A Glance at Life in the Drupal World

It wasn’t too long ago when the idea of open-source software raised more than an eyebrow. While some people wondered who would buy it, others wondered who in their right minds would bother to make it.

Dries Buytaert, the creator of the open-source web content management platform Drupal, neatly sums up the mental image that many people have of open-source technology: “It’s a piece of software made by a bunch of hippies and they give it away for free.”

That’s not what things look like in “the Drupal world,” according to Buytaert. For one thing, the “hippies” are actually a giant, international talent pool made up of more than 800,000 volunteers who create what Buytaert calls “a culture of extreme peer review” that monitors and approves every change made to Drupal software. They are professionally organized and take pride in producing a mature, high-quality product with impressive levels of scalability.

In its first iteration, Drupal was an informal message board created by Buytaert about ten years ago when he was a student at the University of Antwerp. After he graduated, he put the message board online to stay in touch with his friends, and it turned into a platform for discussion and experimentation on emerging web technologies. To extend that spirit of shared exploration, Buytaert opened up the source code for the site.

Now called Drupal (a play on the Dutch word “druppel,” which means “drop”), this open-source software is used by one out of every 50, or more than 1.5 million websites, including Twitter, SONY Music, Al Jazeera, the New York State Stock Exchange, 71 of the top 100 US universities, major publications like Maxim magazine, and non-profit ventures like the Business Innovation Factory.

Drupal fundamentally produces software that is “battle-tested,” Buytaert notes. Compared to traditional proprietary software companies that charge licensing fees and may power only 10,000 websites, “we’re cheaper, we’re better, we’re more tested, and we innovate faster.” The amount of innovation coming from the Drupal community is “a tsunami,” he says, and whenever a change is made to its software, as many as 30 different people have to sign off on that change.

The growth of Drupal also benefits from broader developments on the web that create an environment perfectly suited to open-source culture. “The web, in general, is changing our lives,” Buytaert says. “It’s changing everything - how we communicate with each other, how we collaborate, and how we do business.”

It also calls for a unique model of leadership, one that is less authoritative and more participatory. Buytaert focuses on having a vision that inspires Drupal’s legion of volunteers: “A big part of my job is to get out of the way. I can’t really force people to go in a particular direction. People will only follow me if they agree.”

While the Drupal community generates the most sophisticated software for free, profitability is generated through its commercial arm, the venture-backed Acquia, which provides products, services and technical support for Drupal users. Buytaert founded Acquia in 2007, and last year, it was named by Forbes magazine as one of the most promising companies in America.

The beauty of Acquia is that it can co-exist with the many passionate Drupal volunteers whose endless ingenuity keeps the software on pace with the needs of its users and the ever-shifting culture of the web.

“Imagine contributing to Drupal, or the next version of Drupal, which is used by two percent of the world’s websites,” he says. “It’s kind of fun, versus working for an organization that builds a small CMS that is used by a small company. That’s somewhat exciting, but it’s nothing compared to having the World Economic Forum run your stuff.”

No matter who the client is, Drupal’s goal is to build open, interactive websites, which reflect the egalitarian spirit of open-source software itself: a community of volunteers creates a website that creates yet another community. Directly at the center of this new, essential hub of social, political and commercial information, Drupal is ready.

“Ultimately, everybody will have a website,” Buytaert says, “every book, every movie, everything. Open source is the only way to get there because there are no licensing fees. It’s already winning. It’s already dominant.”