It's the totality of Drupal, its gestalt, that makes me feel at peace.
Drupalcon 2011 taught me a few things about Drupal. And it confirmed a lot of others too. What it confirmed is that this software, now just 10 years old, has extraordinary momentum. Even bigger than I suspected. And that momentum isn't measured merely by the number of downloads or websites built on Drupal, but by its wider adoption as a engine that drives business. Big business.
But what Drupalcon taught me -- and it's this that I was hoping to learn more than anything else -- is that Drupal has a very, very bright future. This was important to hear because after six or seven years of kicking the tires on a lot of CMS's and frameworks -- Drupal, ExpressionEngine, Magento (eCommerce), ezPublish, WordPress, Ektron, Plone, and Umbraco, to name some -- it was time to get behind a worthwhile system.
While my company became very proficient with one of those systems (namely ExpressionEngine), we needed to make a decision about which system we were going to use as the foundation for the next phase of my business. It was a decision about an investment in our own future and an investment in a community that, for all appearances, seems very stable and thriving.
Dries Buytaert's keynote speech to some 4000 people on Day One of Drupalcon covered some of the things one would expect. He talked about Drupal 7's development, its recent January release, where Drupal came from, and where it is today. Dries might have been charged with being nostalgic in this, even self-aggrandizing, except that what followed during his talk suggests that he's doing anything but dwelling in the past.
And it all gives me great confidence. Here's why.
He's got a vision
A shared vision.
Part of what makes me so confident about moving to Drupal as a publishing framework of choice for my business is that its founder and leader, Dries Buytaert, isn't content to just let Drupal be an extremely powerful CMS that also does other things pretty well; he's got a pretty clear vision for it. And that vision seems as much formed by what its huge community of users are doing with it as it is formed by his own musings about what Drupal could be.
He said outright during his talk that had he started the project today, he would have created quite a different product. Citing statistics that say a very large percentage of web traffic, if not the majority, will be coming through mobile devices within the next two years, he would have focused more on making Drupal a framework that could deliver through the mobile channel first. HTML would be a big part of the picture, yes, but there would have been more interoperability and corresponding affordances for other uses. I'm sure you'd hear that from any other system's founder whose web framework has reached Drupal's maturity.
But the fact is that he is well down the road in integrating these elements already, and so are many contributors of Drupal's community. It's their efforts -- and the efforts of those who contribute to Drupal's organic growth in using it, extending it, and giving back with little expectations other than creating something good and a little peer recognition -- that make it one of the most successful open source projects today.
And that's what seems to give it such a big advantage. Because the vision is shaped and owned by all its contributors, Drupal is already well down the road to realizing that vision. And everyone involved genuinely seems to want to make Drupal something so much bigger and better than a cooperative collection of add-ons and extensions. Because it's theirs. It seems that there has never been any question about the community's role in directly shaping the product. This brings with it some challenges, of course, but those are heavily offset by the extraordinary evolution of the system. More on this in a bit.
The symbiotic ecosystem
The vision includes the growth of a healthy ecosystem, a host of inter-working components with a common DNA, a common source in Drupal. During his talk, Dries talked about the explosion of the mobile market. He quoted Nokia's CEO, Steve Elop, as saying that the marketplace wasn't just a "battle of devices", but rather a "war of ecosystems", one which Dries dryly pointed out Nokia is losing.
But that war is the reality which Dries and the Drupal community fully embrace. In its current state, the Drupal system is a mosaic of solutions for the way we build for the internet. Its future state, it's apparent, is a sophisticated ecosystem that supports multi-channel, interoperable development.
That means that Drupal will natively support multi-device publishing: HTML5 and CSS3 for web; web services for native mobile apps; and clean APIs for inter-system communication. These elements already exist in early incarnations as contributed modules, but they'll be baked into the core perhaps as early as Drupal 8 which is being planned now. And there's good news for the enterprise level organizations too -- Drupal also intends to have smoother interoperability with major CRM and ERP systems. Dries mentioned SalesForce, but perhaps he means LDAP, and ActiveDirectory, etc., too.
Conference talks by some of Drupal's current key contributors refer to the future that sees a scaled down core, lighter, its base functionality near flawless, but able to support bigger initiatives with fewer problems. And, above all, it's a Drupal that's been well designed for easier use, not just for developers, but end users too.
And we saw evidence of that ecosystem in some exciting presentations, not the least of which was a demonstration by Sumit Kataria about building native apps for iPhone and iPad. With a vision to have these functionalities make it into core as early as Drupal 8, adding to Drupal's sophisticated API, Drupal leaps out as a obvious choice to drive complex organizational or business initiatives.
The process of evolution
Indeed, Drupal's adoption rate is already so big, and getting bigger among much larger organizations, that its evolution will progress at a very rapid rate. And while that will create some challenges with respect to positive growth in the face of potentially huge, harried demands, the counterpoint is that the already colossal body of resources and practical applications for Drupal as a system will only grow deeper and wider. That, too, gives me peace because chances are that somewhere someone will have an answer to my questions when they appear.
No one denies that Drupal 7 took a long time to be released. Major software version cycles are typically quite long, lasting not just months, but years. This is particularly true when new versions promise ambitious additions and improvements, as with Drupal 7. And D7 doesn't disappoint. Between the time I first looked at Drupal in 2007 (I dismissed it quickly), the time I first developed with it in 2009, and now, it has come a very, very long way in terms of ability and usability.
Dries acknowledges that the list of features and modifications committed to the core was perhaps too big. At one point, there were more than 500 critical bugs. Fixing them was a task of daunting magnitude, whether there were five people working on fixing them, or 50.
But the lessons learned in the process have forced new processes, a system of checkpoints that are intended to produce a tighter product with fewer casualties. Practically, that translates into a gate system with cleaner introductions to core. Those gateways, broadly, are performance, accessibility, usability, documentation, testing, and a critical bug ceiling (fewer than 15). Through this process, introductions to core are much stronger, requiring far less work post-commit than during the Drupal 7 development.
That means a more stable system. More useful. More accepted. And sometimes more secure.
I came to Drupalcon to find out some things. For a couple of years I've been worried about being singularly dependent on a very small number of systems (basically, one) on which I rely to create business, develop applications, and serve clients. Two years ago is when I first really started looking deeper into Drupal. I'd met its advocates and proponents, I'd been taught by the best Drupalers in the game, and I knew about its growing wave of adoption. But I needed to see, first hand, that Drupal is the system that I can confidently use to advance my business, and that it has a community that I can rely on that is as much concerned about its future, and plays a key role in that future, as I am.
Will it be the only system we use in our business? Definitely not. There are others which will better serve different purposes. And we're already using those too. But Drupal will play a much larger role because of these things.
It comes down to trust. I've learned to trust that Drupal is headed in the right direction, guided by a forthright leader with good business sense and an appreciation for the ardent members of the community who authentically want to see it do well as well as he does.
And it's that totality -- the vision, the ecosystem, and the process-driven evolution -- that helped me stop worrying and love Drupal.