The Obama Administration recently chose to migrate WhiteHouse.gov to an open source content management system (CMS), Drupal. Chris Wilson, assistant editor at Slate in Washington D.C., posted a response: “Running the White House Web site on Drupal is a political disaster.” Contrary to Chris’s opinion, I believe moving to Drupal is good for the White House.
First, a disclaimer: I work for a company that sells a proprietary CMS (the Active Media Manager) using a Software-as-a-Service model. We are often asked to compare between our technology and open source alternatives, such as Drupal. I’m opinionated. I believe in our software product.
I also believe firmly in open source. Clockwork’s tools are based on open source technology. We wouldn’t be able to offer our powerful services without the use of open source software like MySQL, PHP, and GNU/Linux. As a result of my experience, I believe the White House’s move to Drupal has several benefits:
The web team at the White House can use thousands of community-built modules versus costly custom development or integration with a proprietary, single-user CMS.
Drupal’s core code is in use and tested daily by the thousands of websites, professional and amateur, that use it. As a result, the White House’s website will run on a more reliable, tested platform.
The White House web team can work with a wide variety of agencies and software companies who specialize in supporting and customizing Drupal. This frees the White House to select vendors more fairly.
Positive Political Statement
Let’s face it, everything the White House does is a political statement. I believe that this prominent, public adoption of open source software by the White House will be an example for other agencies. Open source isn’t always the answer but it is often a low-cost alternative when considering agency budgets.
Now, let’s examine some of Chris Wilson’s claims:
Drupal knows best.
Every CMS is opinionated; it has to be. If you want no limits around how and what you add to your site, you will need to manage your site’s code yourself. Separating content from how it’s represented in code and allowing content to be managed by users requires compromise. Chris simply disagrees with Drupal’s decisions, and that’s fine. It’s not an indictment of Drupal, however.
Drupal is impenetrable.
I agree with Chris: Drupal is not a user-friendly CMS for ordinary people. It will never compare to the simplicity of writing a blog post in WordPress, for example. However, consider that the White House web team may in fact consist of expert users who can take advantage of the immense configurability of Drupal. I often describe Drupal as a power tool for web developers, not marketing and communications staff.
Drupal hates change.
Chris cites a single case where a software upgrade went awry. Software upgrades are a difficult business. Ask Microsoft, a company who has built a reputation of backwards compatibility, at a great cost. Would another, proprietary system even provide an upgrade process? At Clockwork, safe, repeatable upgrades are a foundational element of our CMS; it’s the only way we’re able to safely and efficiently add new features for our customers. Look at any open source CMS, blogging tool, or software and you will find upgrade issues. Again, this is not a Drupal-specific issue.
Drupal is disorganized.
I agree with Chris here. I don’t like how Drupal has organized their information. However, in a tool as large and complex as Drupal, organizing the administration functions to please everyone is a nearly impossible task, the difficulty of which varies directly with the amount of configuration possible.
Drupal is righteous.
I’m not a Drupal apologist. I (unsurprisingly) prefer Clockwork’s Active Media Manager for most situations where an enterprise-level CMS is called for. However, I’m unsympathetic to Chris’s argument that Drupal’s loyal, earnest proponents are a liability; instead, they are Drupal’s greatest asset. Drupal could have the best code in the world, the easiest interface to use, and the richest feature set—nobody would use it if there weren’t people excited about it. Software needs evangelists in a competitive market.
In conclusion, I’m a believer in selecting the right technology for the right job. Drupal offers several benefits over a proprietary, one-off CMS. Chris Wilson raises several legitimate general points but fails to make a convincing, evidence-based case for why Drupal is a “disaster” for the White House. I can imagine far more catastrophic choices for the White House’s web team. ColdFusion, anyone?