I caught with Jeff Whatcott today about his new job at Acquia, the new, $7M funded Drupal startup. Acquia will sell general support and updates for Drupal, but also Drupal functionality as a service, sort of like “SaaS for plugins,” if you will.
You may remember Jeff from the Flex SDK open sourcing at Adobe, his previous employer.
What’s Acquia Up To?
Being just a casual call, there wasn’t anything earth-shattering we talked about – just a basic intro and some discussion. They’re starting up more public, involved conversations later this quarter, so I’m sure there’ll be more.
We are a new software company. We will provide an incredibly valuable set of software and network services for the popular Drupal open source web publishing and collaboration platform. Our goal is to amplify Drupal and make it rock even better and louder for more audiences.
In talking with Jeff, what’s interesting here is the idea to be a software company. Actually, primarily a software as a service company. Sure, there’s the usual open source support – providing “certified” stacks and “one-neck-to-ring” support for it. But, more than that Acquia has the desire to provide and sell additional features to the Drupal world, primarily as a service. I suspect these will be things like modules, or components, provided behind a URL hosted by Acquia.
As an example, the FAQ uses auto-updates from the cloud:
A simple sounding example is an automated upgrade/update service. But though this sounds simple, this can be a very sophisticated problem. We’ll aim to provide a variety of features to help simplify this over time, like enabling you to create rules around when and how to do automated updates, insuring multiple servers are updated simultaneously with the same updates, detecting whether you’ve accidentally forked your installation from the public versions (and handling this in various ways), and other functions.
SaaS and The Open Source Company
These WordPress.com services are nice because they centralize a data and even process (figuring out if a blog comment is spam or not) and allow people who are running their own copy of the WordPress software to call out to that service. So, each WordPress install doesn’t have to maintain all of the data and do all the analysis for comment spam filtering. Akismet does that.
That’s just an example from a different open source company. Who knows what Acquia will do?
More broadly, providing services is an excellent and respected way of commercial open source companies to make money, Google being the prime example. You’ve always got to have something non-free to sell if you want to make money at an open source company, and services look to be an excellent “non-free” asset for companies. Here, selling components, functionality, and features as a service looks mighty tasty. It’d be wise for other open source folks to track Acquia and other’s (like Auttomattic) success.
Speaking to the Drupal community, Jeff said they were quite keen on helping the community and, at the same time, trying to keep separate enough from them so as not to take them over. This is always the sort of difficult thing for an open source company.
On the one hand, you want to make the claim that you’re the authority (committers and community leaders on the pay-roll on a given open source project. On the other hand, you want to assure the community that you’re not going to “take over.” That balancing act is one of the core concerns of “community management” and it’s tough. Even the word “management” implies in “community management” could set semantic-sensitive people off.
The task isn’t impossible at all, and being sensitive to it is half the battle.
Public Web Sites
The only other thing we talked about was what kinds of sites Jeff saw using Drupal more: public or intranet sites? Public web-sites were the vast majority. The idea of Drupal is to provide all of the plumbing, or modules, for doing various types of web site functionality – blogs, user management, straight up pages, etc. It seems like users of Drupal are looking towards it to be their general web site management framework.
Jeff was eager to avoid the “CMS” label, which is sort of valid. CMS systems typically suck and are over-priced: it’s better simply to say you help manage web sites than to pull in the hoary limbs of a CMS. To overstate it: I guess once you get a TLA attached to some use of technology, it’s sort of downhill from there.
I asked this question because it’s easy to shove any open source web page management thing (a CMS ;>) in front of the SharePoint train to see what happens. SharePoint, of course, is more focused on behind-the-firewall content management. Sure, I bet people use Drupal behind-the-firewall, but the plan for Acquia seems to be squarely on public websites.
“I love my CMS!” is rarely heard when it comes to web site management, so it’ll be fun to watch Acquia help the overall Drupal community service that lack of love.
Disclaimer: Adobe, Jeff’s previous employer, is a client, as is Microsoft.