Whitehouse on Drupal. Disaster waiting to happen?
This week there has been quite a few big news items about Open Source. One of them is that the White House announced its move from its previous CMS system to the Open Source CMS Drupal.
Whilst this was some pretty big news about the US government adopting Open Source, I do think they did slightly over-egg the cake. Both the FBI and the CIA have been running the Open Source Plone CMS for a number of years already on for their public websites, so Open Source is already running some pretty prominent sites for the US Government.
Yesterday, Chris Wilson from Slate published a blog post entitled 'Why running the White House Web site on Drupal is a political disaster waiting to happen.'. In the blog post he makes some pretty scathing remarks about Drupal, which I think possibly deserve a bit more investigation.
In his article he states that Drupal is impenetrable, hates change, disorganised and righteous. Now, I don't know a huge amount about the internals of Drupal and its community, but I think some of these remarks need a bit more context:
"...a lot of ordinary, code-fearing people who just want a simple Web site are getting left behind". Well, this isn't just a simple Website. OK, so it might not be the most amazingly complex website and might not be much more than a news site for what's going on in the Whitehouse, but it *is* a pretty prominent website. If a user 'just wants a simple website' then I'd suggest that looking at Drupal might be the wrong thing to be doing. It is a pretty large CMS, similar in scale to Plone, or many of the mid-range CMS systems out there. Indeed CMS Watch list in the same category as Drupal and Plone: OpenText, Sitecore, EpiServer, Alterian. Now I doubt anyone would serious suggest any of these systems would be where you would start for 'a simple website'. As for being 'hostile to newcomers' or its 'learning curve' I would take a guess that whatever internal, proprietary .NET system the Whitehouse used to use would be far worse.
I think most of this comes from a common misconception I have seen over the years, and that is people think that just because they can download and install an Open Source CMS for free and have it up and running in 15 minutes, that they don't need to actually spend time learning how to use a system. Again, compare to commercial CMS systems (or any commercial software for that matter). When you procure such a system you generally include a significant amount of end user training, or developer training. Why do you think that this needs to be skimped with an Open Source CMS? Granted, I know Plone is still significantly easier to use and more intuitive than many other systems out there, I still wouldn't wander blindly into it without either taking advantage of some training or being comfortable in going and asking for help yourself.
On Twitter, someone responded to Chris' blog asking 'What would you recommend then?' and he responded 'Probably Alfresco, though there's certainly no such thing as a perfect CMS.'. I would challenge Chris to pick up Alfresco and try and apply the criticisms he levels at Drupal to it and see how it holds up.
I do know that Plone is certainly a lot better on some of those criticisms, and sat here at the Plone Conference 2009 in Budapest, that Plone has a pretty vibrant and friendly community. Combined with its outstanding security track record this could be why, as posted by Karl Horek on his Plone Metrics blog, Why so many government sites use Plone.