Drupal Gardens - SaaS Web Content Management System (CMS)
Forget all that talk about the cloud and SaaS. Many just don't want to have to worry about their own hardware, OS, and software. If you're one of this benighted group, there's some new options coming your way. Read on to learn about one of them, Drupal (news, site) style.

The Basics

Vendor Acquia
Product Name
 Drupal Gardens (beta, based on Drupal 7 pre-release code)
Product Category
 SaaS Web CMS and Social Software Platform
Typical Scenario
Rapid site prototyping and deployment, microsites, repeatable site architecture (like similar pages for different books off a template) and temporary sites for events, start small and then grow perhaps beyond the bounds of Drupal Gardens.
Bad Fit Scenario
Those who need heavily Drupal customization and access to the guts of the CMS.

Company and Product History

Drupal Gardens is backed by Acquia (news, site), which is a commercial open source company that offers products and services around the Drupal Web CMS. Acquia was founded by Dries Buytaert, the founder and "benevolent dictator" of the Drupal project, and Jay Batson, the founder and CEO of Pingel.

In the hosted web content management market, users already have the choice of products such as WordPress.com (news, site), which is based off of the open source WordPress (news, site) project. A survey last year focusing on open source CMS market share suggested that the WordPress.com site contributes to brand recognition for the open source project. The hosted option also introduces people to WordPress without them having to install a thing, with some outgrowing the hosted offering to then install the open source project themselves for more advanced use.

Until the announcement of Drupal Gardens and its competitor, Buzzr (news, site), there was no hosted option for Drupal. Both products are still in development, though both grow ever closer to release.

Market and Pricing

Part of the goal for Drupal Gardens is of course revenue for Acquia. But another goal is to raise the profile of Drupal and make the open source webCMS easier to use and more accessible for general users.

In addition to this mission, Acquia positions Drupal Gardens as a solution for those who need:

  • Rapid results (and repeatable microsites) through use of templates and theme builders
  • Standard features without heavy customization that requires access to Drupal's guts
  • Temporary solutions for time-limited events without having to build out their own infrastructure

At of the time of this writing, Acquia proposes four levels of accounts (I promise I did not make up these level names):

  • Super Drupal: Free with a pay upgrade for using your own domain
  • Superer Drupal: $19.95 per month per site with custom domain included plus double the pages and views, unlimited support tickets, and no ads
  • Supererest Drupal: $39.95 per month per site with five times the number of pages and page views (compared to Super Drupal)
  • Most Supererest Drupal: For sites with even bigger needs, contact for custom quote

See the details for yourself here:

Drupal Gardens Pricing -- Three Tiers of Service

Note: All tiers are free through the end of 2010.

Inside Drupal Gardens

The tagline for Drupal Gardens is "Design to Online in 15 minutes." So, I'm going to take them at their word (being the literal person I am) and time how long it takes me to make a small site. I'll be pausing the timer whenever I stop to take a screenshot or write, just to make it fair.

Creating My Site

After creating my account, the first screen I see is the one where I either choose a template or create one:

First you choose a template or choose to make your own.

There's only one template available as of the time this article was written, which is the Campaign Template. The template description says that it's designed for creating a community to discuss or promote "an agenda." I'll make this Drupal Gardens site with the idea of discussing Drupal Gardens, so I'll use the template. I'll shut off the mailing list and the blog, but leave on comments, the social networking features, new comment notifications, about, news, and the contact form. Enabling or disabling these features is as simple as clicking them to move the slider between On and Off.

I click Create Site and get a progress bar that shows me status until my site is ready to edit. As an instant gratification person it felt like it took quite a long time for the site to be created, but it was less than a minute, and Drupal Gardens is currently in beta. Once the site is ready I'm placed in what I'll call the dashboard area.


My initial Drupal Gardens site, as viewed from my dashboard.

Adding Basic Site Content

Staring at my new site, I find myself looking for what I'm supposed to do next. There's a pointer to help resources, so I'll follow that, but since hosted sites are often aimed at more beginner-level users, something more focused than "Site owners and users with the appropriate permissions can manage any of your site's content by using the 'Content' link in the black menu bar at the top of the page" would be useful. Maybe the option of continuing through a guided setup or choosing to do it manually since a guided setup might drive advanced users mad.

In the help section, I go to the Quick Start Guide, which I find a little strange to see that I'm now in Google Docs. (Is this an Acquia product or a Google Product?) I start with the "So you've signed up for Drupal Gardens!" section and skim through it, then through the Overview and the introduction to Drupal terminology, the admin menu, and an explanation of how "In Drupal Gardens documentation, navigation instructions are given as a 'click path', that is how to click through the administration menu and tabs."

It's not until Step 4 of the Quick Start Guide that I finally reach a section on adding content. Shouldn't I configure my site? The section's on creating a Blog entry, a feature I shut off, but I can see the general gistof how that works (and how the administration bar in the docs doesn't exactly match the one on my dashboard page, which is likely due to the fact that Drupal Gardens is still in beta).

Skipping down past creating a blog entry, I find an example for how to make an "about us" page, which even though I had this type of content turned on as a feature, I apparently create by going to Add Content -> Basic Page. I also have to create an "about us" menu item, which it seems should have been done for me given that Drupal Gardens knew I was going to make such a page. Once I finish this process and save, the "About Me" menu item appears on my page.

Next in the help is adding a contact page, so I'll do that next. Again, I have to navigate across menus (Structure -> Contact Form) to do this when Drupal Gardens knew I was going to add this feature, it seems to me that there should have been a friendlier way to walk me through this process that didn't require me to have to bounce back and forth between building my site and the help documentation.

Drupal Gardens -- Creating a contact form.

I have to create a category for each type of contact I want to offer, filling out a form from scratch. There should be a list of commonly-used items beyond "General Feedback" to choose from, such as for pointing out technical issues, contacting sales, and so on. At least once I've filled out the forms, I get a nice-looking contact form.

My new contact form.

Theming My Site

It seems to me that assigning a theme and other configuration options should go before adding content, but next in the help document is using the ThemeBuilder to change my theme. Again, I'd have liked to see an automated walk-through take me to that for the part of Acquia's audience that will be new to Drupal and CMS's, and the option to shut that off for advanced users.

Learning Opportunities

I click Appearance and at the bottom of my dashboard appears the theme navigator:


Drupal Gardens Theme Navigator

This is one of the slicker parts of Drupal Gardens -- and a part of the system which is not available in the public Drupal builds. I can navigate through the Theme picker, click on a theme to see how my site would look in it, and then save and/or publish the theme under a custom name. There's a time lag between selecting a theme and seeing how it will look, and another lag as it's saved and published. Hopefully as Drupal Gardens comes out of beta those performance issues will be ironed out.


Drupal Gardens -- My New Theme

I can also click the Layout tab to change how many columns appear for my site and how they're arranged. Again, you can click to preview how a particular choice will look. You can also apply a layout setting to just the page you're currently on, or to all of the pages on the site, which is handy. Save and Publish and you can move on to your other configuration tasks.

Drupal Gardens Layout Navigator

From this point, the help shows:

  • How to customize your shortcut bar with quick administration links
  • How to take your site offline for maintenance and put it back online
  • More about Drupal content types
  • Security and user settings (which should have been discussed far earlier, especially security)
  • Where to learn more

Again, I think that there should have been an option for Drupal Gardens to walk me through setting up the security and user permissions, to ensure that it gets done (with the option of declining and doing it manually). Requiring people to either fish in the menus and figure it out, or work all the way through a separate help document (on a separate site) is a recipe for disaster.

Final Take

So how would I rate Drupal Gardens? My answer depends on which market segment I'm talking about.

Drupal Beginners: 6/10

Drupal Gardens shows a lot of promise, especially for those who aren't up to installing and configuring Drupal on their own. I like the fact that you can export your Drupal Gardens site and install it under a separate Drupal instance, especially as someone who was once trapped with a blog that suffered vendor lock-in and had to manually export it to move it, one painful page at a time.

However, the offering could use a lot of polish to address the market segment of people who don't already know Drupal. As it stands right now, an inexperienced user will reach the point where their site is created and not really know what to do next without going to read the help documents, which isn't a much better situation than just installing Drupal yourself. Once they get to certain points like themes and layouts they'll get a slicker experience, but they have to get there first.

Relying on a separate help document (on a separate site, no less), is dangerous in that a lot of beginners just won't bother. If they can't figure out what to do they'll go use something else, or they'll end up with a site that's partly configured and mostly just the pretty parts. Those who do bother with the Quick Start Guide and/or the Drupal Gardens in Depth documentation will manage to get through, but they won't have a site that's up and done in 15 minutes if only for all of the reading and flipping back and forth.

Experienced Drupalers: 9/10

When it comes to the market segment that knows Drupal and wants to quickly prototype or roll out a site without having to install and configure the CMS (or those who want to create a temporary site for an event that they can just dump when the event is done), after a bit of practice such folks should be able to get the job done quickly and cleanly. They'll obviously have to work within the constraints of the features Drupal Gardens offers, but given that the average site uses many of the same pieces, most of these folks probably won't have an edge case that needs something outside of that parameter. And if they do, they probably knew they'd have to roll their own.

In particular, the experience of choosing and editing themes and layouts benefits from the Drupal Gardens treatment. You can edit basic styles throughout the Appearance interface and even do direct CSS work, with a handy cheat sheet showing you the hex codes for your chosen color palette. If you don't have a Drupal theming expert you'll love this part, especially since Drupal 6 doesn't let you theme in CSS directly.

One segment I can't really speak to are those that want to pump out identical microsites. I can see how you could go in, configure a site how you want them all to look, and then save everything out. However, I don't see how you would then take that information and cookie-cutter it. Perhaps there's additional options only available to those with high-level pay accounts, or I just missed the features. But I can see hints about how it could work.

All in all, I'm interested to see what Drupal Gardens will be once it's out of beta and fully into the wild. Done right, it will indeed bring more users into the Drupal fold. But I don't think it's there quite yet.