20 years of Drupal: Founder Dries Buytaert on API first, the end of breaking compatibility, and JavaScript bloat

Commercial involvement in open source is essential, says CMS boss


Interview Content management system Drupal is 20 years old, prompting its founder to talk about its evolving role, why it shifted from a policy of breaking compatibility with each release, and concerns about JavaScript bloat causing issues for those with poor connectivity.

"When I started Drupal 20 years ago I built it for myself, for me with my friends," Buytaert told us. That was at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, in 2000. He wrote a small message board. When he graduated he put it on the web, intending to call it dorp, which is Dutch for village. He mistyped it as drop, creating drop.org. Drupal is derived from the English pronunciation of druppel, Dutch for drop.

Buytaert is now project lead for Drupal and CTO of Acquia, a cloud platform for marketing sites.

What would he do differently if starting the project today? "I would lead with a strong user experience," he said. "When I released the first version of Drupal it attracted like-minded people, meaning other developers, and we got a bit of tunnel vision, it was for developers by developers. In the last 20 years the world has changed, the primary end user for a content management system like Drupal is no longer a developer but a marketer, typically a less technical person. Because of that Drupal is still considered as a bit harder to use than competing systems.

Drupal founder Dries Buytaert

Buytaert spoke to The Reg via Zoom

"The second thing is less about the product but more about open source. In the early days it was a renegade movement, anti-establishment. They kind of frowned on commercial involvement, maybe it was confused with proprietary. Today we've learned that commercial involvement in open source can be a great thing. Almost two-thirds of the contributions to Drupal come from commercial organisations, over 1,200 companies last year. If starting today, I would embrace that commercial involvement from the get-go. It means finding models that encourage organisations to contribute even more aggressively.

"Open source has won. It results in higher quality software at lower cost, no vendor lock-in, but the final challenge, the end boss, is that it's still hard to scale and sustain open-source projects."

What about Drupal, does he have any anxieties about its financing? "Drupal is very healthy," he said. "We have one of the most vibrant open-source communities, and we're growing. But how do we double or triple our capacity as a project? How do we get to 5,000 organisations? Which in a way we have to do, because we're competing against technology giants, and they are growing in leaps and bounds."

In the WordPress model, you get a single beneficiary, which is Automattic

What about the WordPress model, where hosting sites for the world delivers an income stream? "We are not considering that," said Buytaert. "In the WordPress model, you get a single beneficiary, which is Automattic [WordPress.com's owner]. We have a different view, that we try to give great benefits and incentives for thousands of different organisations that contribute."

API-driven Drupal and supporting JAMstack

Turning to Drupal itself, is it becoming more of an API than an end-to-end content management system (CMS), enabling other approaches like static websites calling Drupal services?

"That's part of the direction and we have a lot of users already using Drupal with a JAMstack," he said. "There are trends that push that strategy. There's the evolution of a simple CMS to what we call a visual experience platform. Organisations integrate Drupal with a bunch of different backend technologies, maybe a CRM [customer relationship management], marketing automation tools. And Drupal users don't just deliver a page of content any more, they want to deliver experiences that are personalised. That requires an API-based approach.

"Similarly on the front end we see an explosion of JavaScript frameworks and adoption, and that also requires an API-based approach. We made the decision six or seven years ago to evolve Drupal into an API platform.

Drupal sponsorship

Breakdown of Drupal contributions

"The third trend is that it's no longer sufficient to deliver content in the browser. It's still a primary channel, but we deliver content to digital kiosks, even email and push notifications and voice assistants. Lufthansa is using Drupal to power in-flight entertainment systems. It's a misconception that Drupal is just for websites. In New York, the screens in the Metro system that say when the next train is coming are all powered by Drupal."

I see a lot of bloat... it's wrong to say JavaScript-based applications are better in every scenario, a big mistake

Is there a problem with JavaScript frameworks leading to heavyweight pages and less clean HTML? "It is worrisome," said Buytaert. "The web is better when it's fast and simple. There are billions of people around the world where they still do not have fast internet. I see a lot of bloat. I know it's fun or sexy for web developers to build with all these frameworks, but people need to think critically, is it the right tool for performance and inclusiveness?

"We have spent 20 years optimising Drupal for SEO, accessibility, performance. A lot of these JavaScript websites lose those benefits because they literally start from scratch. A complex use case where things need to be more application-like is valid, but you have to weigh the pros and cons. It's wrong to say JavaScript-based applications are better in every scenario, a big mistake."

What's coming up in Drupal? Automatic updates is one thing. "People think about how your iPhone updates itself and it magically works. But in enterprise content management we have to cater for complex use cases, compliance needs etc." There will be out-of-the box automatic updates, he said, but with options for things like running automated tests, deploying to a staging environment, and so on.

Historically Drupal had a policy of breaking backwards compatibility

Why was the upgrade from Drupal 7 to 8 so difficult? "Historically Drupal had a policy of breaking backwards compatibility. We had a belief that to promote innovation it's OK to break APIs. That's why the upgrade from 7 to 8 is difficult, because if you had custom code it needed to be updated, because the old APIs would stop working.

"Going from 8 to 9 we changed that policy permanently. Now we make sure there are graceful upgrade paths. We deprecate old APIs but we don't remove them. The upgrade from 7 to 8 will be the last difficult upgrade."

The release cycle has also changed, no longer a big-bang release every four or five years, but a "continuous innovation release cycle," said Buytaert, with an updated release twice a year. "If the feature's ready it ships, if it is not ready it catches the next release. End users will see more innovation faster, and for contributors it's also a good thing."

Why is it so much easier to find a WordPress agency than a Drupal agency? "It's a matter of scale," said Buytaert. "Yes, it's probably easier to find WordPress developers, but Drupal is the second easiest. Compared to finding an Adobe developer, or a Sitecore developer. Having said that, there are things we can do, train or mentor more Drupal developers."

Drupal is written in PHP, is he happy with PHP's direction? "There's a PHP renaissance," he said. "PHP is still the number one language on the web, even though JavaScript is growing fast, if you look at the data. There's all sorts of innovation in the PHP project that wasn't there 10 years ago. They added a just-in-time compiler. That's big. People have opinions about PHP, some love it, some hate it – I think it's part of the reason why Drupal has been successful. Everybody can learn it, everybody can use it, everybody can host it. It may not be the most elegant language but it wins in terms of ease of use, adoption, availability. And it scales."

Buytaert insisted that Drupal no longer deserves its "reputation of being a little hard to use. Somehow we need to change the mindset of people. The Drupal that people looked at 10 years ago, even five years ago, is not the Drupal we have today. We don't have that marketing machine to educate everybody about it." ®

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