Drupal and Linux: Lessons learned for building open source communities

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In today's Open Your World Forum webcast, Chris Grams moderated a discussion between Michael Tiemann and Dries Buytaert about how Linux and Drupal have evolved as two thriving open source communities competing in the enterprise world.


Michael Tiemann is a true open source software pioneer. He made his first major open source contribution more than two decades ago by writing the GNU C++ compiler, the first native-code C++ compiler and debugger. His early work led to the creation of leading open source technologies and the first open source business model.

In 1989, Tiemann's technical expertise and entrepreneurial spirit led him to co-found Cygnus Solutions, the first company to provide commercial support for open source software. In 1999, Cygnus solutions was acquired by Red Hat, where Michael has served in various leadership roles over the last 12 years. He is currently Red Hat’s Vice President of Open Source Affairs.

Dries Buytaert is the original creator and project lead for the Drupal open source web publishing and collaboration platform. Buytaert serves as president of the Drupal Association, a non-profit organization formed to help Drupal flourish. He is also co-founder and chief technology officer of Acquia, a venture-backed software company that offers products and services for Drupal. Dries is also a co-founder of Mollom, a web service that helps you identify content quality and, more importantly, helps you stop website spam. A native of Belgium, Buytaert holds a PhD in computer science and engineering from Ghent University and a Licentiate Computer Science (MsC) from the University of Antwerp. In 2008, Buytaert was elected Young Entrepreneurs of Tech by BusinessWeek as well as MIT TR 35 Young Innovator.

How Drupal was born

"Drupal started in 2000, over 11 years ago," Buytaert said. "I was a student doing my computer science degree in Antwerp and was involved in open source." After working on wireless network drivers in the Linux kernel, he started working on a message board for local friends to communicate with one another. PHP and MySQL were relatively new technologies, and he used them to build his forum as a way to learn them. Eleven years later, it's the Drupal we now know.

For the first year, he worked alone. Then it evolved into a changing, experimental platform, as new technologies emerged and were added. People started asking for access to the code behind the site, and Buytaert decided to make Drupal open source.

Drupal continued as a hobby while Buytaert worked at a startup and on his PhD. Around 2008, he had the vision of "being to Drupal what Red Hat was to Linux," and founded a company--Acquia--to do just that. Drupal has grown from "a hobby that started in my dorm room to...one of the top five largest open source projects in the world with tens of thousands of contributors," he said.

Drupal 7 Core, the base platform, accepted patches from more than 1,000 people and more than 10,000 modules (extensions), each with maintainers and teams actively working on the Drupal code base. It has even become a business and source of income for many of those. Thousands attend Drupal-based events each year, like its 3,000-attendee DrupalCon and the smaller DrupalCamps. Any given weekend, there are 3-4 DrupalCamps held around the world.

Tiemann's story on the early days of Linux

"I dropped out because I was so obsessed with a concept called free software that I could not do my homework," Tiemann said. He learned about GNU in its early days and went to meet Richard Stallman. "I was so excited about the quality, the performance, the flexibility, and the possibility I saw with GNU software that I committed to work on it," Tiemann said. "I believed that in our capitalistic-dominated system, that to have a long-term, sustainable project, one needed to engage with the free market." He founded Cygnus Support to that goal with $6,000 in 1989. It was sold to Red Hat for considerably more in January 2000.

What are the starting points of an open source community? "So many of these projects begin with people who have absolutely nothing in common except the desire to solve their problems in unconventional ways."

"What I found initially was that nobody could get really excited about it [GNU] because it was a very complicated thing to digest." He spent much of a year giving seminars on its internals, bringing in hundreds of people who then had the ability to go forward and hack on it.

There was a perfectly serviceable open source operating system when Linux began--BSD UNIX. "But AT&T was intent on mutually assured destruction by suing the Regents of California," Tiemann said.

Linux functioned in its early days as a way of bringing together people with no common interest but solving their own problems. This unifying fabric introduced people who otherwise never would have met. Today the result has been remarkable. The Fedora Project releases 200 million lines of software every six months with an estimated million developers and applications.

The keys to community growth

"Drupal obviously has grown pretty rapidly," Buytaert said. In managing that growth, some of the work was technical--growing the software itself and into different markets--but also such that it became accessible to more people. The project also had to grow its infrastructure to accommodate different manners of working, particularly from working individually to with a group of ten to with a group of thousands. Planning and coordinating had to scale. And then the social aspect enters--the way the leadership model and the commercial ecosystem scale. These were answered with better communication tools.

"Scaling a project, like scaling a company, requires paying attention to all these different things," he said.

Tiemann added that just giving people a basic education about how to get involved is really step one. "As soon as we hung out our shingle, I confronted the next challenge," he said. And that was the apprehension of whether it was legal to use the Internet for commerce. It had its roots in ARPANET, and there was a belief that its proper use was research. He offered this story for comparison to challenges that seem insurmountable today. For civilians, there was no way other than renting an expensive T1 line to get online. Tiemann's group essentially created the first ISP to solve that problem, including the business model to make it work.

Echoing Buytaert, Tiemann said, "The story of Linux really is a story of scalability, from one user to ten to a thousand to a million and a billion and beyond." And each order of magnitude means more change, in problems and in solutions. We've seen a remarkable ability to scale in the Linux community, and part of the reason it has worked is the number of people with different interests in different problems, and people who are interested in participation at varying scales.

"Software products go through a natural life cycle," Buytaert said. Initially, it's generally a 100% technical project. As it grows, the importance of marketing grows, and possibly the need for sales. For projects like Drupal and Linux to reach that level, Buytaert asserts that companies needed to come into play to address the changes and the need for attracting different types of talent required from one phase to another.

The traits of great leaders

"In the early phases, it's really important that the leader of the project is a solid engineer," said Buytaert. "Good engineers attract good engineers." As it grows, the technical aspects are still vital, but the ability to manage becomes more important. Marketers, evangelists, and people managers become more valuable.

In open source, there's an opportunity for everyone to become a leader--to take a piece and run with it. In this culture, anyone can be a good leader, and everyone is a good follower, due to the collaborative nature of a open source project. Being able to be both is key to success

"I've met some truly amazing people who have technical ability, management ability, leadership ability, and a great sense of humor," Tiemann said. "But one of the things that also helps sustain open source is that the whole system is based on choice." In theory, in a free market, if you don't like your boss, you can quit your job and find a new one. In theory. Most realistically find themselves a bit more stuck. Similarly, voters may become passionate about a president whom they realize shortly after inauguration wasn't the right choice. These are theoretical choices--choices of a moment that then is gone.

In open source, the choices are more real. If a given developer decides he's tired of following what someone else does, there's the freedom to fork. And if he's doing it well enough, he'll attract his own followers. The open source community represents the success of continuous choice and a continuously sustainable enterprise.

"The great leaders are those who thrive on change," Tiemann said. From time to time, they decide it's time to move on. Spreading open source depends on the ability of a contributor to wake up and ask himself, What do I really want to do today?

Turning points in the Drupal movement

"The history of Drupal is one of many key turning points," Buytaert said. For him, key points within the project included the first book about Drupal, which made it feel like a "real" project.

In 2005, Drupal faced a large server meltdown. Because Buytaert didn't have any money to support the project, it was running off a shared server that a friend owned alongside other customers. Then in 2005, the demand to Drupal.org grew so much that he had to turn from growing Drupal to trying to scale the server. The only thing he could do at a certain point of growth was put up a PayPal button asking for donations--$3,000 specifically, to buy a machine to run the site. Within 24 hours of the request, people had donated $10,000, so much so quickly that PayPal blocked his account for suspicious activity. The next day, Drupal was offered free bandwidth and engineering for hosting in exchange for the machine he intended to buy. Then Sun Microsystems called and offered an $8,000 machine.

"The fact that we were a little bit broken really helped rally the troops," Buytaert said. "The history of Drupal is one of these tipping points where we learn to work together and become a bigger team, accomplishing better things together."


In the Q&A, Brian Quinn asked how to balance the openness of a project with the commercial aspects. Buytaert said that if he were to start another open source project, he would look for the ability to build a commercial ecosystem around the project. Some projects lend themselves to it better than others, and if you want to build a big one, the commercial aspect becomes necessary. That means that finding the balance between the two is key to growth.

At Acquia, the basic investment piece is Drupal's success. In everything they do, the Drupal project and community come first. There is no dual licensing. They've tried to push open source and then find ways to monetize on the edges, for example by providing support or through a hosting product.

Tiemann added the importance of creating space for innovation. "One of the great side effects of an open source community is that innovation happens all the time," he said. The most important thing when applying commercial theory to open source is looking at ways of delivering value that don't prohibit or inhibit the community from sharing and improving the source code. Red Hat understood that early on, and the counterexamples of companies that have tried too hard to limit their platforms have generally seen disastrous results. "Don't aspire to emulate failed commercial models of proprietary content," he said.

The recording will be posted soon.

Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and parenting.

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