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In the last year, a growing number of companies based on free and open source software (FOSS) have come out of stealth mode. One of the latest is Acquia, which provides services for organizations that use Drupal, the popular content management platform. "Until now," says Jeff Whatcott, Acquia's vice president of marketing, "there hasn't been a Red Hat or Ubuntu of the Drupal world." Acquia plans to fill that gap by selling subscription services that will improve what Whatcott calls the "few rough edges and gaps" in Drupal, at the same time that the company establishes itself in the eyes of community.
Whatcott refers to Drupal as "social publishing" software -- that is, a combination of tools for content management, social software such as blogs, wikis, and forums, and a Web framework. By any standard, Drupal is a FOSS success story, with more than 900 contributors to the recently announced version 6.0, and some 1,800 modules supplementing the core functionality. In addition, thousands of Drupal development companies are believed to exist worldwide, many of them small shops with fewer than 30 employees.
Started by Drupal cofounder Dries Buytaert and veteran startup executive Jay Batson, Acquia is funded by $7 million in venture capital from North Bridge Venture Partners, Sigma Partners, and O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures. The company plans to develop around a free offering called Carbon that consists of Drupal and a selection of the most popular modules.
While Carbon will be tested thoroughly before release, Whatcott stresses that "we're not in the business of maintaining proprietary intellectual property. It's all GPL-licensed code, and any code that we release to clients under the core or the modules will be open source."
The target audience for this hardened version of Drupal will be the existing commercial development community. Whatcott suggests that, by installing Acquia's version of Drupal on customer sites, commercial Drupal developers will have access to support and be freed of the need to offer ongoing support and maintenance themselves -- a burden that most commercial developers should be glad to unload, given that the bulk of their work is in site design and deployment.
Most likely, Acquia itself will not be involved with much custom commercial development itself. "That's not the business we want to be in," Whatcott emphasizes. "We want to be in a very scalable software business. And we don't want to do anything that would place us in competition with the Drupal community."
Instead, Acquia is considering a partnership program. "In my mind, I want to make sure that the Drupal community makes $20 in service for every $1 that Acquia makes," Whatcott says. His implication is that this is the price of being a member in good standing of the community.
Acquia's business model is to offer tools that make Drupal more accessible and easier to manage. Carbon, for instance, is intended take some of the guesswork out of understanding and mastering Drupal. "Right now," Whatcott says, "the way things are, you install Drupal core, and then you discover the modules. And it's kind of a hit and miss process whether you discover them."
In the same way, rather than selling code, Acquia plans to offer an array of services, "similar to what Red Hat does with Red Hat Network, and what MySQL does with its technologies," Whatcott says.
On the support side, the goal is to provide "full lifecycle Drupal support" -- that is, assistance for everything from initial site development and deployment to troubleshooting and upgrades. Although the details are still being sorted out, Whatcott suggests that the cost of support package might vary according to such criteria as whether the service is via email or support, the hours in which help is available, and the level of access to the company that a support call receives.
On the service side, Acquia is beginning with an update service codenamed Spoke. The intention is that, when updates from the community are available, Acquia will choose ones relevant to its version of Drupal, test it for security and compatibility, and then make the updates available from the Drupal administration console. The company is building a system for performing such testing, and Whatcott suggests that updates would be available to Acquia customers in a matter of a few hours or days.
Other services will evolve with the company. One possibility is documentation. Others include remote performance monitoring and troubleshooting, spam blocking, advanced search and site indexing, Web analytics, and a tool that actually does upgrades that would include backup and testing before new software was actually deployed.
In the future, Acquia might consider distributing "an integrated stack" of GNU/Linux, MySQL, PHP, and Drupal." The company may also gradually expand the list of modules shipped with its version of Drupal, or issue a series of recommendations for various modules, although, as Whatcott says, "We'd have to draw a clean line between what we support and don't support."
If all goes well, Acquia's initial offerings should be available "before the leaves fall" in 2008, according to Whatcott.
Like any FOSS-built company, Acquia's success is likely to depend heavily on its relation with the community. In many companies, community relations are an ongoing balancing act with the needs of business, but so far, Acquia appears to be accepted by the rest of the Drupal world.
"We've had a really positive reception in the community so far," Whatcott says, and a search of the Drupal forums tends support this claim. "I think there have been some people in the community who have been a little worried that we might somehow go into competition with them, but we've been pretty clear from the start that that would not only be a bad business for us, but it would be a dumb thing to do. It would disrupt the community, and that would be bad for us."
Much of the reason for Acquia's acceptance is probably the fact that many of its employees are well-known in the Drupal community. Besides Buytaert himself, the company employs Gàbor Hojtsy, who coordinated the last Drupal release, and Kieran Lal, a member of the Drupal Association board and coordinator of the project's security team, who is working as Acquia's community liaison. Other members of the Drupal community employed by Acquia include Robert Douglas and Barry Jaspan.
These employees give Acquia instant credibility -- especially since their blogs appear on the front page of the company Web site -- as well as a constant reality check. "We're drawing some of the best people in the community," Whatcott says. "They make sure that we're plugged in to what the community is thinking and feeling, and that we're going to do what makes everyone comfortable."
Although Whatcott admits the possibility of a conflict with the community, he quickly adds, "I don't see it so far." His reasoning is that Acquia is so tied to Drupal, that "the biggest thing we need to do to be successful is grow Drupal."
Another reason why Acquia is being accepted may be that its emergence reflects the growing acceptance of Drupal.
"The community is realizing that Drupal is growing up and finally getting recognition," Whatcott says. "So having a company like Acquia is a validation of the value of Drupal. It says that Drupal has arrived, and real companies are able to invest new capital in it. After all, venture capitalists don't invest unless there's a significant community.
"The story that I would like to see is the untold story of Drupal: That Drupal is this massive open source success story, and, in the wake of that incredible success, Acquia is forming a business model."