The rise of Drupal and the fall of closed source

No readers like this yet.
Hands together around the word trust

The story of Drupal's beginning sounds like a story ripped from the pages of a cyberpunk novel. It was in a small apartment during college that Dries Buytaert created what would become one of the most widely-used open source content management frameworks. As a forum for his friends, early-Drupal was used as a communication tool for monitoring the group's fragile Internet connection, which was expensive and being spliced between them.

The evolution of Drupal since its introduction to the open source community in 2001 is a significant touchstone for the development of how the open source community and commercial private enterprises interact in the digital arena.

In the mid-90s, careful observers were noticing a new kind of economy emerging as a result of open source. This economy was based on creators freely sharing and further refining high-quality content with users who would provide helpful feedback, and often, make contributions of their own. More than a thriving ecosystem generating user-sensitive content and ideas, however, open source communities stood, and currently stand, for an ideology of communal work and collaboration. Open source communities are driven by a commitment to the success of the collective and to user contribution.

It is understandable then that politically-savvy open source community members saw a natural dovetail between the group and the public sphere. And, if users and creators could work together to create a sustainable, thriving online network around useful content, surely open source principles could be successfully incorporated in many other industries and social communities as well. For one, the open source community has become one of the foremost proponents of democracy on the Internet.

Future designers, developers, and creators can learn from Drupal’s legacy of sustaining such a powerful force in promoting open source projects as starting points for spurring on more democratic communities. The philosophy of open source development transmuted into a movement for open source governance, with an increased emphasis on the value of deliberation and educated compromise among  participants. The strides made by the open source community provide a continuing example of how a group can operate efficiently and build outstanding projects and ideas, exemplifying the potential for participatory democratic systems. 

As we all know, one of the greatest strengths of all open source communities is their flexibility—open source projects can adapt to users' needs with extreme efficiency, allowing development to remain relatively unshackled from commercial pressure.

Drupal is a prime example of this. Drupal's first real distribution was the result of the independent project: DeanSpace, created in 2003 by Zack Rosen and Clay Johnson as the central platform for Howard Dean’s online presence for the 2004 presidential election. Dean supporters continued to encourage groups around the country to create their own websites and network with DeanSpace. The flexibility and independence of each web enclave of Dean supporters mimicked Drupal’s program structure—a core + module format.

DeanSpace served as the community’s command center, coordinating wider activities, while local groups crowd sourced outreach strategies and events. This provided uniformity in core functions and added versatility where needed. Dean’s campaign stood out from the rest of the superPAC-funded candidates with its grassroots organization and crowd sourced funding. The campaign embodied a commitment to voter representation and made a huge stride towards a more active political dialogue between citizens and representatives.

After Dean’s withdrawal from the race, DeanSpace was dissolved and recreated into CivicSpace—a platform that enables efficient and versatile civic engagement and coordination. Users for smaller affiliated groups can create a customized node and use the tools at hand to create events, post pictures, and distribute local news on the subject; all the while maintaining connection to the larger organization, allowing for wider coordinated activities.  The managers of CivicSpace set out to make the project more than just an offshoot of the Drupal community; they wanted it to be a major contributor. Today, CivicSpace is widely considered to be the first Drupal distribution.

Additionally, the creation of CivicSpace elevated Drupal as the CMS/CMF of the people. Consequently, those citizens who chose an online platform (Drupal) to organize their efforts became known as thenetizens. The notoriety Drupal achieved through enabling such a dominant voice for civic engagement became a scintillating feature of both the product and the community, a feature that would cause increased success. With the dawn of the age of the conscientious consumer, the public had become increasingly disenchanted with products of the commercial industry, and the opportunity to turn to the open source community for software development became not just financially appealing, but ever-more ethically compelling. As stories of pervasive corporate exploitation increased, citizens became skeptical of corporations with which they had felt familiar and trusting.

Thus, the rise of Drupal coincides with a movement that values thoughtful collaboration over aggressive competition. Contrary to tmany proprietary software companies and products, open source projects tend to become increasingly user-friendly and the communities around them actively work to welcome newcomers to the fold. The driven and radical altruism of many open source communities offered this new movement the authenticity they hungered for and one-upped the commercial competition’s biggest selling point—affordability. 

It wasn't long before the usability, affordability, and ideology driving the popularity of open source began to pose a major threat to the commercial software industry. At first, the industry reacted with indifference, but one infamous case wherein Microsoft released a series of attack ads against the open source giant OpenOffice revealed that open source was becoming more popular than anticipated. When members of the industry realized, however, that open source wasn’t going away, the market began to adapt. Software giants began their own open source projects, some as an attempt to court open source users and others as a way to promote further interoperability between systems. Open source communities began to influence new projects and the foundation of a new economic model.

In 2007, Dries Buytaert founded Acquia, a Drupal consulting firm that contracts with businesses, non-profit organizations, and government departments to provide specialized insight and Drupal support. Other companies began to organize, reflecting the continued emergence of an industry built around access to specialized knowledge and intellectual property. Open source consulting agencies provided an additional bridge between the community and the wider public, creating a new market for open source development. Many projects from the open source community had to assimilate to the new demands of the wider market, forcing further innovation in the areas of wider usability for non-experts and data management.

This only broadened their original base and drew in new developers and voices to the community. This new direction did not co-opt open source communities and drag them toward commercialized software models, and only open source platforms like Drupal, Joomla, and Wordpress straddled the lines between private use and commercial enterprise.

Larger, more notable companies began to transition their software and webdev needs to open source solutions, and, as a result, created demand for increased technical support and expert advice. There arose new niches for open source to fill. What started as a strictly private and user-driven experience grew increasingly sensitive to market demands, but still continued to be first and formost a community dedicated to authentic user-driven innovation and collaboration. The developments remained relatively untethered from the dictates of the sometimes-panic of the company boardroom.

 In 2009, Drupal experienced a Cambrian explosion of notoriety when they nabbed what is possibly their most high-profile user to date—, with Acquia consulting the transition. News outlets buzzed about the purpose behind the move due to the fact that the White House itself characterized the shift to Drupal as signifying a new, more open and transparent government. The collaborative nature of open source software and code was expanded beyond the practical reality to encompass a message of civic engagement and cooperation. Impressed by the security and capabilities of Drupal, other prestigious clients like the U.S. department of Commerce, the Louvre, and the International Monetary Fund became clients and users as well. At this time, in order to ensure universal access to quality code and promote further stability, Dries Buytaert instituted a code freeze to the core Drupal code. This freeze locked down Drupal's source code in order to prevent additional bugs from swarming out of a programming misstep in the source code, safeguarding the creations built by the diverse community of users.

With new themes and plug-ins added daily, Drupal continues to be one of the most versatile platforms available. For tasks Drupal cannot accomplish, the community continues to innovate and integrate with other platforms, enhancing the functionality for all users. So, what’s next for Drupal? Gauging by their history, we can expect Drupal's appeal and use to continue to broaden throughout the civic, social, and business spheres. Additionally, it seems unlikely for it to stray from its roots as a collaboration-driven, operator-sensitive system with supporters, users, and developers firmly entrenched in the open source community.




Jared Whitehead is a tech writer and an aspiring historian who works with Appnovation Technologies, an open source consulting firm. Jared often blogs about the sociology of technology and how communities organized online are affecting the political and commercial sphere. In his free time, he enjoys reading (and annotating) biographies.


Great to see the commercial aspect of Drupal being written about. It seems like people often have the mistaken notion that the only way to profit from software is either to sell it directly, or provide support.

Drupal is a prime example of how open source software can enable more commerce than proprietary software by freeing developers and clients from the need to purchase the framework (empty dollars given to closed CMS companies) and instead concentrate on building content (productive dollars being given to designers to make something people/advertisers will pay for).

I'm not sure the fall of closed source is really touched on, is it?

very nice post indeed mate.

Open source: everyone profits except the dev.

That is not entirely true. If this dev is a smart person, he(/she) makes sure to learn. Programming skills are hot these days. It can get the dev a job for sure. And if this dev looks around a bit, he will find some interesting business models, so he can profit from his own efforts. Enough to even switch to this full time. I have seen many 'friends' in open source projects move to running their own business, providing services on their 'products'.

I have an entire consulting company based on core open source projects with customizations I have made.

I can assure you I have profited!

Yes Robin, you may be right. I am developer and I am trying to do business both on developing and other online paid service business like - matrimonial website, job recruitment website etc. Do not know I will succeed or not. But open source helped me to dream about this. If there is no open source then I have to hire many developer to make a website like By using open source I think, I alone can make a website nearly like

Exactly, Robin. One of the biggest strengths of the open source community is its versatility, in my opinion. Seeing the new and exciting ways open source projects are being used, modified, and integrating with others (to say nothing of the way projects are influencing the software world at large) means that it is only expanding the number of opportunities devs have.

People were called Netizens long before Drupal, dude.

Nice description of growing an open source project and balancing it with commercial needs.

Thanks so much! It's nice to see that history is proving the cynics wrong.

Great post. This was a really nice look at Drupal and what drives the project. I thought this would be a valuable article for my readers, so I included it on my roundup of January's best security, web design/development, and CMS content. Thanks again.

Hi Rachel,

Thanks so much! I really appreciate it! I'm having a good time exploring the other articles you corralled!

Nice article - I am trying to move beyond wordpress in order to build more scalable and robust ecommerce sites. I found the article very educational. Thanks.

When business uses open source its very much flexible with auditability. Providing a good support.
Thanks for the informative post.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.