Drupal open source content management system a fit for many, not all

This discussion of the pros and cons of the Drupal open source content management system looks at the tool, its development community, the choices to consider and pitfalls to avoid.

Drupal is an open source content management system (CMS) that powers an estimated 2% of all websites. It is generating increased buzz as marquee websites like WhiteHouse.gov, Grammy.com and Economist.com have re-launched recently on the platform; their endorsement is helping convince enterprises of all stripes to switch to the technology for managing large libraries of Web content.

As an open source product, Drupal relies on a community of more than 750,000 people in 228 countries to help power its growth. Members of the community add code sets called modules to extend the functionality of the core platform on a regular basis. Since work on the technology began in 1999, developers have enhanced Drupal by creating, editing and critiquing more than 14,000 different modules.

Drupal offers potential advantages for certain organizations, but it isn’t for everyone looking to deploy a Web content management system. Like every CMS, it comes with disadvantages as well. To present a comprehensive profile of the open source content management system, the following discussion is a compilation of the key insights of those involved in helping to evolve the Drupal ecosystem.

Advantages of using Drupal
From free to feature-rich, there are a number of reasons the Drupal platform is popular among Web managers and designers.

It’s free. As an open source CMS, Drupal has few barriers to entry. Once you’ve completed the free download at Drupal.org, you’re ready to get started. Moreover, it runs on computers that are based on the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache Web server, MySQL database, PHP scripting language), which is also freely available.

Drupal is scalable. Its structure is designed to handle large amounts of content, ensuring that the application should be able to support an organization’s growth.

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Open means customizable. When using a proprietary WCM product, work takes place within the limitations of the software and new functionality is restricted to the vendor’s development roadmap of that system. In contrast, Drupal’s openness means that it’s entirely customizable -- from the add-on modules to the CMS itself.

Features are numerous. Drupal developers are continually building new modules to enable users to take advantage of evolving Web strategies. It is common for developers to create modules with specific functionality for individual projects and then make the modules available to the wider Drupal community.

It has a user-friendly back end. A well-configured Drupal website simplifies how non-technical personnel interact with it. The back-end administrative tools can be customized to the needs of users right down to the field-level permissions. As a result, creating and modifying content are simple tasks requiring no technical knowledge of Drupal.

Efficient design processes can be implemented. Drupal offers access to themes and templates that provide an advanced jumping-off point from which unique website layouts and designs can be produced. That can reduce development time and errors compared with starting from scratch on the site design process.

Challenges of using Drupal
On the other hand, there are challenges and disadvantages involved in using the Drupal content management system around developer expertise, integration, training and, yes, costs.

There’s a developer shortage. OK, so Drupal isn’t entirely free: The “snap it together” concept only takes you so far. To build a system and site correctly requires experienced Drupal development professionals, and while the community is large and growing, senior developers and system architects remain in short supply due -- in large part -- to an increasing demand and a steep learning curve.

Module quality needs testing. Not every Drupal module performs as described or is maintained in the most current release of the Drupal core software. The Drupal community helps to police this, and the experiences of organizations with the most commonly used modules are well documented. But it would be wise to look twice at some less-popular modules and budget test time to validate their performance. Drupal as an out-of-the-box platform doesn’t always satisfy everyone’s needs.

Compatibility can falter. As a rule, Drupal plays well with others -- particularly other applications with well-documented application programming interfaces. But in spite of its broad-based use, it has not been integrated with many third-party applications. Here again, budgeting for testing or a little custom development might be necessary to marry applications to Drupal.

Training is recommended. Configured properly, Drupal provides a user-friendly administrative tool. Nevertheless, like most content management systems, various levels of training might be required to leverage the platform to its full potential. Fortunately, an international training program for site administrators, project managers and developers is in place and available from sources such as Acquia or Lullabot

Drupal’s overhead might be overkill. Running a non-enterprise site with Drupal might add more overhead than is required to meet the site objectives. Since much of the power and advanced functionality that makes Drupal so useful won’t be missed in such cases, other open source systems like WordPress might better fit the bill. 

Performance can be an issue. There are modules that provide caching and other functionality to accelerate page loads and reduce the overhead burden of Drupal. But the latest version, Drupal 7, is known to have some performance issues. Resolving those issues is a specific objective that the development community has on its roadmap.

On balance, Drupal has emerged as a viable contender in the CMS competition. Although it has deficiencies, there is momentum in its forward advance and the sheer size of the Drupal universe means that more functionality is on the way. Open source technologies like Drupal can provide a cost-efficient, scalable, reliable and secure alternative to proprietary systems, but be sure your organization is aware of the choices that need to be considered and the potential pitfalls to avoid.

Sonny Cohen is the director of internet marketing strategy for Duo Consulting in Chicago. He has more than 30 years of business management and marketing experience employing disruptive business processes and technologies.

This was first published in April 2012

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