On business models for Drupal distributions

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.

But ...

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.

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.


Marie-Hélène (not verified):

"You rear the cow, we'll sell the milk."

Jeff Eaton (not verified):

A great post, Dries. In many ways the 'Smallcore' stuff that has been discussed over the past year or two revolved around this set of dilemmas. Although the name became (regrettably) muddled, it was ultimately about identifying and eliminating the pain points around packaging, distribution, and deployment of Drupal 'products' like PressFlow, OpenAtrium, Drupal Commons, and so on.

Some folks might consider that a distraction, but I think that it's integral to Drupal's long term success. It means providing a less tangly framework for solution-builders, and (most important) making it easier for them to tailor Drupal to the niches they're familiar with. Ideally, that will make it easier for 'end users' of all levels to hit the ground running with tools that match their needs.

It's exciting to see Acquia's work on ways to make the 'solution-packaging' work pay off for the companies that invest time and resources. We're all watching eagerly, and it's great to see you collaborating with companies that have already been wrestling with the problems.

Ronald (not verified):

Agree that distributions can be a game changer and it is great that Acquia is helping lead the way both in terms of completing the offering with support, etc as well as in terms of providing thought guidance with posts as this one.

Currently we have lots of Big distros from the bigger Drupal companies. What I think would be particularly interesting would be to have lots of small distributions that target niche markets with very specifc needs (e.g. we are looking at the Italian real estate market) - that would get us closer to the kind of widespread ecosystem that Joomla has but hopefully with a distinctive Drupal feel about it. It would be great if a company like Acquia could provide solutions that would alllow smaller shops to plug in to pro-grade services easily and grow as their customer base grows.

I am thinking along the lines of a pay as you go support/hosting service that would lie between the basic and pro level of the acquia pricing scheme. Basically a turnkey solution that says "you worry about building and marketing your distro and we will worry about hosting, pro support, etc".

Michael Prasuhn (not verified):

Sadly at the current time I don't think any of the mentioned distributions could be hosted on Drupal.org due to issues with bundled code not hosted on Drupal.org as well as the inclusion of patched core or patched modules. We've come a long way, but aren't done yet with the features necessary to see the distributions community flourish on Drupal.org. In all fairness some of the products mentioned are large enough that having a separate site and ecosystem around them may have helped there success in some ways.

One other open source project that I've been watching for years (since Drupal 5 was in beta) was the Eclipse community since they actual do have lots of ways that you can download and use the software. The best examples are the distributions listed on the EasyEclipse website. They also offer an option to download plugins to enable any previous download to have the features of another distribution.

Fuzbolero (not verified):

Forbes.com interview refers to Drupal and Acquia regarding multitenancy and scalability:

"There are companies like Acquia that have created multi-tenant versions of Drupal for their commercial hosting service, but that was done by the founders of the project. I don't know if they have made the multi-tenant part of it open source."


Also posted in the discussion group here:

Sean Larkin (not verified):

Not to toot our own horn, but ThinkShout just completed its first significant milestone for paid training and services around Watershed Now, a highly-targeted distribution for conservation organizations.

Watershed Now is obviously free and open source. But in addition to offering customizations and installations of the distro, we've partnered with a communications strategy company to do 2-3 day "web sprints" or bootcamps with 12-15 environmental organizations, to help them relaunch their websites on our platform. While these sprints provide technical training on the various features of the distro, they are focused on leveraging the tool for fundraising, grassroots organizing, etc.

As a web developer who's spent the last 5 years building incredibly powerful websites for nonprofits that may or may not actually get used effectively, I'm much more interested in my clients paying for communications strategy and training than all the whistles and bells that I might be able to add to their sites. Over the long haul, my company benefits more from polished, well-messaged websites in our portfolio than overly-sophisticated sites with a bunch of tools that aren't used effectively.

So far, this service model is really working for us. We just graduated our first group of sprinters last week in DC. We've been creatively partnering with foundations both to help us develop free training materials around the distro - as well as to provide scholarships for organizations to participate in the sprints.

The key to our success ultimately comes down to one thing: As a team, we know the "vertical" (environmental nonprofits) that our distro serves really, really well. Our distro is highly "opinionated". The tools/features it contains were selected based upon many years of collective experience building sites for this constituency. In fact, the development costs for the distro were almost entirely paid for through work with individual clients.

To be honest, I'm a bit skeptical about the business model around distros that are meant to solve a technical or online publishing problem across industry verticals. While these distros are great starting points for custom projects and may significantly reduce overall development costs for one-off projects, in-and-of-themselves I don't think that they are necessarily all that marketable. Most consumers, for example, are probably not too inclined to research the differences between Pressflow and stock Drupal core. (Don't get me wrong, Pressflow is an incredible product - I just don't know if it sells itself.)

We're in the middle of a very interesting period as Drupallers at the moment in which clients are in fact clamoring for Drupal. But I don't know how long that's going to last. And ultimately, as service providers, or product providers, we sell our expertise in solving the specific problems of specific clients. I'm most excited about developing distros that ride that line between being highly-reusable and yet strongly-targeted. You can have the coolest distro in the world but if it's mission/purpose doesn't resonate with your target audience/clients, they aren't inclined to buy it.

Sean Larkin

Anonymous (not verified):

I think the biggest problem isn't that companies don't see the worth in it. I mean, it basically is what managers call "leverage".

The biggest problem is, as the Forbes quote before also shows, documentation. The only actual documentation on how to make an installation profile (I assume that's a distribution...), is in Pro Drupal Development Second Edition. The only documentation about it on drupal.org, is for Drupal 5.

Drupal 7 has been released, and there still isn't any on-site documnetation about it for Drupal 6, let alone for Drupal 7.

So if people can't figure out how it works, there's a very small chance they'll do so (very small instead of none, because there might be an individual or two who check the code of other distributions and figure it out from there)

Another reason for this problem, which is actually related to the lack of documentation, is that it's not clear that it's possible to make it yourself (again, as the Forbes quote shows). If you go to the documentation part of Drupal, you get stuff like "Understanding Drupal", "Installation guide", "Administration guide", ... There's no mention of installation profiles there.

Now you can say: "But modules aren't mentioned there either". Well, they are. They're not mentioned as a subsection, but are mentioned in the descriptions. They're also all over the entire site, really.

Installation profiles aren't. You can only get them from the "Download & Extend" page, and even there, it's kinda messed up. Not in a big way, but still in a way.

In the blocks there, it's right next to Core, which is fine. In the tabs above, it's pushed to the very last tab, even after "Translations". It's, however, an "or Core or installation profile" choice.

So in short, if it were more obvious that it's possible to create (so not kinda hidden away and only visible to those that actually know where to look) and if some up-to-date technical documentation would exist, it would already help installation profiles big time. I think that, seeing how Drupal's community works, the documentation'll follow soon enough if enough people know they can actually have this option.

It's not the concept that's the problem, but people not knowing it exists.

zhuzhu (not verified):


Nice to be registered on bmannconsulting.com. My little name is maxizhu ;-)

Leon Tong (not verified):

I have to agree with Ronald and Jeff (and Dries) here - if the high level goal is ultimately to expand Drupal's usefulness and widespread adoption then two core areas to address with distributions are:

1) meeting the real needs of vertical markets/niches with useful and usable distributions. The challenge here is to balance reuse versus specific functionality - OpenAtrium is generic enough to be of wise use but solves specific needs whereas a distro like OpenScholar is more targetted.

2) supporting the full project life-cycle required for (1) - from ease of installation right through to maintenance and scalability. I would see companies like Acquia working hand in hand with smaller Drupal shops to meet the demands at both ends.

We're currently working on a range of online communities social platform development on Drupal and a distribution (like Drupal Commons but perhaps more targetted) or series of distributions would be an ideal outcome for us