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How Acquia is addressing the explosion of sites

I believe that the "digitalization" of the world is a "megatrend" that will continue for decades. On the one hand, organizations are shifting their businesses online, often inventing new ways to do business. On the other hand, customers are expecting a better and smarter user experience online.

This has led to two important sub-trends: (1) the number of sites an organization is creating and managing is growing at a rapid clip, (2) so is the underlying complexity of each website.

Forrester Research recently surveyed large enterprises about their website portfolio and found that on average they manage 268 properties across various channels. On top of that, each website is becoming more and more advanced. They evolved from simple HTML pages to dynamic websites to digital experience platforms that need to integrate with many other business systems. The combination of these two trends -- increasing number of sites and the growing complexity of each site -- poses real challenges to most organizations.

At Acquia, we are seeing this explosion of websites in the enterprise every day. Many organizations have different websites for different brands and products, want different websites for each country or region they operate in, or offer separate portals for their affiliates, dealers, agents or franchises. We're also seeing organizations, small and large, operate a large number of marketing campaign websites. These organizations aren't focused on scaling back their online properties but rather how best to manage them over time.

I outlined this trend and its challenges almost five years ago (see Acquia product strategy and vision) and most of it is still relevant today, if not more relevant. In this blog post, I want to give you an update and share some lessons learned.

Current situation

Most larger organizations run many different types of websites. It's not unusual for a small organization to have ten websites and for a large organization to have hundreds of websites. Some of Acquia's largest customers operate thousands of websites.

Acquia cloud site factory many sites

Most organizations struggle to manage their growing portfolio of digital properties. You'd be surprised how many organizations have more than 20 different content management systems in use. Often this means that different teams are responsible for them and that they are hosted on different hosting environments. It is expensive, creates unnecessary security risks, poses governance challenges, leads to brand inconsistency, makes it difficult to create a unified customer experience, and more. It costs large organizations millions of dollars a year.

Acquia cloud site factory many platforms

Drupal's unfair advantage

When managing many sites, Drupal has an unfair advantage in that it scales from simple to complex easily. That scalability, coupled with a vast ecosystem of modules, elevate Drupal from a single site point solution to a platform on which you can build almost any kind of site: a brand site, a corporate website, a customer support community, a commerce website, an intranet, etc. You name it.

This is in contrast to many of Drupal's competitors that are either point solutions (e.g. SharePoint is mainly used for intranets) or whose complexity and cost don't lend themselves to managing many sites (e.g. Adobe Experience Manager and Sitecore are expensive solutions for a quick marketing campaign site, while WordPress can be challenging for building complex websites). So the first thing people can do is to standardize on Drupal as a platform for all of their site needs.

Acquia cloud site factory many drupals

By standardizing on Drupal, organizations can simplify training, reduce maintenance costs, streamline security and optimize internal resources – all without sacrificing quality or requirements. Standardizing on Drupal certainly doesn't mean every single site needs to be on Drupal. Transitioning from 20 different systems to 3 still translates into dramatic cost savings.

The Acquia advantage

Once an organization decides to standardize on Drupal, the question is how best to manage all these sites? In 2013 we launched Acquia Cloud Site Factory (ACSF), a scalable enterprise-grade multi-site management platform that helps organizations to easily create, deploy and govern all their sites. Today, some of Acquia's biggest customers use ACSF to manage hundreds of sites - in fact on average an ACSF customer is currently managing 170 websites within their Site Factory platform and that number is growing rapidly.

Acquia commissioned Forrester Research to analyze the benefits to organizations who have unified their sites on a single platform. Forrester found that moving to a single platform dramatically reduced site development and support costs, conserved IT and marketing resources, and improved standardization, governance and scalability — all while accelerating time-to-market and the delivery of better digital experiences.

One of the things we've learned is that a complete multi-site management solution needs to include advanced tools for both developers and content managers. The following image illustrates the different layers of a complete multi-site management solution:

Acquia Cloud Site Factory solution stack

The different layers of the Acquia Cloud Site Factory solution stack.

Let's go through these individually from the bottom up.

Infrastructure management

Consider an organization that currently has 50 websites, and plans to add 10-15 more sites every year. With ACSF these sites run on a platform that is scalable, secure and highly reliable. This infrastructure also allows hardware resources to be logically isolated based on the site's needs as well as scaled up or down to meet any ad-hoc traffic spikes. These capabilities enable organizations to simplify multi-site management efforts and eliminate operational headaches.

Code management

If this organization with 50 sites had individual codebases for each site, that would be 50 disparate codebases to manage. With ACSF, the underlying code can be shared and managed in one central place but the content, configuration, and creative look-and-feel can be catered to each individual sites' needs. ACSF also enable developers to easily add or remove features from their codebases for individual sites. ACSF also comes with tools to automate the process of rolling out updates across all their sites.

Site management

Organizations with many sites also need efficient ways to manage and govern them effectively; from developer tools such as Git, Travis, or Behat that enable them to build, test and maintain sites, to tools for non-developers to quickly clone and spin up sites using site templates defined by a brand manager or a digital design team. ACSF enables customers to effortlessly manage all their sites from a single intuitive dashboard. Developers can create groups of users as well as sites allowing certain users to manage their dedicated domain of sites without stepping over other sites. Non-technical content managers can quickly spin up new sites by cloning existing ones they have access to and updating their configuration, content and look-and-feel. These features allow organizations to launch sites at unprecedented speed inherently improving their overall time to market.

Content sharing

Write once, publish anywhere. We learned from customers managing multiple sites that one thing they often need is the ability to easily share content between sites. For example, if an organization has a privacy policy that needs to be updated, it doesn't make sense to update all their 50 sites individually. There needs to be an easier way to discover existing content that can be repurposed across other sites as well as the ability to author new content once within a platform and deliver it to other sites as needed.

Personalization

Finally, I should mention personalization. For a few years now we have been developing Acquia Lift. Acquia Lift builds unified customer profiles across all your websites, and uses that information to deliver real-time, contextual, and personalized experiences. For instance, if the organization in the above example had 50 websites for each of their 50 different products, Acquia Lift can present relevant content to its users as they browse across these different sites. This enables organizations to convert anonymous site visitors into known customers and establish a meaningful engagement between them.

Conclusion

I believe that the "multi-sites era" will continue to accelerate; not only will we see more sites, but every site will become increasingly complex. Organizations need to think about how to efficiently manage their website portfolio. If you're not thinking ahead, you're falling behind.

Drupal 8 now ships with beta-to-beta updates

We've just achieved a big and exciting milestone in Drupal 8's development: starting with Drupal 8 beta 15, we are providing beta-to-beta upgrade paths. This will make it much easier to update Drupal 8 development sites between the current beta and future betas and release candidates.

There has been a lot of excitement building around Drupal 8. Many have been wondering when to start building Drupal 8 sites. The answer for many is NOW.

This change signals an important opportunity for organizations to begin developing with Drupal 8, especially for:

  • Sites that rely mainly on the expanded functionality provided by Drupal 8 core alone.
  • Projects that will take months of development time.
  • Sites for which the benefits of Drupal 8's outweigh the effort needed to port (or work around) contributed modules that do not yet have Drupal 8 versions.

I strongly encourage you to evaluate Drupal 8 for your upcoming projects. Also, if you haven't already, now is the time to port contributed modules so they are ready in time for Drupal 8's release! There are only about five release-blocking issues left before we create the first release candidate.

Note that betas are not supported releases of Drupal, and both developing and launching sites with beta releases present risks. However, I'm pleased that various Drupal agencies, including Acquia, are helping to eliminate those risks through support, development, and hosting optimized for Drupal 8.

Before you get started with Drupal 8, be sure to review all the release notes for beta 15.

Digital Distributors vs Open Web: who will win?

I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about how to win back the Open Web, but in the case of digital distributors (e.g. closed aggregators like Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Flipboard) superior, push-based user experiences have won the hearts and minds of end users, and enabled them to attract and retain audience in ways that individual publishers on the Open Web currently can't.

In today's world, there is a clear role for both digital distributors and Open Web publishers. Each needs the other to thrive. The Open Web provides distributors content to aggregate, curate and deliver to its users, and distributors provide the Open Web reach in return. The user benefits from this symbiosis, because it's easier to discover relevant content.

As I see it, there are two important observations. First, digital distributors have out-innovated the Open Web in terms of conveniently delivering relevant content; the usability gap between these closed distributors and the Open Web is wide, and won't be overcome without a new disruptive technology. Second, the digital distributors haven't provided the pure profit motives for individual publishers to divest their websites and fully embrace distributors.

However, it begs some interesting questions for the future of the web. What does the rise of digital distributors mean for the Open Web? If distributors become successful in enabling publishers to monetize their content, is there a point at which distributors create enough value for publishers to stop having their own websites? If distributors are capturing market share because of a superior user experience, is there a future technology that could disrupt them? And the ultimate question: who will win, digital distributors or the Open Web?

I see three distinct scenarios that could play out over the next few years, which I'll explore in this post.

Digital Distributors vs Open Web: who will win?

This image summarizes different scenarios for the future of the web. Each scenario has a label in the top-left corner which I'll refer to in this blog post. A larger version of this image can be found at http://buytaert.net/sites/buytaert.net/files/images/blog/digital-distrib....

Scenario 1: Digital distributors provide commercial value to publishers (A1 → A3/B3)

Digital distributors provide publishers reach, but without tangible commercial benefits, they risk being perceived as diluting or even destroying value for publishers rather than adding it. Right now, digital distributors are in early, experimental phases of enabling publishers to monetize their content. Facebook's Instant Articles currently lets publishers retain 100 percent of revenue from the ad inventory they sell. Flipboard, in efforts to stave off rivals like Apple News, has experimented with everything from publisher paywalls to native advertising as revenue models. Expect much more experimentation with different monetization models and dealmaking between the publishers and digital distributors.

If digital distributors like Facebook succeed in delivering substantial commercial value to the publisher they may fully embrace the distributor model and even divest their own websites' front-end, especially if the publishers could make the vast majority of their revenue from Facebook rather than from their own websites. I'd be interested to see someone model out a business case for that tipping point. I can imagine a future upstart media company either divesting its website completely or starting from scratch to serve content directly to distributors (and being profitable in the process). This would be unfortunate news for the Open Web and would mean that content management systems need to focus primarily on multi-channel publishing, and less on their own presentation layer.

As we have seen from other industries, decoupling production from consumption in the supply-chain can redefine industries. We also know that introduces major risks as it puts a lot of power and control in the hands of a few.

Scenario 2: The Open Web's disruptive innovation happens (A1 → C1/C2)

For the Open Web to win, the next disruptive innovation must focus on narrowing the usability gap with distributors. I've written about a concept called a Personal Information Broker (PIM) in a past post, which could serve as a way to responsibly use customer data to engineer similar personal, contextually relevant experiences on the Open Web. Think of this as unbundling Facebook where you separate the personal information management system from their content aggregation and curation platform, and make that available for everyone on the web to use. First, it would help us to close the user experience gap because you could broker your personal information with every website you visit, and every website could instantly provide you a contextual experience regardless of prior knowledge about you. Second, it would enable the creation of more distributors. I like the idea of a PIM making the era of handful of closed distributors as short as possible. In fact, it's hard to imagine the future of the web without some sort of PIM. In a future post, I'll explore in more detail why the web needs a PIM, and what it may look like.

Scenario 3: Coexistence (A1 → A2/B1/B2)

Finally, in a third combined scenario, neither publishers nor distributors dominate, and both continue to coexist. The Open Web serves as both a content hub for distributors, and successfully uses contextualization to improve the user experience on individual websites.

Conclusion

Right now, since distributors are out-innovating on relevance and discovery, publishers are somewhat at their mercy for traffic. However, a significant enough profit motive to divest websites completely remains to be seen. I can imagine that we'll continue in a coexistence phase for some time, since it's unreasonable to expect either the Open Web or digital distributors to fail. If we work on the next disruptive technology for the Open Web, it's possible that we can shift the pendulum in favor of “open” and narrow the usability gap that exists today. If I were to guess, I'd say that we'll see a move from A1 to B2 in the next 5 years, followed by a move from B2 to C2 over the next 5 to 10 years. Time will tell!

Acquia announces it is ready for Drupal 8

I'm excited to announce that starting today, Acquia is announcing we're ready to fully support our customers with Drupal 8. This means our professional services, our support, our product engineering, our cloud services … the entire company is ready to help anyone with Drupal 8 starting today.

While Drupal 8 is not yet released (as it has always been said, Drupal 8 will be "ready when it's ready"), the list of release blockers is dwindling ever closer to zero, and a beta-to-beta upgrade path will soon be provided in core. These factors, along with Acquia's amazing team of more than 150 Drupal experts (including a dedicated Drupal 8 engineering team that has contributed to fixing more than 1,200 Drupal 8 issues), gives us full confidence that we can make our customers successful with Drupal 8 starting today.

In the process of working with customers on their Drupal 8 projects, we will contribute Drupal 8 core patches, port modules, help improve Drupal 8's performance and more.

I'm excited about this milestone, as Drupal 8 will be a truly ground-breaking release. I'm most excited about the architectural enhancements that strongly position Drupal 8 for what I've called the Big reverse of the Web. For the web to reach its full potential, it will go through a massive re-platforming. From Flipboard to the upcoming release of Apple News, it's clear that the web is advancing into the “post-browser” era, where more and more content is "pushed" to you by smart aggregators. In this world, the traditional end-point of the browser and website become less relevant, requiring a new approach that increases the importance of structured content, metadata and advanced caching. With Drupal 8, we've built an API-driven architecture that is well suited to this new “content as a service” approach, and Drupal 8 is ahead of competitive offerings that still treat content as pages. Check out my DrupalCon Los Angeles keynote for more details.

One year later: the Acquia Certification Program

A little over a year ago we launched the Acquia Certification Program for Drupal. We ended up the first year with close to 1,000 exams taken, which exceeded our goal of 300-600. Today, I'm pleased to announce that the Acquia Certification Program passed another major milestone with over 1,000 exams passed (not just taken).

People have debated the pros and cons of software certifications for years (including myself) so I want to give an update on our certification program and some of the lessons learned.

Acquia's certification program has been a big success. A lot of Drupal users require Acquia Certification; from the Australian government to Johnson & Johnson. We also see many of our agency partners use the program as a tool in the hiring process. While a certification exam can not guarantee someone will be great at their job (e.g. we only test for technical expertise, not for attitude), it does give a frame of reference to work from. The feedback we have heard time and again is how the Acquia Certification Program is tough, but fair; validating skills and knowledge that are important to both customers and partners.

We also made the Certification Magazine Salary Survey as having one of the most desired credentials to obtain. To be a first year program identified among certification leaders like Cisco and Red Hat speaks volumes on the respect our program has established.

Creating a global certification program is resource intensive. We've learned that it requires the commitment of a team of Drupal experts to work on each and every exam. We now have four different exams: developer, front-end specialist, backend specialist and site builder. It roughly takes 40 work days for the initial development of one exam, and about 12 to 18 work days for each exam update. We update all four of our exams several times per year. In addition to creating and maintaining the certification programs, there is also the day-to-day operations for running the program, which includes providing support to participants and ensuring the exams are in place for testing around the globe, both on-line and at test centers. However, we believe that effort is worth it, given the overall positive effect on our community.

We also learned that benefits are an important part to participants and that we need to raise the profile of someone who achieves these credentials, especially those with the new Acquia Certified Grand Master credential (those who passed all three developer exams). We have a special Grand Master Registry and look to create a platform for these Grand Masters to help share their expertise and thoughts. We do believe that if you have a Grand Master working on a project, you have a tremendous asset working in your favor.

At DrupalCon LA, the Acquia Certification Program offered a test center at the event, and we ended up having 12 new Grand Masters by the end of the conference. We saw several companies stepping up to challenge their best people to achieve Grand Master status. We plan to offer the testing at DrupalCon Barcelona, so take advantage of the convenience of the on-site test center and the opportunity to meet and talk with Peter Manijak, who developed and leads our certification efforts, myself and an Acquia Certified Grand Master or two about Acquia Certification and how it can help you in your career!

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