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Acquia Search: an update after one year

About 20 months ago, at Acquia, we began working on a hosted offering for Apache Solr, an open source enterprise search platform from the Apache Lucene project. Exactly one year ago, we launched it commercially as Acquia Search. Time and the public reaction have proven that we made the right choice. In the past year, Apache Solr has received a tremendous amount of traction in the Drupal community. Most large sites launched recently use Apache Solr because it provides a faster, more scalable search solution, as well as improved search accuracy and more features than the built-in search features of Drupal's core.

If you want to install, run and maintain Apache Solr yourself -- assuming you have the resources required -- you can of course do so. However, many organizations lack the technical expertise to deploy, maintain and scale Java applications. Even if they do have the resources, it's often cheaper to use Acquia Search. Acquia Search has been part of our overall plan to sell simplicity and enhance the experience of using Drupal. Today, the majority of our customers that subscribe to the Acquia Network, which includes very large Drupal sites, actively use Acquia Search instead of maintaining their own or using Drupal core's built-in search. In the past three months we have handled about 20 million search requests on behalf of our customers. These are important proof-points of our strategy.

The growth in popularity of Apache Solr and the story of Acquia Search haven't finished, though. This week we released some excellent new features for Acquia Search which we believe will further help drive adoption of Apache Solr and Acquia Search. We added support for attachment indexing (e.g. search PDF and Word documents), multi-site search (i.e. search multiple Drupal sites at once), and other additions. For more details on this latest release of Acquia Search, check out Peter Wolanin's blog post on the subject. I think our customers will be quite pleased at the improvements we've made in this release. And if you're not using Apache Solr or Acquia Search, you should seriously consider implementing it. It's cool stuff. :-)

10,000 Drupal Gardens sites

Earlier this year, we launched Drupal Gardens in private beta here at Acquia. A couple of days ago, we hit the 10,000 site mark! I want to thank all the people that that continue to help test Drupal Gardens, and whom created 10,000 new Drupal Gardens sites in such a record time. It is great to see more and more people build real sites on Drupal Gardens, and to see the platform that once was only envisioned, come to life.

We decided to build Drupal Gardens because we believed that many individuals and organizations want a killer web site, but have no idea that Drupal is a great way to build one. Even if they did hear about Drupal, few non-technical people succeed in installing a Drupal site, creating a nice-looking theme for it, and keeping Drupal up-to-date. We also learned that there are plenty of organizations that maintain tens, and even hundreds of micro sites and that Drupal Gardens has real promise in the enterprise. Our goal is to make Drupal Gardens a good fit for all of these audiences.

Talking to Drupal Gardens users, and reading people's reactions on Twitter, I'm convinced Drupal Gardens can be the game changer that we envisioned it to be. It's frickin' exciting!

Now we've passed 10,000 sites, our goal is to work towards an open beta, rather than a private invite-only beta. This means that over the next couple of months, you'll see us focus more on fixing bugs and fine-tuning so we can open our doors for more people. Of course, we'll continue to add new functionality too. A lot of big new features are already in the design and planning phase, but more about our plans in a future post.

Moving to Boston for two years

I pretty much spent my entire life in Antwerp -- 31 years to date. However, in just a few weeks, my family and I will be moving to Boston. Why?

  • Primarily, it allows me to reduce my travel and spend more time with my family. I flew 65,000 miles the first five months of this year, and 100,000 miles in total last year. Being away from home that much isn't fun; neither is having a permanent jetlag.
  • My wife has accepted a research position at Broad Institute, a genomics research center jointly of MIT and Harvard. As a postdoctoral researcher, it is a tremendous opportunity. Did I mention how proud I am of her?
  • Acquia, my company, is based in Boston and I want to spend more actual person-to-person time there. While working remotely is OK, nothing beats face-to-face interaction, especially when you're a fast growing start-up.

We've decided to move for a period of two years, and to return to Belgium in 2012. By then, Axl and Stan can go to school in Belgium, my wife can resume her research position at Flanders Institute for Biotechnology, and hopefully, Acquia will have offices in Europe.

Moving 3,500 miles from your home town, most of your relatives, and many of your best friends is not an easy choice. It's quite likely that -- at this early date -- we do not understand how significant of a change it will really be. While we'll miss our friends and family in Belgium, we believe that it will be a win-win.

I'll keep you posted about our move, and our adventures abroad!

Extraordinary glimpse of Acquia Client Advisors in action

Working at Acquia often means taking on the hard problems, the big challenges, and making the difference between success and failure for our customers. To highlight just how flexible our Client Advisory Team needs to be on a daily basis, I want to share with you this extraordinary glimpse into the inner workings of a real life customer who was dealing with a Drupal problem they never even imagined could exist. Please be warned, this is a real screenshot of a real "support incident" - nothing has been held back, except the customer's name (for their own protection). For the truly daring, there is also a high resolution version.
Support ticket jingle

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, 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 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. For more information about this, I recommend reading Tom's blog post on the 'Software Publishing Model'.

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.


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