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by Chris Hartigan
Acquia CMO Tom Wentworth’s recent post about the unimaginative use of stale FUD by proprietary CMS vendors who try to spook buyers away from open source content management systems was spot on. Not only does this negative message cast doubt on the messenger, but the criticisms of open source are tired and false. They are indeed very 2005 and most competitors have long since moved on.
So imagine my surprise when a client forwarded me a white paper issued by a relatively well-known proprietary CMS vendor in the higher education space. At first I laughed (I assumed it was a joke). They couldn’t be serious, could they? Especially with a title that referenced free puppies…? But then I read it and realized that it wasn’t intended to be a joke at all. They seriously think that colleges and universities would read it and think twice about considering open source Drupal for their web infrastructure needs. And then I really laughed. As funny as it is to imagine that these tactics would work against mindful decision makers, the truth is that this approach is much, much too late. Perhaps had it been issued in 2005 it may have had a chance of causing some impact. But it’s too late now.
Drupal powers over 27% of all .EDU websites making it the leading CMS in higher education. This is not a figure provided by the Drupal community and it’s not a guess either. These figures are absolutely quantifiable. And that’s just the .EDU site. Our internal analysis and surveys indicate that over 2,500 higher education institutions use Drupal in some form or fashion to support digital projects on campus. From blogs, to portals, to learning management systems, to faculty sites, to collaboration platforms, to athletic sites, and many, many more. And considering that Drupal is a relatively newcomer on the scene (read about the history of Drupal here) it’s evident that Drupal’s impression on higher education is growing ever stronger. So again, if this white paper was intended to curb the impact and influence of Drupal in higher education it’s much too late: for years schools of all sizes and scopes have been evaluating Drupal against other content management systems and have found, contrary to the issues outlined in the white paper, that Drupal has what it takes to successfully power the digital business of higher education now and well into the future.
Flaws in the FUD
But all that said, I still feel compelled to point out some flaws in their FUD. I just can’t help myself….
Schools well know that Drupal is open source and therefore without a license cost, but they understand that using Drupal is not free. Because there is no upfront license cost, schools can document cost savings of up to 50% - 60% over proprietary systems. Colleges and universities, however, understand that there will be an investment of time and resources to support the platform and move it forward. How well do schools understand this? When we surveyed our customers this past summer and asked them for the reasons they decided to move to Drupal, the cost savings associated with open source was not even in the top 5. Schools choose Drupal because it is a powerful and flexible digital platform that as an additional benefit can also deliver significant cost savings -- not because it is free. They’re smarter than that.
Risk from customizations was another bit of FUD brought up in the paper. Yes, Drupal is based on modules and there are over 20,000 modules that have been contributed to the Drupal project. Schools use these modules to assemble their sites to meet their needs; the assembly nature of adding in modules allows for extensibility, agility, and flexibility. And yes, I assume that if a school were to go out and add in all 20,000 modules then of course there would be some challenge in migrating all of those to the next version of Drupal when it comes out. But the reality is that most of our higher education clients use fewer than 20 modules. On top of that, 70% - 80% of the modules chosen by our higher education customers are the same from school to school.
The risk, therefore, of having so much “module overhead” that upgrades are prohibitive is simply not there, as the most popular modules are the first to be migrated over to the a new version of Drupal. Of course some schools do use modules that are unique and many schools do choose to customize some as needed. But the reality is that the vast majority of colleges and universities use Drupal in a way that allows them unparalleled flexibility but that also minimizes their go-forward risk. Yes, open source Drupal provides flexibility, but it has seen widespread adoption because while providing flexibility it can also minimize business risk. Comparable closed systems by nature limit flexibility and thus introduce business risk. Which would you rather invest in?
Their third bit of FUD has to do with security. Security? Really? Aren’t we past that yet? I won’t labor too much on this, but, ironically, they point out that one of the most targeted websites in the world, www.whitehouse.gov, has found Drupal’s security measures adequate while they try to cast FUD on Drupal’s security capabilities. In our world, more public R1 institutions use Drupal, as do more Ivy+ institutions and more Internet2 institutions than any other platform. These schools have not only vetted Drupal’s security protocols for their own use in a higher education setting, but they are active and collaborating members of the Drupal community who are helping make Drupal more secure for all of us. Frankly I’m more inclined to trust the security of a CMS to this group of committed collaborators than to just one vendor who in all likelihood doesn’t have the resources or capacity to keep up with security issues at the pace required.
Higher Ed’s Commitment to Drupal
And lastly, the white paper casts doubt on the strength and commitment of the college and university community that is using Drupal, questioning the impact that this community can have on the business of higher education. This too is an antiquated notion. Last week at Cornell, I was with a group of nearly 200 higher education professionals from nearly 20 schools who are all using Drupal and wanted to come together as a community to share best practices and work together to advance their own capabilities and the impact Drupal is having on their schools.
I was at a similar event at Bentley University a few weeks ago (60 people there). And within the past few months was also at similar events at Princeton (90 people), Georgetown (60 people), SCAD (40 people), and University of Michigan (100 people). And those are just the events I could make. There are dozens of similar events constantly going on at college campuses around the country that pull together professionals from regional schools and the community at large. And of course there are big national shows where the larger community congregates. At our higher education meetup at DrupalCon in Portland this year we had hundreds of people attend and we expect the number at DrupalCon Austin next year will be even bigger. And all the big industry events have Drupal components these days: Educause, HighEdWeb, CampusTechnology, EduWeb, etc. Without a doubt, the Drupal higher education community is bigger and better than that of any comparable CMS vendor. In fact, Drupal’s higher education community is one of its core strengths.
Drupal in higher education is here to stay and the industry has proven its ability to evaluate and weigh open source when making decisions about its digital future. And that, for sure, is nothing to laugh at!