What do the White House and FastCompany.com have in common? The both run on Web engine Drupal. The White House has just switched over. Obama loves some open-source, it seems.
When Bush was still sitting in the big chair, the White House ran its Web pages with a proprietary content management system–obviously it worked okay, but such a closed system isn’t the way to go for a science- and future-friendly President like Barack Obama. The seeds of the change were probably planted way back during his highly Web-centric and social media-loaded election campaign, but it’s taken a big chunk of planning (according to White House sources) to get everything in place to switch to Drupal as its CMS.
Drupal, in case you’re not familiar with the tech, is one of those magic, complex, and slightly boring sounding back-room bits of code that make many big Web sites tick, including this one. It was written by Dries Buytaert and it’s free and open-source, with the code now maintained and updated by a community effort. Part of Drupal’s strength is its code to support social media features, which is certainly reflective of the kind of open dialogue Obama plans to have between big government and the people.
As Buytaert himself notes on his Web site, the fact the platform is open source is “a perfect match for President Barack Obama’s push for an open and transparent government.” He also sees another, perhaps more significant message in the move–it could well be read as a sign that the U.S. government has realized open source code doesn’t “pose additional risks compared to proprietary software, and furthermore, that by moving away from proprietary software, they are not being locked into a particular technology.” That fact must have been hotly debated by techie-types and administration officials behind the scenes, but it’s hard to argue with Dries’ logic. Despite the fact that a General Dynamics division, which was responsible for George W.’s Web effort, and they helped with the Drupal switch, it’s also another small sign that the U.S. authorities are distancing themselves more and more from the technologically-backwards years under Bush.
Looking further into the move, we spoke to some Drupal chaps, who’ve been digging into the
background of the new White House Web tech. There are a couple of
interesting take-aways, it seems: Primarily the fact that despite Drupal
being a free platform, the White House has probably spent about the
same developing this new site as any corporation would–about $200 to
$500 per developer-hour spent on making it work. Dries Buytaert’s new
company Acquia is also involved in the site rebuild, and could probably
have managed much of the process itself. But instead a consortium of
developers were used–probably because they had to be, in the interests
of fairness–and this will have pushed up the cost a fair whack. All
told, the costs probably came in at a comparable level to buying some
custom-coded CMS, but Drupal has the obvious benefit of being open
source, which thus aligns it with the administration’s open government