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Drupal founder, Dries Buytaert Interview

By Mike Johnston January 24, 2009 Interviews  Comments

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We were very pleased to have a chance to interview Dries Buytaert, founder of the legendary Drupal content management system. He shares his thoughts on its success, future and how it came to be in this intriguing and indepth discussion. We had so many questions, that we are only publishing part one while he works on the second half.

Here you go.

CC: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today, Dries. We'd like to cover a few areas during this interview.. specifically Drupal and your latest venture, Acquia.

Can you tell us a little about your background and how you became involved in the world of Content Management Systems?

DB: 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.

CC: Our understanding is that Drupal originally started as a BBS system, having been very involved in the BBS realm ourselves, we find this very interesting. Can you tell us a little bit about how it came to be and was it as popular as a BBS as it is today?

DB: Drupal began as an internal message board that I used to manage my student activities. We just used it in my student dorm to communicate about dinner times, etc. Once I graduated, I began transforming it into a news and discussion website: www.drop.org.

After a year or so, I released the software behind drop.org as Drupal 1.0.0, and Drupal officially came to be on January 15, 2001. Contributors still celebrate this as Drupal’s birthday every year.

CC: According to sources, Drupal’s name came about by accident. Is this true? Can you tell us a little bit about how you came up with the name?

Dries Buytaert

DB: 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 Drop.org was still available, so I decided to keep the domain. As such, the first Internet website powered by an online version of Drupal was Drop.org. Drupal did not get its name until I released it as open source software in early 2001.

CC: Did you ever expect Drupal to get to the level of popularity it is at today?

DB: Not at all, I started all this as a hobby and quickly got out of hand. After I moved it to the public internet, I continued to build on it for over a year and added a lot of features. But, it continued to be an experimental platform to learn from and apply new web technologies such as RSS feeds and content and user rating.

I increased my experiments and development and drew the attention of an audience that was also interested in the future of the internet. This audience provided suggestions and was also 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 there own experimenting and applying there own suggestions to it. This is how it got moved to Open Source, and also how the community started.

I must say though that I felt good making it available to the Open Source community. I had looked at other similar systems such as phpnuke but with my background in computer science I could really say that the architecture and design were much better. People were asking for modifications but I thought it was really well and worth of being seen, especially compared to other state of the art Content Management Systems written in PHP. So made available without too much expectations but it got the reputation after all. I of course continued to work hard on it.

CC: What do you feel are the core strengths of Drupal and why?

DB: The core strength of Drupal is definitely the open source community that is behind the project. I am constantly amazed by the innovation that comes out of the thousands of dedicated Drupal contributors. There are thousands of add-on modules that can be used to successfully power online communities, blogs, and collaboration environments. Furthermore, Drupal’s modularity makes it much easier to use and extend than traditional content management systems.

CC: With the numerous other open source projects on the market today, what separates Drupal and helps it stand out from the pack?

DB: 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. I was also involved in the Linux project 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.

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.

CC: There are some who say that Drupal is trying to do too much too quickly… and its hard to keep up. Specifically, if you visit the Drupal site today there are 4 versions that modules are being created for. What is your response to this?

DB: A huge community has grown up around Drupal, with thousands of active contributors to the open source project, including nearly 2,000 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. However, it’s true that Drupal can be overwhelming to those that don’t have the time or resources to invest in staying on top of Drupal’s latest offerings, updates, etc., which is why I founded Acquia. Acquia addresses these challenges by packaging some of the best software from the project and by providing continuously available support.

CC: What are the largest sites you are aware of that run on the Drupal platform and why do you think they chose it?

DB: A diverse list of organizations are using Drupal including Lifetime Television, MTV UK, Universal Music, SonyBMG, Warner Brothers Records, New York Observer, Forbes, The Onion, Harvard University, Amnesty International and tens of thousands more. I believe there are 2 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.

CC: How does someone decide whether to install Drupal 5 or 6? It seems that in order to use the majority of available modules, one must use the 5.x edition? What do you say to this?

DB: As with any software package, someone building a website in Drupal must map their requirements to the modules and capabilities available. From the beginning, I chose not to preserve backward compatibility because doing so requires that you drag historical baggage along, and in interpreted languages like PHP, this comes at a significant performance cost.

Our mission has always been to make Drupal fast, small, clean and on the bleeding-edge of technology. In the early days I focused completely on the aesthetics of Drupal's code. I spent days trying to do something better, with fewer lines of code and more elegant than elsewhere. And with me, many others. It was the right thing to do. Over the years, we've seen a lot of innovations happen that would not likely have happened while preserving backward compatibility - the node system being one of the most prominent examples.

Developers always had free reign to implement their ideas in the best possible way. It is something that Drupal has in its favor compared to many other content management systems. It's been interesting to see how Drupal has spread and how it has grown to be more flexible and cover more niches than many other systems. If anything, this needs to be attributed to the fact that we haven't cared much about backward compatibility, and our single-mindedness to get the technology right.

Over time, the vast library of Drupal modules is upgraded to support each major release – given the number of modules, this, admittedly, takes time. As part of this process, we seek to bring popular modules into Drupal core to ensure that capabilities that everyone uses are brought into the core upgrade process.

CC: Can you provide us some details on future development initiatives? Any new changes coming down the pipeline?

DB: We are currently working on Drupal 7 and I named Angie Byron, aka webchick, as my Drupal 7 co-maintainer at Drupalcon Szeged in August of this year. We are focused on improving Drupal in a number of ways – adding features in core, improving usability and performance, creating a test framework and adding lots of tests and simplifying the upgrade process.

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.

CC: Tell us a little about Acquia and why you formed this company.

DB: Acquia helps accelerate Drupal usage by contributing to the advancement of the core technology and 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.

CC: How successful have you been so far with this initiative? Who are your biggest customers?

DB: Acquia just launched the general availability of Acquia Drupal and the Acquia Network on September 30, 2008. We’ve had more than 4,000 downloads of Acquia Drupal since we launched. We’ve received significant interest in subscriptions to the Acquia Network and have a handful of beta customers already leveraging the Acquia Network including Adobe, which is using Acquia Drupal and the Acquia Network to power Flex.org.

The feedback we’ve received so far has been extremely positive supporting my initial suspicion that commercial grade support will lead to increased adoption of Drupal – especially in the enterprise.

CC: What makes the Acquia version of Drupal different from the readily available version we all know and love?

DB: There are thousands of modules available for Drupal. Acquia Drupal is simply a packaged collection of some of the best software from the Drupal project to simplify the process of getting started with Drupal. For experienced Drupal developers and users, it speeds the process of assembling the pieces to start building a website, and it provides a supported foundation should the developer, or in many cases, their clients decide they want to purchase commercial technical support.

The code – Drupal core and all the community modules – in Acquia Drupal is the same code that is available on Drupal.org. Its GPL-licensed and available for free to anyone who wants to use it. Our engineering team works closely with the community module maintainers to contribute back any and all patches we write, making them available to the entire Drupal community whether they choose to use Acquia Drupal or not.

CC: Is your goal to move Drupal away from Open Source and more into a Commercial product offering?

DB: No. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Drupal open source community members have made Drupal the innovative and widely popular social publishing system that it is today. The Drupal community is the foundation for the company and is dependent on the continued development by Drupal community members.

Acquia does not want to take Drupal away from the open source community. Rather, Acquia is stepping up as a community member to collaborate in Drupal code development, increase the industry profile for Drupal, and introduce convenient packaging, support, and remote network services that will make Drupal even easier to adopt and use. Additionally, Acquia Drupal is offered as a free download and all software included in the distribution is licensed under the GNU Public License and contributed back to the Drupal open source project.

CC: Can you tell us a little bit about each of your offerings: Carbon, Spokes, Caliper and Yellow Jersey?

DB: Acquia Drupal (previously code named Carbon) is our commercially supported distribution of the Drupal social publishing system. It is a packaged collection of some of the best software from the Drupal project offering an advanced starting point to quickly begin building social publishing Web sites that blend static pages, blogs, wikis, discussion forums, mashups, and custom content types.

The Acquia Network (previously code named Spokes) provides the essential support and remote network services to efficiently operate sites with Acquia Drupal sites. All subscribers to the Acquia Network gain access to the Acquia Network’s subscriber forums, remote network services such as software update notifications, uptime monitoring, Mollom spam blocking, and Acquia Drupal documentation. Caliper was the code name for the Mollom spam blocking service we are offering through the Acquia Network. Additionally, premium subscriptions provide Web-based ticket management, as well as email and telephone support. The Acquia Network functions as an operations portal for managing Acquia Drupal sites and connecting to Acquia support channels.

Finally, Yellow Jersey is the code name for the training and certification program we are developing. For more information on Yellow Jersey, as well as the future roadmaps for Acquia Drupal and the Acquia Network, check out the community section of our website, http://acquia.com/community and share your thoughts about where we are headed.

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Mike Johnston

Mike Johnston Author

I am the guy behind CMS Critic. I started it back in 2006 and we've been going strong ever since. When not traveling to conferences, I am based out of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada where I live with my beautiful wife and kids. Join my wife and I as we work, travel & teach you how to create your own online success story on Two Pros and their Blogs.