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Tim O'Reilly's Three Insights into the Drupaling of the White House

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, October 26 2009

Publisher, conference convener, and lover of animal pen drawings Tim O'Reilly gives us his insight into how the White House just switched from a proprietary content management system whipped up by a federal contractor to one based on Drupal, the free and open source software made by the Internet. Or, more specifically, by people who spend a lot of time on the Internet and like to make and give away software.

There are three things about O'Reilly's analysis that pop out in particular. Consider this fair warning: the first is really, really technical, at least for 98% of the population. O'Reilly gives word that the White House will be using an implementation of Drupal that makes use of what is called the LAMP stack in softwarese. The "L" is for Linux, the open-source operating system. (It'll be of the Red Hat variety, says Tim.) The "A" is for the Apache web server software package, itself open source. Because you're getting the hang of this and realizing we're dealing with an acronym here, we'll just say that rounding things out are MySQL for database stuff and either Perl, Python, or PHP for a programming language. (The trouble with acronyms, perhaps.) The search engine on the site -- on of the very few things that actually might look different to mere mortals post-switch -- is based on Apache Solr. That's a chunk of code that the CNET Network thunked up and then passed back to the Drupal community. That practice of share and share alike is one of the things that makes the open source software movement so special.

Which is, coincidentally, just about the perfect set up for the second thing that jumps out of O'Reilly's post. (Don't worry, this one is understandable for even layfolk.) When the White House's switch to Drupal will really get jazzy and exciting, says O'Reilly, is when it actually builds something neat and then releases back into the wild, the wild being the Drupal community. As neat as it is for the White House to implement things made by Drupal devotees not employed by the executive branch, the White House is really in a position to do something particularly remarkable. The White House has security and reliability needs that are fairly unique, but not so unique that there aren't any number of government offices and agencies and ad hoc commissions that don't have the same or similar needs. There's a chance here for the presidency to be a stellar neighbor on the Drupal block by taking what it has churned out and handing it over so that others can plug it into their own sites and systems. (Tim doesn't touch on the question of whether Drupal's sharing ethos might run smack into the strictures of federal IT procurement, but whether the White House really can give up what it has paid for is potentially a meaningful question.)

The benefit of free software, fine tuned by the White House? It'd be free! At least, kinda. And that's where O'Reilly's third important insight comes in. Drupal is free, indeed. You can get yourself a copy at, and no one is going to demand any money for it. But Drupal isn't exactly free from its own challenges. It's not idiot proof, like, say Twitter, and there are oftentimes when the best way to get Drupal to do exactly what you want without you ripping the hair out of your own head is to find someone who knows Drupal like the lines on her mother's face and get her to do it. That's what the White House has done. They've brought in at least two Drupal savvy firms on this contract, a contract that, it's well worth mentioning, is a rather larger one that was signed by the Bush Administration and given like a gift to the Obama one. So Drupal isn't free for the White House. Its adoption hasn't suddenly meant the end to the federal IT procurement system which is often been consistent only in its maddening inefficiencies. (We're working on getting the specific details of the contract under whose umbrella the Drupal switch is being made.)

But while it's not the end of days for the bureaucracy of the federal IT procurement process, the White House switch to Drupal does mean something. It means that, in a perfect world, the White House is suddenly a smidgen freer to implement new wizardry on the White House website (wizardry that one hopes is meant to be to the benefit of we the people, and we're not limiting ourselves to ever-more-responsive photo galleries of Bo the dog). The White House will never be a startup, and there's a legitimate question as to how agile you really want to be the country's chief executive office to be. But if Drupal doesn't suddenly wave a magic wand to release the White House from all that ails it when it comes to online IT, there's a decent chance that it does help get them a step closer to the aim of the open source movement, which is to help people get the software the need, when and how they need it. When it comes to the White House's embrace of Drupal, "flexible" might, in the end, come to be worth far more than "free."

Bonus: a somewhat random assortment of reactions to the great White House Drupal switch harvested from people on Twitter:

IrishPrince Hoping White House move to open source will have the effect of waking up fed agencies to fact that open source is ready 4 prime time.

durietz: This is huge! RT @ronnestam White House goes Drupal...and who said open source wasn't safe?

gwynnek: Does a web content management system mean greater democracy or openess? ... I really don't think it matters that much.

martinboz: ...@WhiteHouse goes Drupal: ... Cue screaming from Joomla & Wordpress devotees. :)

(Photo credit: John Bradley)