Acquia's Strategy: Drupal as the Standard Platform

Acquia is a for-profit company, based on the free/open source content management system Drupal. When Acquia was founded, a little over three years ago, I remarked on its similarity to Automattic (which is based on WordPress).

Today, Acquia and Drupal founder Dries Buytaert posted about “the vision that we’ve been working towards for the last 3 years, and… how Acquia can help simplify your web strategy.” That’s based on the premise that “you” are (or are a member of) an organization with multiple websites. Since the sites differ in many ways (scale, rate of change, etc.), you find yourself with a variety of platforms.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a platform on which it was feasible to standardize? Acquia’s strategy is to provide that platform, in the form of Drupal and services to go with it.

That’s the big picture: Drupal as the Enterprise 2.0 platform (not a quote from Dries, but my summary of his post). One of the interesting parts of the picture is Drupal Gardens, which provides Drupal as a service. Dries contrasts Gardens with typical software as a service.

Almost all Software as a Service (SaaS) providers employ a proprietary model – they might allow you to export your data, but they usually don’t allow you to export the underlying code. Users of Drupal Gardens are able to export their Drupal Gardens site – the code, the theme and data…

We call this “Open SaaS” or Software as a Service done right based on Open Source principles.

I’ve been interested in the “open software as a service as a trap” issue for a while. So it’s good to see this issue addressed head on in an account of a vendor’s strategy.

Please feel free to leave comments on Acquia, its strategy, and related issues here. You don’t have to read Dries’ post first, but I recommend you do.

Miners, Hackers, and Sharing

The Chilean miners are being brought to the surface! This is great news, and a great story, in which different people will see different things. I see it as a story of sharing.

The miners shared food, at first one spoonful of tuna each every 48 hours. The short Guardian article from which I draw that fact emphasizes the leadership of Luis Urzua, the shift foreman. He in turn emphasizes the unity of the 33 different individuals.

I emphasize sharing. In doing so, Do do so, I use WordPress: software released under the GPL, a license built on sharing. Richard Stallman, in his essay on the GNU project, reflects on the origins of the free software movement. Someone refused to give him source code he wanted to hack. “I was very angry when he refused to share with us; I could not turn around and do the same thing to everyone else.” It is very likely that free software, shared under the GPL or a similar license, is involved at multiple points in the path of this post to you.

The same human impulse to share that kept 33 miners alive also powers the web. I do not deny the existence of other human impulses – including greed, and I am very glad that greed didn’t triumph and kill down in the Chilean mine. Neither do I deny that there any many other interpretations of the miners’ story – others will emphasize the leadership of Luis Urzua, or the power or prayer, or another of the many things that may have helped the miners.

But I share this story of sharing.

WordPress Winning By Being Free as in…

In the future of blogging, “the winner will be WordPress.” That’s the way it seems to Philip Leigh, writing at MediaPost (via WordPress Publisher Blog). Philip goes on to imply that blogging will be an important factor in the future of media.

He identifies two reasons for the success of WordPress: it’s free, and it’s free. He uses open source rather than free, or free as in speech, or GPL’d, to describe the second cause of success. The first cause is free as in beer, gratis, cost of zero, etc.

I refer to the MediaPost article, not just to quote it – it’s been fairly widely quoted already – but to remark on some of the questions it implicitly raises. In particular, consider the following.

WordPress is not merely a blogging tool. It’s a platform that can lead to an explosion of new media properties capable of text, video, audio, music, animation, interactivity, online merchandising, podcasting, and even social networking.

WordPress isn’t the only such platform. It isn’t the only such platform that’s both free and free. Drupal and Joomla spring to mind. So what is it about WordPress that will make it the winner? Is it the trajectory from simple blogging tool to rich publishing platform?

Software, the Hold Up Problem, and the Cloud

Why is “the web development world… dominated by open source”? Michael Schwarz & Yuri Takhteyev, writing at GigaOm, answer the question as follows.

The reason is based on what economists call “the hold up problem.” When a business relies on assets owned by another party, it may become dependent on that party’s cooperation in the future. In this situation, the party with ownership of a key resource may gain the ability to “hold up” its partner, demanding an unreasonably high price…

The hold up problem is particularly severe in the IT sector. Building an Internet company on a foundation consisting of proprietary software owned by others is akin to building a house without owning the land under it. When software is sold in binary form, the buyer is subject to hold up by the vendor; if the software needs to be changed in the future, such changes can only be done with the cooperation of the original vendor at the price that the original vendor demands. By relying on open source, a company can invest in developing its product without fear of being held up down the road. Therefore, open source is an economically powerful solution to the hold up problem.

There are of course limits to this analysis. One is the proprietary anomaly, Flash. Indeed, explaining this anomaly is a primary purpose of the quoted post. Another limit, found in the comments, is that source code is not the only asset that may allow holdup.

I’m posting to advance another limit to the argument that open source software solves the hold up problem. It is “the web as platform.” That may be familiar to older readers as one of the definitions of Web 2.0. Cloud computing is an increase in the extent to which the web is used as a platform.

Cloud computing is a trap, warned Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman a couple of years ago. Cloud computing allows software derived from free/open source software to run without the source code being made available.

So, while free/open source software is a solution to software hold up, it also gives life to a new monster: hold up in the cloud.

WordPress Foundation Founded

Founder Matt announced the founding of the WordPress Foundation with – what else – a post on a WordPress blog. I saw the news via ReadWriteJolie, whose post is a mix of reporting and rejoicing.

Rather than covering the same ground, I’ll add that:

  • The theme for the Foundation’s blog is Twenty Ten, “The 2010 default theme for WordPress.” It’s good to see Kubrik giving way to a far cleaner theme.
  • Matt acknowledges that we expected to see the WordPress Foundation say “Hello World” a while ago. He does so with phrases such as slow cookin’ makes good eatin’ and ducks in a row. If I were a duck, I’d be nervous.

Freedom and the Cloud

Cloud computing is a trap, warns GNU founder Richard Stallman. I advise reading the whole (shortish) interview-based article at the Guardian’s site. It’s less important to read my thoughts; be warned that they start in the next paragraph.

The trap is that, when you use cloud computing (e.g.,, where this very blog lives, or gmail, where the andrew at changingway dot org mail actually lives), you have no control over the software you’re using. This is the loophole in GPL version 3, a project on which rms (Richard MathYou Stallman) and others expended a lot of time and other resources.

As 2008 goes on, that loophole becomes more and more significant as an attribute of GPLV3. So does the Affero variant on GPL.

What Does "How big is the free economy?" Mean?

The question was posed and addressed by Chris Anderson. By free, he means free of charge: that’s the focus of his book in progress.

Glyn Moody is more interested in free as in free/open source software (and genomics, and…). He points out that most of the free (of charge) economy is also part of the free (open source) economy.

What struck me is the extent to which the ecosystem that has grown up around GNU/Linux dominates everything else in this admittedly back-of-the-envelope calculation: $30 billion out of a rough $50 billion. Which confirms the extent to which open source continues to be the bellwether in this area – the first and still best example of how to make money by giving stuff away.

Both Chris and Glyn use money, and in particular the US$, as the measure of size. I’d be interested to see other measures of the free economy: person hours, people affected, etc.

IBM and Open Source

Glyn Moody reminds us of IBM’s importance to open source, and suggests that Big Blue become more visible with respect to such software.

If you wanted to pin down the day on which GNU/Linux became a respectable option for business, you’d be hard put to find a better candidate than 10 January, 2000. For it was on that date that IBM announced it intended “to make all of its server platforms Linux-friendly”…

But here’s the curious thing. Despite this deep-seated commitment to open source, IBM is remarkably invisible in that world today. I rarely come across any initiatives from the company, or even much commentary outside a few bloggers, albeit interesting and informed ones.

Why thank you, Glyn. By the way, have you tried Wordle? There’s some IBM-owned code in there that I’d like to see open-sourced. That might well get IBM coverage from more bloggers than just us select few (as well as having the usual advantages of open-sourcing).

The best way to explain Wordle is to show some output. Click on the image to see the full-size version and title; the title tells you what I used as input.

Under the Radar 2.0

Never underestimate the power of guerrilla, grassroots deployment of new technologies, especially when the tools are free, advises Sam Dean at OStatic. He’s writing about free/open source software in enterprises.

The quote applies well to freemium Web 2.0 tools, which I suspect are more widely deployed in enterprises than top management realizes. Sam’s warning about underestimating the importance of department managers in technology adoption is sound, with respect to Enterprise 2.0 as well as to the open source software on which he focuses, and to the PC hardware he uses as precedent.

Two Four-Letter Words: Spam and Free

Spam is, for many of us, the worst aspect of Web 2.0. The threat of spam of course creates an need, and hence an opportunity, for spam-fighting services. Last week, I compared four of them: Akismet, Defensio, Mollom, and TypePad AntiSpam. The comparison was prompted by the launch of the last of these (the list, like the comparison table in the previous post, is in order of launch date).

TPAS is interesting, not just because it is the most recent, but because it has claims to be the most free. I use the plural claims because TPAS seems to make that claim with respect to each sense of the word free: free of charge (gratis) and free (libre, open source) software.

In this post, I’ll extend the comparison between the four services with respect to each sense of free. First, free of charge. The last two lines of the comparison table refer to this kind of free. The first of these lines shows that each of the four services is free for personal use.

The last line of the table asks whether each service is free for commercial use. It answers “Yes” for TPAS, and “No” for each of the other services. Following some email exchanges and some thinking, it seems that the pricing issue needs clarification.

Akismet has multiple levels of commercial API key. For example, a problogger key is $5/month. Given that a problogger is defined for this purpose as one who makes more than $500/month, the cost seems reasonable (but then, I’m not a problogger). That an enterprise key starts at $50/month also seems reasonable (but then, I’m not an enterprise).

Defensio is free for commercial use up to a limited amount of traffic. That’s a paraphrase of an email. is down at the moment. I don’t know whether that means that the service is down.

Mollom currently describes its future pricing model as follows.

The basic Mollom service will be free… but it will be limited in volume and features… Our goal is to make sure that the free version of Mollom goes well beyond meeting the needs of the average site…

For large and mission-critical business and enterprise websites, we will offer commercial subscriptions. We are currently working out our commercial pricing scheme for access to more advanced features, unlimited traffic, enhanced performance, reliability and support.

TPAS, per its FAQ, “is free, and will always be free, regardless of the number of comments your blog receives.” The FAQ also addresses how Six Apart will support the service; the firm “may choose to provide enterprise-class services on top of TypePad AntiSpam at some point in the future.”

TPAS is the outlier on this “free as in beer” issue, but I now think that it’s closer to the others than I first thought and implied. Like the other three, it seeks to make money from enterprise clients (and I don’t see anything wrong with that). The difference is that it doesn’t attach the price tag to AntiSpam itself.

TPAS is also the outlier on the free software, or “free as in freedom,” issue. As I remarked in the earlier post, “while the TPAS inference engine is open, the rules are hidden.”

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Akismet, Mollom, or both move to a similar model. I base this on the following assumptions.

  1. Spam-fighting software has the classic intelligent system split between inference engine and rules base. In particular, Akismet and Mollom already have this architecture.
  2. The action is in the rules, which are specific to the domain of spam-fighting.
  3. Following from the above, you don’t give much away to spammers or to competitors if you free/open-source your engine.
  4. The people behind Akismet and Mollom don’t want to cede the “free high ground” to TPAS.

With respect to this aspect of free (libre), as with respect to the first aspect (gratis), I may have exaggerated TPAS’ outlier status. TPAS does have a legitimate claim to being more free than its competitors in each of the two senses of free. But the gap between TPAS and, say, Akismet, may not be as great or as durable as might at first appear.

That conclusion is, of course, my opinion. Comments (or email: andrew at changingway etc.) would be a good way of telling me that you draw a different conclusion or that my conclusion is based on faulty premises or reasoning. I’d welcome other relevant comments. For example, you might know of a spam-fighting service other than the four I’ve focused on.