Choosing an open-source CMS, part 1: Why we use Drupal

Two companies decide that Drupal, a powerful but complex content management system, works best for them.

Of the open-source content management systems (CMSs) available today, WordPress, Joomla and Drupal are, according to Web technology tracker W3Techs, by far the most popular. But how do companies choose which to use?

Conventional wisdom has it that WordPress is the fast and easy way to go, while Drupal works best for large, complex, enterprise-class websites. Joomla fits somewhere in the middle -- it has some of the power of Drupal but with greater ease of use. That doesn't tell the whole story, however. All three CMSs have evolved beyond their roots: Drupal is getting easier, WordPress more sophisticated and Joomla offers both a CMS and a related Web development platform on which it can run.

This month we start a series that looks at this decision through the eyes of the people who use these systems. We asked users of each CMS to explain why they chose each platform, what made it the better fit for their needs compared to the others available and how they built on the strengths and worked around the weaknesses of their chosen platform.

[For in-depth reviews of these three open-source content management systems, see Site builder shootout: Drupal vs. Joomla vs. WordPress. Looking for development tools? Try 10 free Drupal modules that make development easier.]

In this first part of the series, we start with Drupal and two companies that chose it to build and maintain their sites: electronic component manufacturer Integrated Device Technology (IDT) and Fearnet, which offers an on-demand and traditional cable channel as well as a website.

Drupal, considered one of the most flexible and powerful CMSs available for developing complex enterprise websites, wasn't originally conceived as a CMS. Dries Buytaert, who was at the time a student at the University of Antwerp, wrote what would eventually become Drupal as message board software in 1999. It wasn't until 2001, when Buytaert founded the Drupal open source project, that his "Drop" software took on its current name.

Drupal's relatively small installed base -- according to W3Techs, as of February 1 just 2.3% of all websites use the CMS, behind WordPress (17.4%) and Joomla (2.7%) -- belies its substantial presence in the enterprise. Designed from the ground up as an open-source Web publishing platform, Drupal has a dedicated fan base among developers of high-end and enterprise-scale websites, according to Buytaert.

Drupal is designed and maintained by website developers who need to build technically sophisticated sites. "There's a different level of developers in this community. It's more technical in nature [than the Joomla and WordPress communities]," Buytaert says.

Drupal shines with more complex websites. It's a great solution for people who want to build feature-rich websites and it's a great solution for large enterprises. That's our sweet spot. Dries Buytaert, co-founder and project leader for the Drupal Project

Techie as it may be, however, Buytaert describes the Drupal's governance as "laid back," with few defined roles in a community where people step up as needed. But Drupal's founder still plays a key leadership function. "I come in when decisions need to be made because the community gets stuck," he says.

The model seems to work: Over the years Drupal has evolved into a sophisticated publishing platform with more than 18,000 modules developed by a community of 800,000 members. "If you're building a website with thousands of registered users that need to be sliced and diced into different groups and access patterns, Drupal is well suited to that," Buytaert says.

But that power cuts two ways. Less technical users have found the platform harder to learn and use than other open source tools such as WordPress. The Drupal community has been working to remedy that, and the version of Drupal available today, Buytaert says, is easier to use than what users experienced just a few years ago.

(Story continues on next page.)

Drupal: Pros, cons and what's coming

Drupal

Dries BuytaertBeginnings: First written in 1999; officially founded in 2001Installed base: 2.3% of installed sites (according to W3Techs)

Pros: Developers in the Drupal community tend to be some of the most technical, with many working in the consultancies that focus on big-budget, large-scale projects. A prolific developer community has created more than 18,000 add-on modules.

Drupal works well with sophisticated websites that require many different custom content types. Developers use it both as a CMS and as a broader Web development platform, says Buytaert, who also serves as the CTO and founder of the Drupal development services firm Acquia.

Cons: "The downside of Drupal's flexibility and power is that it can be perceived as more difficult to use at times," admits Buytaert. That means Drupal is facing some headwinds in a market where decisions about CMS deployments are moving into the hands of nontechnical managers outside of IT in areas such as marketing.

"Technical excellence, where Drupal wins, is not always the key decision factor anymore. Ease of use is becoming more important," Buytaert says. To that end, the development community is working hard to improve the user experience and, according to Buytaert, the usability of Drupal's authoring tools has improved over the last few years. "People who used it years ago and concluded that it was too hard to use should reconsider," says Buytaert. "We've come a long way."

What's coming: Going forward, Drupal's Spark project aims to improve the authoring experience in Drupal 8. "That brings more in-line editing, more WYSIWYG, streamlining the experience of creating content in Drupal 8," say Buytaert.

The community also plans to improve features ranging from configuration management to Edge Side Includes (ESI) caching strategies that Buytaert says will allow larger sites to support billions of page views.

But the biggest focus right now is on mobile, Buytaert says. "Mobile means creating great experiences on mobile Web browsers and enabling people to build native mobile apps, Android or iOS apps, on top of Drupal using Web services. We'll be outputting HTML5 out of the box." With Web services support, Drupal will function as a content repository that's accessible through an API, he adds.

IDT: More and better search options

Andrew Luchsinger, technical marketing manager at electronic component manufacturer Integrated Device Technology (IDT), knew he had to do something about an aging ColdFusion platform when he realized that it was becoming difficult for customers to find the business' growing array of products online.

IDT's product portfolio includes more than 25,000 integrated circuits and other electronic components, each offered in dozens of variations based on the electrical specifications each customer requires. Luchsinger wanted a tool that would let people easily search, filter and display the configurations they needed -- something they couldn't do easily in the firm's homegrown ColdFusion implementation. The new "parametric" search tool needed to be custom built, and the project required building many custom content types in order to manage everything.

"We needed to start from scratch," he says.

IDT did consider rewriting the site with Microsoft SharePoint -- which IDT was already using as its document repository -- and WordPress. But cost was a big concern: IDT's budget was $200,000, and the quote for using SharePoint came in at double the cost of using the open source Drupal or WordPress CMSs, mostly due to extra software licensing fees. "We couldn't justify paying double the cost for a similar result," Luchsinger says.

In addition, IDT's IT organization recommended going with an open-source CMS running on a LAMP ( Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) infrastructure because the company already had PHP programming experts in-house. So Luchsinger focused on WordPress and Drupal -- and came away undecided until IT broke the tie by recommending Drupal. "They said Drupal had a better security rating," he says.

IDT needed a tool that would let people easily search, filter and display the configurations they needed -- something they couldn't do easily in the firm's homegrown ColdFusion implementation.

Luchsinger admits that he didn't check any further as to whether WordPress' security would have been adequate. "We needed to make a decision quickly, so we just went with [Drupal]," he says.

Because IDT didn't have any in-house Drupal developers at the time -- a situation it has since rectified -- the firm turned to Mediacurrent, a Web development and design company. Mediacurrent brought in Apache Solr as the core search engine, built a related software module and tied everything together using JavaScript.

"Drupal has good supporting modules that let us put pretty much anything we want into Solr," says Andrew Riley, Medicurrent's director of Drupal development, who served as lead developer on the project.

IDT's product portfolio includes more than 25,000 integrated circuits and other electronic components, each offered in dozens of variations based on the electrical specifications each customer requires.

Drupal also supports the creation of multiple content types, each with hundreds of attributes (fields). "The flexibility over how those fields are organized and presented to the user, both in how the data is input and how it's displayed, are the heart of Drupal's power," says Jeff Diecks, Mediacurrent's vice president of professional services. "Drupal does not limit you in terms of how you can capture, organize and present data for a wide range of applications."

So far, everyone's pretty happy with the call to use Drupal. The new site, launched in January 2012, is faster than the company's previous website, has achieved 100% uptime so far, and lets IDT's new Drupal developer, Brendon Mosher, add features more quickly than did the previous system.

Mosher, who joined IDT as its Drupal project was nearing completion, comes from a Joomla background. He started working with Drupal after a project required him to set permissions for users in a way that Joomla could not support at the time. "Joomla's administration interface is a bit easier to use, but Drupal's community, features and documentation outweigh those benefits," he says.

Ease of use was a big deal for Luchsinger. He wanted the new site to be easy for everyone -- especially nontechnical people -- who needed to administer the site, even when they were editing complex data structures. That was a tall order, given that ease of use is one area where Drupal hasn't exactly been considered a leader. "Coming into Drupal cold, the user interface can be overwhelming," Mosher says.

To address this issue, IDT had Mediacurrent customize the interface. "We've been able to do much of this by hiding areas of the interface that aren't required for our users and by altering other forms to reduce confusion," Mosher says. The power of Drupal lies in its flexibility, he adds: Everything can be extended and customized, right down to the look and organization of the administration user interface.

Both Luchsinger and Mosher agree that Drupal was the right fit for IDT and they'd choose Drupal again were they to do it all over again. But both advise others to avoid jumping to any conclusions based on that experience. Drupal, WordPress and Joomla are all enterprise-class CMSs, Luchsinger says. While some projects will have specific requirements that result in a clear-cut decision, in many cases any of the three will probably do just fine.

All things being equal, says Mosher, the decision could come down to whether existing staff already have a proficiency in, say, WordPress over Drupal. Adds Luchsinger, "My advice is don't stress over the decision too much and don't feel like you need to spend a lot of money to make it work."

But that doesn't mean users don't need training. "While the back-end interface is straightforward, we sometimes have to provide additional training to our non-technical admins who manage the site," Luchsinger says. With a little training, however, all of them have been able to use the system.

Fearnet: Eliminating one-off coding jobs

Imagine the horror: Every time Fearnet wanted to launch a new mini website to promote a new show on its cable channel, fans would have to wait up to three months for the new show page to appear. Everything had to be custom-built on a proprietary content management system provided by Comcast, one of Fearnet's parent companies.

Now Fearnet's two-person staff doesn't have to keep fans in suspense: With the new Fearnet.com site, built in Drupal, they can knock out new "mini-sites" -- sections within the main site structure -- in 15 to 20 minutes.

Fearnet, a venture jointly owned by Sony, Comcast and Lions Gate, offers an on-demand and traditional cable channel as well as a website.

Fearnet, a venture jointly owned by Sony, Comcast and Lions Gate, offers an on-demand and traditional cable channel as well as a website. "For us, it's all about doing fun, fan-based promotions because the horror genre has a strong, passionate fan base," says Lawrence Raffel, vice president of digital content for Fearnet. "It's a dream come true to be able to do things so quickly with this site."

According to Raffel, the company looked at other options, but in the end, "we were really drawn to Drupal because of the idea that it was an open source platform.... We heard complaints that Drupal would be hard to work with, but by finding the right partner to build out our site, we were able to construct a CMS that was similar to what we had prior but that worked better for us."

Fearnet's site, with 15 different content types to manage and huge amounts of continuously updated video and other content, presented a challenge for Metal Toad Media, which Raffel hired to dismember the old site and rebuild it from the ground up. (Although just coming up with a template structure helped to speed up the site creation and publishing process.)

Content types include marquee images, rotating slides, movies, clips, episodes, characters, blogs, forum topics, articles and so on. It took Metal Toad three months to design the new site and lay out the taxonomies and another three to launch it on the Drupal 7 platform using three full-time developers and two to three part-time contributors.

"The data structure was one of the most complex we've built because all of the content can relate to all of the other content," says Adam Edgarton, director of project management at Metal Toad Media. Drupal helps with this, because its content types include individual content items, which the Drupal community calls nodes. Edgarton's team used the CMS' ability to create node references to, for example, associate a movie with a video clip or character.

In one part of the project they built a module that inputs XML-formatted TV schedule updates and automatically assigns content types to each part of the schedule. "If a movie appears multiple times per month, the CMS links each of the references in the schedule with the appropriate nodes for that movie, including such things as artwork," Edgarton says.

Metal Toad Media also develops WordPress sites, but turned to Drupal this time around. "Once we get into the 200-hour-and-up range, it starts to make sense to go with Drupal," Edgarton says. For this project, which was three times the size of a typical engagement, he adds, Drupal was a perfect fit for the task.

Raffel also wanted a "responsive design," a feature supported in Drupal 7 that allows a single instance of the site to adapt to tablet, smartphone or desktop screens. "We built three versions of the site without building three versions of the site. It's been amazing for us," says Raffel.

Drupal's HTML5-based boilerplate got the ball rolling. "There's still a lot of coding needed to align all of the elements, but it gave us a good start," Edgarton says.

Fearnet also has a member area where approximately 300,000 fans can maintain personal profiles, publish reviews, post to blogs and embed videos within them. Metal Toad created a set of content types for the community pages, making use of an existing Drupal model that enables the embedding of videos from specific sites (to avoid potential malware problems).

While the new Fearnet community site works fine, the user experience differs significantly from the old one. As a result, the redesign generated some complaints when it was launched. "The community is a very vocal group and they weren't happy," Raffel says.

While the new Fearnet community site works fine, the user experience differs significantly from the old one -- and as a result, it generated some complaints when it changed.

While he doesn't regret rebuilding the community portion of the site, "I do regret trying to rebuild it at the same time as the rest of the site," he says.

For Raffel, choosing Drupal came down to finding an open source CMS that could handle the design and implementation challenges of a complex project. "We just felt more comfortable with Drupal in general as the platform of choice," he says. "Open source meant that we not only had the developers we hired working for us, but thousands of Drupal coders creating modules that we could use.... Drupal to us was the most flexible, cost efficient answer without having to sacrifice quality."

Intially, Raffel was also concerned about feedback that Drupal can be difficult to use. But the new system is in fact easier to use than the previous one, he says. "The tools we have are very intuitive."

Raffel and senior site producer Chris Connors now manage the technical aspects of the site on a day-to-day basis, while two Fearnet staffers regularly update the video and editorial content. Media Toad trained the staff and a few freelancers on the new CMS, which Raffel says is "very intuitive."

"When we train someone new on the CMS it usually takes about 20 minutes for them to get the hang of it and start using it on their own. It's very easy," he says.

Today site traffic is up, and performance is better. "We hit all of the numbers we expected," Raffel says. "Now we can do really cool things online. If we need a new section on zombies or vampires we can build it quickly."

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at @rmitch, or email him at rmitchell@computerworld.com.

See more by Robert L. Mitchell on Computerworld.com.

Read more about e-business in Computerworld's E-business Topic Center.

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