Phase2’s Jeff Walpole and Greg Wilson sat down with Luke Fretwell of FedScoop and Gunnar Hellekson of Red Hat on Friday, May 31st to discuss all things Drupal and government. Below, we have transcribed the most salient points of the interview, slightly edited for reading purposes.
To listen to the full recording, please click here to access the FedScoop interview.
LUKE: Can you start off by explaining what Drupal is?
Drupal is a content management system that is free and open source. Written in PHP and distributed under the General Public License (GPL), Drupal runs about 3% of worldwide websites and comprises a pretty significant percentage of the content management framework for the web. Known for everything from personal blogs to large government sites (such as whitehouse.gov) as well as journalism & media sites, Drupal has evolved into a content management framework that people build off due to its extensible, open source base.
LUKE: I’m glad you mentioned whitehouse.gov as it’s kind of the marquee Drupal installation for government. Can you give a history of Drupal’s adoption into government? I feel like I turned around and half the government had flipped their websites over to Drupal.
We initially did not see a lot of adoption on the government side. From its creation in 2001, Drupal was heavily used as a base for publishing & media websites and remained as such throughout the mid 2000’s. Around 2008 or so, a few of the campaign based sites, such as recovery.gov, started to turn to Drupal, but none of the major agencies were running it.
The shift came when Obama’s administration entered the White House in 2009. They were faced with a choice between utilizing a proprietary, custom CMS built by the previous administration or switching over to Drupal. Having used Drupal extensively in their campaign efforts, the Obama administration launch whitehouse.gov in November 2009 and it has been running on Drupal ever since.
Whitehouse.gov has acted as a billboard for federal CIOs to say that open source is acceptable and that using Drupal is a viable option for other agencies, which opened the floodgates. It really becomes a question for open source of what constitutes a recognition that open source is okay to use? When you start at the White House, it allows everyone to point upwards at the federal level and recognize it as an endorsed option as a backend for their websites.
LUKE: Right now Drupal is everywhere. Can you name some of your favorite federal customers or some customers people might not realize are running Drupal?
Jeff: It’s actually quite shocking how many people are using Drupal in government. Aside from whitehouse.gov there is also the We The People petition tool, which has since been open sourced for other people to use. Our team built a platform for the House of Representatives that supports hundreds of sites for the House including committees, conferences, and individual members of the House. In addition, we’ve built sites for the Department of Energy (Energy.gov), FEMA, and the Department of Homeland Security. There are also large enclaves of Drupal users in the Department of Education, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, and Health and Human Services. It’s fairly prevalent at this point and, while I don’t have an exact number, Acquia has cited about 25% of federal sites are running on Drupal.
LUKE: That transformation is phenomenal. You mentioned the cultural aspect of this change. When you start talking to people about using Drupal, what have you seen as the biggest challenges in bringing Drupal (or open source in general) into a government shop?
Greg: Security is always something that people either need additional education about or list as one of their primary concerns. There is already a lot of good answers and discussion around this. The assumption that an open source code base is going to be less secure than a proprietary code base isn’t accurate.
In addition, when people are thinking about procuring a web content management system, they tend to think of procuring a product. We see this when procurements come out and the customer is thinking of it as the way they would buy another proprietary system. This differs for Drupal because it works as a framework and can do a lot straight out of the box, but when you install it and get it up and running, it might not look quite as good or slick as an out of the box proprietary system. This is definitely a challenge and one of the reasons we credit distributions like OpenPublic to help make it come across that it’s not only good enough for the White House, but it’s something that’s capable of quite a lot. Sometimes it just takes people seeing something in action or in a specific use case.
Gunnar: That’s interesting because we have a similar challenge at Red Hat with stuff like Linux, where - can it be a firewall? Sure. Can it be a web server? Sure. It just requires some work to get it to do any one of those individual tasks and it’s not quite as polished when it comes straight out of the box. It’s interesting that they both share this problem and is probably due to the inherent flexibility built into open source.
Absolutely. The flexibility of open source could be both it’s boon and bane, so to speak. The other challenge we run into is the fact that Drupal is a dynamic CMS. So if a government agency is looking at decreasing their forward footprint and wanting something that’s not as heavy when rendering a web page, there is curiosity as to what tools are available other than Drupal. It’s a discussion of static, lightweight approaches vs. Drupal. That’s potentially a challenge, even though there are a lot of approaches in which you can cache pages in Drupal so it doesn’t always have to refer back to the database and act as a dynamic system.
LUKE: Right, we’ve also been talking a lot with Jekyl enthusiasts in our past two or three shows coincidentally. So is there a rivalry?
Jeff: That’s exactly the framework that Greg is referring to. Your talk with Dave Cole, from Development Seed, references their approach, which is very much a lightweight, no CMS designed to render static HTML pages that has some benefits from a performance perspective. However, the other strategy that a lot of agencies do in terms of security and performance is to use Akamai or other related CDN technologies to capture traffic at the web server layer before it gets into the CMS stack and is a trend that’s particularly prevalent in conjunction to Drupal.
Greg: The key too, is thinking about what problem you’re trying to solve, which I felt came up on the last podcast. You have to take a step back and look at the business problem that you’re trying to solve first. This is an approach we would recommend as well. Dynamic CMSes didn’t just come out of nowhere - they exist to fix a particular business problems such as workflow and managing content across large teams with distributed people (which there are a lot of). If though, you don’t need to build a platform or have the sophisticated features included in a dynamic CMS and building a static site would solve the problem, then something like GitHub and Jekyll makes better business sense. Really just depends on the business problem you’re trying to solve and what technology best fits with that.
LUKE: Yes, that appears to be the new emerging battle - static vs. dynamic. We’ve talked a lot about federal agencies and the adoption there. I haven’t seen as much adoption of open source at the state and local level. What’s happening in the state and local markets and what are the challenges of getting buy-in for Drupal there?
Jeff: The space is a little bit different, especially at the state level. The way budgeting for federal CIOs works is very different than state CIOs. State CIOs tend to be in a more revenue based mindset and have different challenges when it comes to funding, how their budgets are done, and how they get federal funds. It does tend to be more of a cost based environment than a solutions based environment from our experience, which is somewhat limited, admittedly.
We moved the state of Georgia off of Vignette last year, which was a very sizeable project of over 60 separate sites. They estimated the cost savings to be about 14 million dollars and that was really the driver there. It was less about other aspects of open source, although it enables them now to have the flexibility to build all these other cool tools on top of the platform.
Georgia was the first major state implementation that we’re aware of, but there are challenges that other states have run into that have stopped Drupal/open source from becoming widely adopted. There are different players in the market such as NIC, which is a cost-revenue share model. I believe they have an interest in using Drupal for some of these, but have yet to see that shift. If NIC were to adopt a platform like OpenPublic, you would definitely find a lot more states moving en masse to Drupal.
Luke: Yeah, NIC runs around 30 of the state sites on a .net platform, but a lot of agency sites are in Wordpress. So, let’s have the Drupal vs. WordPress talk. When would you advise the former over the latter?
Jeff: Absolutely. The best example would be a blog platform, which is the traditional mentality around WordPress. It probably irritates them a lot to hear that, but it’s an awesome blogging platform that they do a great job with. When faced with doing the redesign of our website, we asked our team to recommend the best tool for the job with an open mind. We’ve built thousands of sites on Drupal, but the response was to build the new site on Wordpress and that’s what we did. If there is any sign of objectivity we’re can wave it’s that we’re willing to consider the right tool for the right job ourselves and don’t want to be dogmatic about Drupal.
Having said that, where we see Drupal being most valuable is, as Greg said, a flexible framework we can use for things like workflow or extending other capabilities on top of it. We really like the multi-site capabilities of Drupal. An agency like the DoE or DHS that have hundreds of agency sites in a network can fully utilize the flexibility in Drupal’s platforming and multi-site case abilities. However, as Greg stated earlier, depending on the use case, a lot of agencies are looking at getting content up quickly with a lot of multimedia, nice theming, nice design, with blogging type needs and that might be better served in Wordpress.
It’s fair to say there are use cases for both. Clearly our firm is biased towards Drupal in a lot of ways, but we try to demonstrate that we aren’t overly dogmatic about it ourselves.
LUKE: We talked about Drupal being a framework and a big draw is the bewildering number of modules you can plug into it. Famously, the White House released some of the modules they built back into the community, which was awesome. What are some of the headliners for you guys? What kind of modules are folks using in the field?
Jeff: To be honest, I don’t see a ton of commonality in the exact modules. What I see more of is the use case similarities such as accessibility and security. There are some modules and features around things like OpenData and citizen engagement that are quite common (ideation, for example).
Another thing I mentioned earlier is that these agencies are using Akamai. The first contribution the White House made was the Akamai module for Drupal, which controls headers for caching and things like that. So that particular module is pretty common in the government space. However, I see it more of a collection of use cases and not so much at the module level, if that makes sense.
Greg: You touched on the notion that there is sort of a dizzying array of modules for people to choose from and this is one of the reasons we’ve been so engaged in distributions. It allows us to bring all these modules together in a way that it a little more tailored to specific use cases. For example, OpenPublic is a collection of modules and theme configurations that pick Drupal up and make it more tailored for a government use case. The idea is to lower the barrier to entry to get into Drupal if you’re a government agency as opposed to picking from thousands of different modules. This way you get some of the best practices to work with out of the gate.
LUKE: Gunnar & I have talked about the idea of creating a product and releasing it to the community a lot, which more and more people seem to be doing. I know you guys have been doing that for a long time with OpenPublic, which is your open source platform for government. Can you explain what OpenPublic is, what features it has for government, who’s using it and how has the community contributed to it?
Jeff: The main thing we’ve tried to do with OpenPublic is establish what a toolset looks like for government. We’re not trying to be overly prescriptive and say, “this is exactly how you should build a site.” It’s more about giving people a starting point. The concept of distributions in the Drupal space is similar to the Linux space in that a distribution is someone’s cut at dealing with a certain set of use cases within that technology. OpenPublic is an example of where we took some of the code from these larger government sites and tried to get best practices built together that addressed accessibility and security as a starting point. It’s been pretty successful; FEMA.gov, DHS.gov, and Gerogia.gov all run OpenPublic. We’ve got a couple hundred sites out there running on the OpenPublic platform and we feel like it’s helped people.
From our perspective, if you unzip Drupal and you don’t know where to start, we haven’t made a good example as a community on how to actually use the tool. So for us, this is our way of saying “here’s a way to build a CMS or website out of Drupal.”
The fact that it’s free and that we contribute it back goes along with our hope that adoption of Drupal as a platform will be better for us as service providers of it. In addition, it’s a way to combat proprietary CMS marketing tactics and licensing costs that we don’t think the taxpayer should pay for. With open source, we feel if we get something out there that you’re more likely to use, the taxpayer is going to get a better return on investment as well. We have seen people constantly procure the same solutions, investing too much money into them, and then not getting any reuse out of it. When we look at something like the needs for the state of Georgia, we don’t feel like the needs for the state of Kentucky should be that different. So we’re incredibly passionate about creating reuse through open source and sharing functionality that people have already built out.
LUKE: Do you feel like building out OpenPublic has been worth the actually investment from a business standpoint?
Jeff: I think in a lot of ways it has. It’s a good demonstration of thought leadership, which is how we would prefer to do marketing. The investment is a little complex and we spend a lot of time tracking those numbers internally and thinking about what the ROI might be. We get some marketing, some services work, and some goodwill, but we also provide an outlet for our developers who actually want to build products. It allows them to get their own ideas and architectures out there, which is one of the draws of open source as a whole. The mentality of a creative person in the development space is allowing them to share their work and having others see how they solve problems.
For us, it’s also a talent retention and professional development resource as well. It helps to keep people that have a knack for building products and not just building the website the way the client said. So, we see it as a multifaceted goal and the return on investment is there, but it’s just a multiyear ROI. You have to wait and see how many hours you can attribute to it over the long run.
LUKE: So I guess the home run for you guys would be when you see people contributing back to the code you’ve already put out there?
Jeff: Absolutely. The most exciting thing is when people contribute back with code. It’s incredibly rewarding for our developers to see that. We have another distribution originally created by Development Seed called Open Atrium, which is the largest distribution in the Drupal space. It powers over 100,000 different instances as more of an intranet and team collaboration tool. We are currently rebuilding Open Atrium on Drupal 7 and just launched it about 2 months ago. During DrupalCon we got 3,000 downloads for that in one week. It’s pretty astounding what people’s appetite on the internal side is for collaboration tools and intranet functionality. We’re expecting this to be a lot bigger deal to our business in the long run as government agencies start to adopt this tool instead of Sharepoint inside their organization. For us, the next big wave for Drupal would be knocking Sharepoint out of the equation.
LUKE: I was going to ask about Sharepoint. You’ve been out there slaying Vignette and slaying custom CMSes. So now you’re going after the big guy? You’re going after Sharepoint?
Greg: Yeah, the problem there is that it’s everywhere. At every level of every government agency and sometimes your biggest competition is doing nothing.
Right, and they’ve done a great job at getting Sharepoint included on those enterprise agreements. Then it just starts spreading like wildfire and it gets super hard to displace them.
Greg: Absolutely. We don’t see it as a sort of “top down” movement. It’s probably going to be a lot more like what Jeff said, where people pick up Open Atrium, see success with it, and then it bubbles up from there.
Jeff: It’s also as the agencies start to divest their investment in microsoft technology and move to Linux at the server level, Apache, PHP, Drupal, Wordpress and all these tools at the CMS level. Now they are retraining everyone from the sys admin to the DBA to the web developer to the project manager and once they get a larger workforce of people that are open source friendly and trained, it’s likely that they are the people that will push for the internal instances to replace Sharepoint. I do think it will take a longer time for that to happen due to the install base and the barriers to entry. Eventually the same reasons that drove people to use open source for CMSes on their website will prevail at that level as well.
LUKE: Going back to this cultural thing, culture is a byword for a complex set of conditions. You have people that have trained to use the tools, they have to be comfortable with them, and then there have to be contract vehicles in place. There’s a lot of hurdles, right?
Greg: Yes. The contract vehicle one is a big deal. It goes back to what I was talking to before in regards to procurement. The way people think about procuring software and these enterprise support agreements are in place sometimes its just easier and faster. As Jeff said, as the culture and conditions change and it becomes easier to run open source technologies, the shift will occur. Folks like Alfresco are also seeing this same type of thing. It’s a triangulation of a number of things - culture, infrastructure, platform, and willingness to adopt open source software. All of these will play together in the next couple of years.
LUKE: That’s why you guys have had such great momentum and success, which was unimaginable in 2008. What’s in store for the future of Drupal in government?
Jeff: For Drupal, the challenge is going to be that as the Drupal wave slows, new ideas and technologies will start to ride their own wave. So we’ll be watching how Drupal transitions. I think our stance is that we’re really involved and invested in open source. We think Drupal is the tool for a lot of these things, but as long as open source becomes the prevalent mindset and skillset and we can get through some of these procurement hurdles then there will be a really significant cost savings and cultural change in government. As people get into this mindset of contribution, sharing, and community, you get to the heart of the free software movement in government - which has taken decades, potentially.