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Before Drupal, There Was "The Tool"

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, October 30 2009

Even smaller than the fraternity of people who have served as President of the United States is the fraternity of those who have served as the Internet Director to the President of the United States. David Almacy is a member of the latter club, having served under President George W. Bush's tenure, and as we chew over the White House's recent embrace of the Drupal open-source content management system, Almacy has an invaluable post up walking us back through the history of the online White House, back to the days when there was no content management system to speak of.

(Yes, those days did exist. Perhaps today is a good day for those more, ehem, experienced among us to take some time to share with our younger colleagues what it was like back when publishing something online generally required hand coding HTML, and there was one, maybe two people in an organization that could thus do much of anything on the web. Uphill, both ways.)

Back in those days before Drupal, Almacy tells us, Bill Clinton's White House had a system whereby changes to were made on one computer, recorded to tape, and then carried upstairs where they were uploaded to a server. At the tail end of Clinton's second term, the beginnings of an automated system began to be built, but, says Almacy, "it wasn’t capable of managing an entire new site."

Thus, "The Tool" was born. The genesis of The Tool, as Almacy tells it, was Perl-based work done by a handful of programmers in the Executive Office of the President during the period just before the Bush inauguration in 2000. As the Bush presidency progressed, writes Almacy, "newer site versions and features were rolled out on the front-end... [T]he Tool scaled with it and was updated accordingly to support them including many things it wasn’t originally designed to do such as creating on-the-fly printer friendly alternative text pages (508 compliance) and digital image processing." The homegrown system was in place throughout the Bush presidency, with Almacy judging, he says, that switching to a pre-built CMS wasn't a good use of taxpayer dollars with only a relatively short period of time left before a new president would take office.

As election day 2008 approached, writes Almacy, career employees in the Office of Administration in the Executive Office of the President began a "thoughtful, competitive procurement process" that ended with the awarding of a contract to General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT) to build a CMS for the next president, whether John McCain or Barack Obama. That, it seems, is the CMS that the Obama Administration found in place when it took office.

Fast forward nine months, and that brings us up to last Saturday's Drupal switch. And where does Almacy stand on the White House's open source move? With, perhaps, just a hint of wistfulness about the wide array of powerful new tools available to the men and women who will fill his shoes in this administration and presidential administrations to come, Almacy says "Congrats to the entire White House new media team!"