Drupal was started as a hobby project by Dries Buytaert, who continues as the project lead today, and has grown substantially over the past five years. At GitKon 2022, Dries shared his personal story of scaling the platform from his dorm room in Belgium in 2001, to building websites for The White House and beyond.
What is Drupal?
Drupal is an open source web management system that enables users to build websites, web applications, and more; Drupal has even been known to power the entertainment systems on airplanes. Essentially, if you have a screen you want to deliver content to, Drupal can be used to facilitate that.
Drupal is a dominant player in the market with a very active community, with over 10,000 active community contributors and more than 100,000 organizations that contribute to the project.
The Drupal Story
Dries founded Drupal in his college dorm room in 2001 in Antwerp, Belgium. The first intention of the project was to share messages with friends, and he also wanted to learn more about PhP and mySQL, which were new technologies at the time.
When Dries left college, he decided to move the application he had built for fun in his dorm room to the public Internet for anyone to access. Fun fact: Drupal shares the same birthday, down to the day, with Wikipedia.
Dries continued to work on Drupal as his passion project, and the community continued to grow at a rapid pace. In 2003, a few years into the development of Drupal, Dean Howard, a presidential candidate for the United States, leveraged the Internet in a way no one had seen before in politics.
Dean built a platform for his supporters called Dean Space, and he built it on top of Drupal. This gave Drupal notoriety in the media and greater exposure, helping the user base scale quickly.
Fast forward to 2005 when we hosted our first conference, DrupalCon in Antwerp, Belgium with just 30 developers, which was more than Dries expected.
The event lasted a full week and was such a great success that they decided to continue annual DrupalCons, which are still taking place today, with DrupalCon Prague 2022 just wrapping in September 2022.
Great Server Meltdown
As Drupal continued to grow in 2005, a large and significant event occurred. Up until this time, Dries had used a free, shared shell account on a friend’s server to run the Drupal website.
By 2005, Drupal.org was seeing so many visitors that the server could no longer handle the load. At some point late in the year, the server crashed and they couldn’t get it back up.
As a solution, Dries recreated every page on Drupal.org with an empty page and added a PayPay button. Below the PayPal button were a few sentences that read: “Servers are down. We need around $4,000 to purchase a new server, and then we will be back. Please donate.” Within 24 hours, the Drupal community had contributed $10,000.
Around the same time, one of the CTOs of Sun Microsystems, a famous technology company since acquired by Oracle, emailed Dries, informing him that his team had been using Drupal, offering to ship Dries a server. Soon, a $7,000 server shows up in the mail.
Then, the Open Source Lab (OSL) at Portland University in Oregon came to Dries with a proposal. They offered to provide Drupal with free hosting and bandwidth, free electricity, and free labor in the form of computer science students who helped maintain the lab as part of their education.
Within 24 hours, they had received $10K in donations, a $7K server, and free hosting, bandwidth, and maintenance. All from the Drupal community.
Below is a poster Dries and the Drupal team created that includes names of all the community supporters who helped them through this time.
In 2006, Drupal started to see companies with more recognization adopt the platform, like MTV. When MTV.com crashed after moving to Drupal, Dries volunteered his time to help them solve their problems. Dries was dedicated to having Drupal users succeed, no matter how much time it took.
Dries knew that Drupal wouldn’t be sustainable if he was the only one providing user support, and doing so unpaid in his free time.
For Drupal to be successful, it needed a company to support it; kind of like Red Hat for Linux: a company that could provide commercial support as the platform scaled. So Dries created Acquia in 2007.
Acquia ended up raising $180M over the years, with Dries conducting investment meetings over Skype, even before the pandemic.
Drupal in The White House
During the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, President Obama passed an $800B stimulus bill. Every dollar spent was tracked on a website: recovery.gov; for every project, the website displayed the manager, budget, stakeholders, etc. A very transparent approach to government.
In 2009, Dries received an email inviting him to The White House. At the meeting, he expected them to talk about the recovery.gov website, but instead, they began talking about ideas for a new website: whitehouse.gov, and asked Dries whether Drupal could run the site. Dries accepted.
This marked the first time The Whtie House had used open source. The site was a great success, with zero issues in terms of scalability and security – an incredible testament to Drupal.
Drupal Continues to Grow
In 2010, Dries moved from Europe to Boston, and by 2011, DrupalCon welcomed over 3,000 developers at DrupalCon Chicago.
In 2016, numerous organizations adopted Drupal, like NBC Sports, Nestle, the Nasdaq, Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer, and more. Today, Dries estimates that 1 in 8 enterprise-level websites are run on Drupal.
Open Source Lessons from the Drupal Story
Dries shares three tips for open source developers that he’s learned over his journey scaling Drupal from his dorm room to The White House:
- “Overnight” success takes at least 10 years
- Entrepreneurship is 80% sales and marketing
- Your team matters more than your idea
Fun fact: Drupal has migrated from CVS to SVN to Git and has been using Git for over 10 years.
If you’re developing with Drupal and Git, consider adding GitKraken Client to your toolbelt for improved visibility into your project history and robust collaboration features. Plus, it’s free on public repos!