On Wednesday, Dries Buytaert announced that Drupal Gardens is now available in private beta. Drupal is an open source content management system (CMS) built by and for the developer community. However, it is difficult to install, configure, and deploy for the average user—virtually every site requires a collection of third-party modules to provide all the functionality needed. Dries, Drupal’s founder, aims to change that by making Drupal’s functionality available as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).

What is Software-as-a-Service?

Delivering software as a service allows users to subscribe rather that license, install, and maintain software. Service providers build and scale the hosting infrastructure necessary to support the software and bill customers monthly or annual service fees, covering the costs of maintenance, upgrades, hosting, and bandwidth.  SaaS results in a predictable cost model and lower overall costs since the service provider can tune their infrastructure to their specific offering, like how Apple is able to build amazing products by controlling both hardware and software.

We have experience in this arena—Clockwork has offered its software as a service for nearly a decade on our Active Media Manager (AMM) platform.

Drupal Follows Automattic, Five Years Later

Acquia’s shift to providing Drupal services is hardly a new phenomenon; Automattic, the company behind WordPress, did the same thing back in 2005 when it launched WordPress.com. WP.com is WordPress-as-a-Service, powered by a special offshoot of the open source WordPress (WordPress MU) and a mix of proprietary code developed by Automattic.

Like WordPress.com, Drupal Gardens subscribers will have access to a subset of the modules available for Drupal and will presumably have other, security-imposed restrictions to prevent attacks like cross-site scripting (XSS) on the Drupal Gardens domain.

Other companies, such as Squarespace, offer simple content management as a service using proprietary, hosted software.

Gardens Runs on Alpha, Unreleased Software

Dries has decided to use Drupal 7 as the initial version for Drupal Gardens-hosted websites. I think this is a risky move, given the current state of D7 development: at last count, there were about 200 critical bugs and many others. D7 is not yet released—there is no Drupal 7.0—and many custom modules popular in the Drupal community haven’t been tested on D7.

Alpha Security?

I think Dries doesn’t have any choice in the matter. Drupal 6’s usability is awful (Buytaert admits that users consistently failed at performing basic tasks). I have installed and worked with a variety of Drupal configurations—as an experienced programmer—and the illogical, confused nature of the administration side still boggles my mind. Drupal 6 is not a platform that you can hand the keys to someone with little training.

Yet, a SaaS offering over the Internet means companies won’t have access to personal service or training, two core offerings that Clockwork provides for our CMS. If you are offering a well-designed service like 37signals’s Backpack, it’s no problem—you can start using it without any training or manuals. Drupal 6 is not that kind of software, which forced Dries to choose D7, the community’s attempt to patch and repair the awful Drupal user experience.

Drupal’s Greatest Strength is Gardens’ Weakness

Drupal can power so many different websites because of its rich set of community-developed modules. Yet choosing Drupal Gardens means a customer gives up the ability to select and install the vast majority of Drupal modules. Gardens will only allow a limited set of modules that can be installed. This is a necessity from a security standpoint—you can’t easily run a secure platform if you allow arbitrary code to be installed on it—but it downgrades the ability of a Gardens-hosted website to meet the needs of enterprise customers, in my opinion. Drupal on its own is not enough to launch a modern website.

Is Gardens Competition for the AMM?

In general, no. Gardens is priced per site with tiers based on these limits:

  • Registered users (up to 1,000)
  • Pages (up to 10,000)
  • Pageviews (up to 20,000/day)

Granted, these upper bounds are for a $39.95/month/site plan; the pricing page directs you to contact a phone number for pricing above these limits. Our AMM customers generally exceed these limits and require integrated functionality beyond what Gardens can offer (commerce, promotions, conditional content, personalization, and others).

Who Should Use Drupal Gardens?

Drupal Gardens may be a fit for small organizations with the need for a modest website that is not expected to grow. Because Gardens runs on open source Drupal, you can export your data and migrate to a Drupal install of your own. This sounds great except that you throw away all the benefits of SaaS when you do so; now you must deal with a whole set of a new problems just when your website needs to scale. There are hosting companies who specialize in Drupal that can help solve this problem but there will be a transition cost.

Gardens might also be a great choice for an organization who currently uses Drupal but doesn’t want to manage the installation and upgrades any more. However, they must ensure that they use modules supported on the Gardens service.

I don’t think Drupal Gardens is targeted at the enterprise.

Remember, I’m Opinionated

I lead Clockwork’s team of engineers, who develop, maintain, and enhance the Active Media Manager. Obviously, I believe we have the best CMS for our market segment or I would not be working on it. That said, Drupal sometimes is the best fit for a client, usually because it can be extended and modified so much with its modules. I will likely recommend Gardens to even fewer customers since it runs on alpha software, imposes limits on growth, and excludes the majority of community-developed modules.

We believe in recommending the right tools for the job at Clockwork; for many, Drupal Gardens simply isn’t the right tool, but it is good to know it is in the toolbox.

I welcome your comments and the opportunity to learn more about this new CMS as a service option.