Dries Buytaert wrote the first version of Drupal, the open source, PHP-based web content management system, in his university dorm room back in 2001.
Originally a message board system, Buytaert and his fellow volunteer developers used the software itself as a platform to collaborate on the project.
“We built our community on top of our own software,” he says. “We had to be open and transparent in order to build the software together, which meant that we needed it to have features that allowed us to be open and transparent. Those features are now part of the reason that people use Drupal.”
And use it they do. According to Buytaert, 2% of the world’s websites are built on Drupal. These are not just hobbyist developers – Drupal users include US telco Verizon, whose 90,000-user intranet is built on the platform, and the White House.
Until 2007, when Drupal already had many thousands of users, Buytaert did not receive any money for his invention, instead working as an embedded software engineer and later on his computer science PhD. He would stay up all night on conference calls with US end-user organisations “because it was just so much fun”, he recalls.
That year, however, he decided that it was time for a commercial venture based on Drupal. “For Drupal to be successful as a project, I felt that it needed to be successful in the enterprise,” he explains. “And for Drupal to be successful in the enterprise, there needed to be a company that could offer service-level agreements and contractual guarantees.
“Plus, I wanted to have a job,” he adds.
The result is Acquia, a venture-backed start-up that describes itself as “your enterprise guide to Drupal". One of Acquia’s business lines is based on the support networks offered by commercial open source suppliers Red Hat and MySQL (now part of Oracle).
Subscribers to the Acquia Network receive technical support, provided by engineers that Acquia has hired from the Drupal community.
“The beauty of having the Drupal community is that I don’t have to interview these people: you can see the quality of their work, and how they work with others,” explains Buytaert, who is Acquia’s chief technology officer.
Where Acquia differs from Red Hat and MySQL is that it does not sell an ‘enterprise’ version of the software. “There is only one Drupal,” Buytaert asserts.
Another business line is Acquia Cloud, a hosting service based on Amazon Web Services that is optimised for Drupal websites. “Organisations building websites will usually have a workflow that includes a development environment, a staging environment and a production environment,” says Buytaert. “Acquia Cloud provides them additional development tools.”
The third is Drupal Gardens. This is a hosted service that allows organisations to design, stage and host Drupal websites using a browser-based graphical interface.
Buytaert describes Drupal Gardens as ‘open SaaS’ (software as a service).
“Most SaaS companies won’t let you export your data, but Drupal Gardens allows you to export a .zip file with the MySQL database dump plus all the source code,” he explains. “This allows you to switch hosting provider if you wish, so there’s no lock-in.”
One of Acquia’s core principles, says Buytaert, is to act in the interests of the Drupal community. “The central investment thesis behind Acquia is that we will not be successful unless Drupal is successful. We’re tied at the hip.
“That means that we always put the community first, because the community is what makes Drupal innovative,” he adds. “The community means that if a popular new social web service is launched tomorrow, some developer somewhere will build a Drupal extension for it. At a conventional software company, it would take months before it would even get on the roadmap.”
There have been cases when putting the community first has cost Acquia time and money. “When we developed Drupal Gardens, we made several usability improvements that we could have kept to ourselves, but instead we submitted them to the latest version of Drupal,” explains Buytaert. “That meant going through the community approval process, which made it three times as expensive.”
Acquia is designed to make money, like any business, but Buytaert plans to do so by respecting the open source ethos, he says. “Open source leads to collaboration, which leads to community, which leads to innovation.”