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22 May 2007

Drupal

By Andrew Clifford

What do Ozzy Osbourne and Tim Berners-Lee have in common? Whatever it is, it could be disrupting your IT department very soon.

Ozzy Osbourne and Tim Berners-Lee both use the Drupal content management system (CMS). We started looking at CMSs to support a new venture to publish karate resources on the web (Shotokan Unleashed). After looking at the alternatives, Drupal was the obvious choice:

  • It is hugely popular, and supports major sites like MTV.
  • It uses industry-standard products (Apache HTTP server, MySQL, PHP).
  • It can run on Linux or Windows.
  • It is 100% open source - there are no hidden license restrictions or costs.
  • It has a very active open source community.

As somebody who has spent years building IT systems, I was astounded at what you get "out of the box" with Drupal. After a simple install and on-line configuration, Drupal starts up with user accounts, security, menus, searching, and content management functions. There are hundreds of free add-on modules you can use to build websites that do pretty much anything.

Drupal is an excellent product, but that is not what interests me most about it. I think products like Drupal will have a hugely disruptive impact on mainstream IT.

  • They can replace a lot of what we traditionally think of as IT systems. All the tedious engineering, such as user accounts and security, is built in. A large part of traditional IT is data gathering, data display, navigation, authorisation, work flow, all of which are built-in. Drupal has a Content Construction Kit (CCK) to allow custom data to be added to pages. Drupal could be used to implement a large part of many IT systems.
  • They are very quick and very cheap. I can implement a fully functional and usable web site in hours, using commodity hardware, free software, and no programming. In my old job, it would have taken longer and cost more just to organise the meeting to discuss who writes the project proposal.
  • They put control back in the hands of the users. Everything is set up on-line from within the product. You do not need systems administrators and programmers to get started.

We have had collaborative tools, cheap tools and end-user tools for years, but not all combined like this. A lot of what we currently do in IT, at huge cost and time, could be done in virtually no time and no cost by the users themselves.

I am not being naive. I know there is a lot of complicated back-end IT that this does not replace. If information is much more flexible, there is an even greater need for analysis to understand and organise it well. Large-scale long-term IT needs professional IT management.

But we must not stick our heads in the sand. Powerful, simple, cheap, collaborative, web-based tools like Drupal change the rules. If you work in IT and you do not understand tools like this, you could be swept away.

If the Prince of Darkness and the Creator of the Web agree, we had all better take notice.

Next: DocBook

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