On business models for Drupal distributions
by Dries Buytaert
The fact that thousands of developers use Drupal to make money building websites for their customers has resulted in thousands of modules being created and hundreds of events being organized around the world. When I started Drupal, I wasn't aware of the importance of such a commercial ecosystem. Looking back at 10 years of working on Drupal, it is an important lesson learned. If I were to start a new Open Source project (I'm not!), the ability to build out a large commercial ecosystem would be one of the criteria that I'd look for. Disruptive innovations change entire industries, not just tools. Not every Open Source project lends itself to that.
I'm repeating myself, but if we want Drupal to be relevant longer term, one of the things we need to do is "make Drupal distributions work". Drupal distributions allow us to compete with a wide range of turnkey solutions as well as invent new markets. The number of different distributions we could build is nearly unlimited. From what I can tell, Drupal is the only Open Source content management system that is actively encouraging its community to build and share distributions. We have a very unique opportunity in front of us -- distributions can be a game changer.
But what does it mean to make Drupal distributions work?
We've began work on Drupal distributions during the Drupal 4.6 era based on our experience with CivicSpace (a distribution for political campaigns). Drupal 5 was a big milestone as we introduced a web-based installer with support for install profiles. We made incremental improvements to install profiles in the Drupal 6 release, and it wasn't until Drupal 6 that we saw a number of great Drupal distributions emerge: OpenAtrium (an intranet distribution), Acquia Drupal (a convenience distribution for site builders), OpenPublish (a distribution for online publishers), Pressflow (a distribution with performance and scalability improvements) and more. Finally, with some of the install profile related improvements in the upcoming Drupal 7 release and the fact that we can build and host distributions on drupal.org, I expect to see many more distributions going forward. In summary, we evolved the underlying technology over the course of 5 years and might have reached a point where our vision of install profiles can really come to live.
While we made a lot of progress on making distributions feasible from a technical point of view, we have yet to figure out the business model around Drupal distributions. Building and maintaining a high-quality Drupal distribution is no small task. It is also different from contributing a module. While writing a module is often billable, maintaining a Drupal distribution is arguably less so. In other words, can we build a successful commercial ecosystem around distributions so that we'll see hundreds, if not thousands of high-quality distributions, flourish?
We need to figure out how to make it commercially interesting (or at a minimum, commercially viable) for organizations to invest the time and money it takes to build and maintain a distribution. If not, distributions risk being nothing more than a costly but fun lead generation tool. I don't think that is scalable. To make Drupal distributions the game changer it could be, it has to be a no-brainer for organizations to get into the game of building one. Reducing the maintenance cost through tools like Drush Make and the packaging infrastructure on drupal.org certainly helps, but is probably not enough to make distributions take off in a big way.
At Acquia, it occurred to us that we might be able to help. Many Drupal shops lack the go-to-market infrastructure that Acquia built out over the last 2.5 years (i.e. 24x7 help desk, a marketing and sales organization) and that products often need. We can help market and sell offerings around distributions (e.g. 24x7 SLA-based support, hosting, remote administration) and share the revenue with the organization actually building and maintaining the distribution. It is a well-known model in the software world (such as the game industry), and is one example of how we could try to make it commercially interesting to build and maintain distributions. For more information about this, I recommend reading Tom's blog post on the 'Software Publishing Model'.
Four Kitchens has built a business around offering consulting and support for Pressflow, the distribution they authored. Pressflow's popularity has driven demand for these services, creating a unique positioning and opportunity for Four Kitchens. Development Seed is in the early stages of rolling out their business model for OpenAtrium, one of the distributions they have created. They announced plans to offer developer support and a paid partner program as key tenets of their business model.
Of course, these are only a few examples of how we can help make Drupal distributions work. As a community, I think we need to brainstorm about this more.