Skip the navigation

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.

February 13, 2013 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - 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. (To find out why other companies chose Joomla or WordPress, check out part 2 and part 3 of this series.)

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

Created by: Dries Buytaert
Beginnings: First written in 1999; officially founded in 2001
Installed 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.

Our Commenting Policies