Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Acquia at Drupalcon

I attended the Acquia panel at Drupalcon in Boston yesterday. I must admit that I thought this session was going to be packed with people interested in what Acquia is going to do and how it will relate to Drupal. Plus, Dries always draws a crowd. It turned out that the session on theming drew a much bigger crowd. In hindsight, I am not surprised. I was sitting in the Drupal IRC channel when the Acquia announcement first hit. There was a mention of the news but neither concern nor intrigue about this new addition to the Drupal family. People were more focused with the their immediate tasks working with Drupal. They trust Dries and the Drupal Association to do what is right for Drupal.

The session started out with an introduction to the Acquia team. The first thing of note was the early hire of Gábor Hojtsy whose primary responsibility was to get Drupal 6 released. I think that this demonstrates Acquia's commitment to the Drupal community and how they can help themselves by helping Drupal. Another significant hire was Jeff Whatcott from Adobe for marketing. Their community evangelist Kieran Lal was walking around in colonial period attire to signify being a founder although most mistook him for a pirate. He should re-use the outfit on September 19th.

Acquia's business model hasn't changed since the original announcement. They want to be the Red Hat or MySQL of Drupal and they want Drupal to be the web application framework for Web 2+. In the near term they are going to allow the community to shape their activity by taking a play from the Zimbra book. The Acquia Projects page will allow the community to suggest and vote for enhancements and services that they would like Acquia to provide. Paid technical support is another core service that Acquia will sell.

A little furtherdown the road (2nd half of 2008), Acquia's strategy focuses around two offerings: Carbon (a supported Drupal distribution with certified modules) and Spokes (a collection of network based services like safe automated updates and configuration control). There will be more value added software in the future. The product names were inspired by CEO and co-founder Jay Batson's (don't bother following the link. Jay has been too busy to blog. I know the feeling.) interest in cycling.

One of the big contributions that Acquia hopes to provide is rigor around testing. During Dries' keynote, he spoke about building in testing frameworks (unit, system, and integration testing) and it seems like Acquia has the experience and funding to make this contribution. This strikes me as similar to SpikeSource who also tried to create a commercially supported Drupal distribution. I was going to ask what made SpikeSource's SpikeIgnited Drupal fail but the answer is obvious. They didn't have Dries. In fact, they didn't have any relationship with the Drupal community and the resulting product was pretty lame: Drupal without the modules.

Another part of Acquia's strategy is establishing a network of certified partners that can work with Acquia to build and serve the market for Drupal. They are going to do this through partnership and certification programs. The latter will be run by trainer and Drupal book author Robert Douglass.

As for Dries, the deal is that he gets a minimum of two days per week to spend on anything Drupal related be it coding, community development, or being a spokesman for the product. He reiterated the point that he is able to make decisions that are better for Drupal than for Acquia. Hopefully these two interests will not be in too much conflict. I have not seen the agreement that was signed (nor do I expect to) so I don't know the wording of Dries's terms. My major concern is that VCs (which gave $7mm to Acquia) like to have control.

This brings me to a bigger question about VCs: what did they buy? It seems that much of the VC pitch centers around the growth and promise of the Drupal project. VC's would love the fact that every time a new release of Drupal comes out, the number of downloads doubles. But I hope that they understood that they did not buy Drupal itself.

As long as Dries is on board and Dries keeps his promise to the Drupal community, Acquia's success may mirror Drupal's. However, Acquia will probably not be able to monetize all of the Drupal phenomenon. Figuring out a way to capture the upside of Drupal's success without having a negative relationship with Drupal will be Jay's job. A commercial entity has the promise of helping the Drupal project by bringing in more interest and adoption for Drupal and also protecting the Drupal purists from the open source n00bs that are still running around looking for throats to choke. Acquia's services will probably appeal to medium to larger sized companies that have money to spend on software. Not the small, budget-less non-profits that bring a lot of the energy and passion into the community. If Acquia can target new markets with their products and serve existing markets with their Drupal contributions, I think they can achieve a nice balance.