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Drupal’s Creator Envisions Web Publishing’s Plug-and-Play Future

Dries Buytaert CTO of Acquia and Drupal project lead

Dries Buytaert started down his path to fame when he coded up a private message board for his college dormitory. Nine years later, that modest bulletin board software package has grown into Drupal, one of the most popular open-source content publishing systems on the web with thousands of active contributors. In March 2008, Buytaert connected with entrepreneur Jay Batson, and together the two of them founded Acquia, a commercial venture that will provide technical support for Drupal’s devotees as well as further the adoption and development of the platform.

Webmonkey sat down with Dries and Jay to talk about the history of Drupal, where development is headed and the role their new company will play in the project’s future.

Photos: Jim Merithew/Wired

Webmonkey: Dries, can you give us Drupal’s back-story? The germ of the idea and how the platform grew into existence?

Dries Buytaert: It sort of happened by accident. 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.

When I registered a domain for it, I wanted to register the name “Dorp,” which is Dutch for “small village.” But I mis-typed, and actually ended up registering the name Drop. Amazingly, Drop.org was still available, and since it’s an English word with multiple meanings, I decided to just go with it.

Our original user community died pretty quickly, but I continued working on it by adding things like RSS feeds and the ability for users to rate content. More and more people started coming to the site with ideas and suggestions, like ways to modify the algorithm that handles comment moderation. At a certain point, I was getting so many suggestions that I decided to just open up the source code. That was the Drupal 1.0 release, which came out in early 2001.

At the time of the release, I was fairly confident that I had a good system. I felt that it was competitive with the other open source technologies out there like PHP-Nuke. So, it felt like the right thing to do.

Webmonkey: One of the key pieces of Drupal’s design is its modularity — users install a core package, then add functionality by installing task-specific modules. Where did the idea for the modular design originate?

Buytaert: It was part of the 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. I was also involved in the Linux kernel back then, working on wireless network drivers. That’s also obviously a modular system, so I may have gotten some inspiration from there as well.

Buytaert and Batson CLICK FOR LARGERJay Batson: Speaking as somebody who dealt with a lot of content management systems before meeting Dries, I can say that most of the other CMS’s out there didn’t come from people who were computer science grad-types. They were built by web designers or programmers who maybe were self-taught and had hacked together a system that sort of worked. They didn’t come from people with an underlying discipline of computer science. That ended up being a key distinction between Drupal and other systems.

Webmonkey: Drupal is especially popular with those who want to build a site around some sort of central social networking component. Is that because it gives such granular control over user management, or is it because Drupal became popular at the same time social networks were really taking off?

Buytaert: I think the first reason is definitely a big part of it. Drupal was a multi-user system from day one, but most of the other systems are behind Drupal as far as user management and access rights.

It’s a very social system by design. For example, the original Drop.org site was very much like Digg, where people could submit links and vote on each other’s submissions. Such user interaction was a key initial feature of Drupal. Over time, we’ve been moving away from these features. That voting system has since been taken out of the core, but it’s available in a module. Instead we’re evolving into a platform that can do more — the traditional web content management stuff as well as the social stuff.

Batson: They also got a good boost because Drupal 5 had as its tag line “Community Plumbing.” At that moment in time when community-based sites were becoming more important, here was this system marketing itself as being optimized for that.

Also at that time, there were a lot of people coming into the Drupal community and contributing code. So, a great deal of code was written in that area with the social features in mind. I know Dries was spending most of his time during that period managing those contributions — keeping the Drupal core slim, but making sure that the key features were there. And, at the same time, stressing the importance of modules.

Buytaert: One of the things I’ve always encouraged people to do was take Drupal in different directions. I think it’s a very powerful notion to get out of people’s way. So if they want to build a social networking site or a Flickr clone, I think it’s important that Drupal as a platform is capable of serving all these different needs. That’s what the modular design helps accomplish.

Webmonkey: Tell us about Acquia, the company you founded together.

Batson: Our goal is to become to Drupal what Red Hat and Canonical are to Linux. If you want a supported version of this open-source software, you come to us and pay a subscription. You get a distribution, a set of services for maintenance and updates plus access to our tech support center. So let’s say you’re running a large-scale media site and you’ve built all of your front-end infrastructure on Drupal. You need an answer about something, and you want the ability to pick up the phone and have an answer within an hour rather than send an e-mail and wait a day, or wait for the appropriate person to log in on IRC. On the other end of the spectrum is the small site that needs help with installing modules or managing updates. It’s a well-proven open-source business model.

The other role we can play at Acquia is supporting the Drupal development community. Drupal has wonderful organic growth. The community is roughly doubling every year. That’s impressive, but we’d like to see it grow by a factor of ten.

Webmonkey: How many developers are working on Drupal right now?

Buytaert: For Drupal 6, the last major release, we had around 900 people contribute to the core. As a reference, that’s the same number of people who contribute to the Linux kernel. There are over 2,000 contributed modules, and each of these modules has one or more maintainers. The Drupal.org website has between 250,000 and 300,000 registered users. These are not necessarily all developers, but those people are participating in the community in some way.

Webmonkey: Where is Drupal development going next?

Buytaert: We are working on Drupal 7 right now. We’ll have a better database abstraction layer, better support for WYSIWYG tools and usability improvements for admins that make it easier to configure Drupal.

We have a new core feature called Content Construction Kit, or CCK. This lets you define new types of content using a web interface. For example, if you have a bicycle website and you want your users to be able to share their favorite rides, you can create a new content type called “rides.” That content type might include a start location, an end location, a link to a Google map, some pictures of the route, text describing the ride. Once you have all of this data, you can choose to visualize the ride on a Google map, or display it all in a table or whatever you want. Many different views can be extracted from this big bag of user data, and it can all be accomplished using an easy web interface.

Our long-term vision for Drupal as an open-source project to fully democratize online publishing — to make it possible for everyone to create really powerful and interesting websites just by clicking around. Drupal lets you get a working prototype up and running in just a couple of hours without having to write any code. That’s very powerful.