Drupal Gardens, originally labeled Acquia Gardens, has been one of the hot issues at this year's European DrupalCon in Paris. Gardens is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) version of the highly popular Drupal web content management system.
We sat down with Tom Erickson, Acquia's CEO, to discuss the Gardens project, the Drupal Theme Builder, Drupal 7 and Acquia's pathways to profitability. Here's what we learned.
A Gander at the Gardens
The Drupal Gardens product is very important to Acquia and very important to the Drupal community. This is what Tom asserts, and we believe him. Gardens is one of 3 revenue generating paths for Acquia. The other 2 are the Acquia Network (Drupal support and search services) and their recently announced Acquia Hosting.
Acquia's Drupal-based Business Model
It's widely know that Drupal has a steep learning curve. The Gardens project is designed to address this hurdle to Drupal adoption, as well as deliver a quick micro-site development platform, which Tom says is in high demand by enterprise customers as well as government and non-governmental organizations.
The goal in short is to become the WordPress.com of the Web Content Management space. This will be good for Acquia and most likely good for the Drupal community as a whole.
Based in Amazon's Cloud
Gardens is going to be based on Amazon Web Services, complimented by a special file system which Acquia has developed using some third party technologies. The system is approximately multi-tenant, but strictly speaking it is not a pure multi-tenant system, and higher-end clients may have their own instances.
Not Acquia Drupal, Not Drupal 7, Not all GPL
The Drupal that powers Gardens is not going to be the same Drupal that ships in the Acquia Drupal builds. There will of course be similarities, but most likely there will be more restrictions on what makes it into Gardens. Tom did state that security patches would make it into both release at approximately the same time.
Gardens is based on Drupal 7 but is not exactly Drupal 7. So much of the work that Acquia staff are putting in now, will be enjoyed by the greater Drupal community. This point is sure to win them some good will.
[Editor's Note: The Drupal 7 project is coming along nicely, but has seen a recent slip with the official code freeze date.]
One fact that may not win as many smiles is that some of the technology used in Drupal Gardens will not be released as GPL and will not make it into the community. From what Tom told us today, the new Theme Builder is in that category -- it's a proprietary piece of technology that for the moment is for Acquia only.
Acquia's Theme Builder for Drupal Gardens
Quick to Build With, Robust, Cheap, Scalable and Portable
I can clearly see the market for a solution like Drupal Gardens. Drupal is a powerful framework with an exceptional community of contributers, consultants and general knowledge. Making such a resource more broadly accessible in a profitable way strikes one as a no brainer. The fact that the founder of the Drupal project and the founder of Acquia are the same person seems rather helpful too.
Blogging platforms like WordPress.com and Blogger.com are hugely popular and you can bend and twist them into being web content management systems, but don't kid yourself, they are not in the same game as a system like Drupal.
Something like Drupal Gardens simply does not exist today. And I think there is a need for it.
Quick to Build With
This remains to be seen. It's the challenge that Acquia has before it. Will they succeed? We will have to see. I'd keep expectations low for the first few versions.
But there's no doubt that Drupal 7 is an ambitious release in terms that include usability. Lots of work has happened deep in core, specifically around Fields. But much of the D7 project has also been focused on usability -- making the product more accessible to the general public.
The Drupal Gardens project is benefiting from (and perhaps steering?) this. As both Drupal and the Acquia offering mature, the Quick to Build With promise is likely to become fairly true.
Acquia's Theme Builder will be an important part of making the product more accessible to the public. And their plans to offer ready-made themes to chose from will be welcomed. We also spoke a bit about a theme marketplace and Tom indicated that Acquia were not opposed to the idea of non-GPL themes.
Drupal is a robust and extensible framework. I didn't say perfect. Yes, it has its flaws, but the way you can stretch and bend the software is impressive. The amount of tweaking you can do in the Gardens environment will be limited of course. But a useful set of modules will be there and with native content type extensibility, the basics already provide a healthy number of pathways for growth and customization.
I'm sure the first few releases will disappoint the outliers, but for 60-80% of you, the features will likely be pleasing. Do keep in mind that the basic Drupal Gardens services will not allow you to add your own modules.
Dries has said that there will be a free version of Drupal Gardesn. As usual, there may be some ads to cover costs and there will be tiers as you step up in website size, bandwidth or features. Pricing is not finalized, but the starting point is supposed to be around US$ 20 per month. That's pretty cheap.
There's not a lot to say here. Gardens is being built on Amazon's cloud. As we know, the cloud is not infallible, but it does tend to be scalable. How pricing will scale is a different story. But that brings us to the last point.
This was something that Tom put quite a lot of emphasis on -- the idea that anything you do with Gardens is portable either to Acquia Hosting or to your own infrastructure. The output of Acquia's Theme Builder is also meant to be portable.
The point was that you can start and grow with Gardens, but there is no lock-in. You are free to export your content, themes, etc and move over to Acquia Hosting (of course!) or to your own infrastructure.
Acquia is focused on 3 segments with Gardens:
- The broad market -- free, highly functional websites for anyone
- The SMB market -- real but cheap WCM for small business starting at around $20 per month
- Enterprise/Government/NGO -- quick micro-sites and "disposable" sites service which can be up-sold to other Drupal Gardens tiers and other Acquia products
The Road Ahead
Acquia's Drupal Gardens are unseasonably in bud. Tom said that the early alpha release -- the friends and family type -- would be rolling out in about a month. Gardens is tied closely to Drupal 7 and the dates we expect for that are quite a ways off now.
Hazarding a guess, it looks like the first beta releases of Drupal 7 will not arrive until early 2010. The production release might not go out until late Spring 2010.
But Gardens will be less than Drupal 7 and as such it's possible that a version of Drupal Gardens running on Drupal 7 could beat the main D7 out the gate. This strikes me as possibly a good thing for all involved -- Acquia will get tons of attention as people rush to see Drupal 7 and the Drupal 7 project will benefit from both the planned and unplanned QA of Acquia and its customers.
Where Art Thou Fair Joomla?
If you look at the open source web content management market, there are 3 dominant products: Wordpress, Joomla and Drupal. These three packages are not terribly similar, but they do compete heavily in the lower end of the market. Wordpress.com exists. DrupalGardens.com exists. And dear Joomla, when shall we expect you to join us?