered grown-up and almost too enterprise-y.

To truly make it a standard, Drupal must become as easy to use as a template-driven build experience, coupled with a SaaS-powered deployment experience.

More like Drupal Gardens, in other words.

Importantly, getting into Gardens doesn't mean enterprises give up the security of open source. As Forbes' Dan Woods articulates, Drupal Gardens allows users to enjoy the safety of a hosted, configurable Drupal experience but also the possibility of hitting the "eject" button to export code and move to another provider, if necessary.

This isn't solely about portability, either: as much as enterprises may want to avoid mucking in the code, at some point they may have to, and Acquia's open-source SaaS model gives them the chance to both configure and code as much (or as little) as they'd like.

Acquia and Drupal won't win the enterprise overnight, and must overcome significant, entrenched competition like Squarespace (growing fast), Automattic/WordPress (blog tool increasingly used to build websites), Jive and others.

But Acquia has something none of these others has: a booming community, coupled with the chance to "curate" that community into an easily managed web experience through Gardens.

This could accelerate Drupal adoption further which, in turn, makes Drupal ever more likely to become the essential platform for all of an organization's web publishing needs, from brochureware-style websites to mobile applications - and everything in between. ®

Matt Asay is chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears every Friday on The Register.

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