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Author: Steve Jenkins
24th February 2013

Finding the perfect CMS

SubHub CEO Evan Rudowski reveals why they abandoned the Drupal platform and looked elsewhere for a solution

Finding the perfect CMSBIO: The CEO of SubHub, a leading provider of digital membership solutions, Evan Rudowski has over 25 years’ digital media experience. He held roles at News Corp and Excite.com in the US, before leading Excite UK and Europe. In 2004 he co-founded www.subhub.com.

Back in 2009 SubHub was one of the first companies to build a full website publishing platform on Drupal 7. So convinced were we that it was the key to developing the flexible website-building service that we wanted to offer, we began the build while Drupal 7 was still in beta. But there won’t be a Drupal 8 for SubHub – in 2012 it was back to PHP.

The plan was to extend the self-provisioning model that allowed SubHub clients to set up their own membership websites using our platform and templates, by developing a new ‘app store’ they could use to add functionality as and when they wanted.

Drupal promised the power and versatility we needed to make extra features – such as adding eCommerce functionality, for instance – accessible via a self-service platform. The idea was that clients would simply be able to pick something off the shelf, plug it into their site (and remove it whenever they liked), and their bill would be amended accordingly. This was a distinct advantage over Drupal’s arch-rival WordPress, where plug-ins have to be managed by the website provider. But in reality Drupal didn’t allow for the delivery of the simple, seamless, flexible solution we’d hoped for.
I’ve heard several people say that Drupal gets you 80 per cent of the way very quickly, but pushing through that last 20 per cent to get over the finishing line is a real challenge. We reached that 80 per cent way-marker, more or less. Embracing the open-source philosophy, we started collaborating with other players in the Drupal community, and we got a working app store live in 2010.

However, we soon realised that while the community respected what we were trying to do, they simply didn’t share the same motivation to make Drupal a highly commercial, competitive alternative to WordPress. And if you don’t have strong allies in the open-source world, you’re on your own. As a result, we found we just weren’t getting what we needed from the community or the system. We were looking to increase simplicity and create something that would be highly commercial – which turned out to be at odds with what the Drupal community was all about at its heart.

Drupal members relish large, bespoke projects – like custom builds – and it’s not in their interests to simplify something to the extent that customers can develop apps and websites for themselves. Also the community doesn’t have that inherent ‘commercial ecosystem’ like WordPress – which enables third parties to make a lot of revenue from plug-ins that allow clients to customise their site, for example.

Very often, the modules that developers contribute to the Drupal framework are built and maintained part-time, and as a result they are not always ‘plug and play’. We found we needed to do more work to integrate them into what we built than we’d anticipated, including a lot of testing to get them working properly.

Drupal is essentially very sophisticated and powerful – there’s more complexity in what is created with the system than with its alternatives – and for us that was a bit like using a bazooka when a peashooter might have done the job. A lot of what we wanted to do could have been achieved with much smaller, simpler solutions.

Drupal also makes it tougher for independent companies like us to find and retain talent – because it’s more complex and specialised, Drupal development skills are not as widely held as PHP skills. Drupal developers also tend to have different motivations and this may cause them to miss the most commercially expedient solution.

For SubHub, all of this added up to a development overhead that was greater than it needed to be for the size of the job. Things were not happening quickly enough – tasks were taking us 25 per cent longer to do – and we were spending more on them.
The decision to make a clean break and stop using Drupal was a commercial necessity for us. We’ve scrapped what we built using the framework and rebuilt it using PHP – which is the platform our existing customers’ websites were already sitting on. The free website solution we’d launched on the Drupal platform had 10,000 sign-ups, but we realised we were still a long way from the point at which customers would have all the functionality they needed to fully make the switch to Drupal, so we turned it off and went back to PHP.

PHP becomes even more simple and flexible when used in conjunction with a model view controller (MVC) framework. We began using it with CodeIgniter, and since then things have started moving a lot more quickly. We’re not alone: there have been others who have also announced they are leaving the Drupal world. It just doesn’t seem to be gaining momentum – it’s not becoming any more popular and its limitations are not being addressed. I think it will remain what it is: a select CMS solution without the widely available talent and options that smaller independent companies are seeking.

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    • webkenny

      “Drupal members relish large, bespoke projects – like custom builds – and it’s not in their interests to simplify something to the extent that customers can develop apps and websites for themselves.”

      What interests is the article writer suggesting here? Is this inference that we, as a community, withhold the golden ticket of self-publishing, to further our financial goals? That’s, quite frankly, a bit of FUD and the first bit of relishing large, bespoke projects is rubbish. We build tools to -prevent- that very thing. Drupal does get you 80% of the way there and, sure, the 20% is challenging but it’s a lot easier than challenging on 100%.

      Also, “Very often, the modules that developers contribute to the Drupal framework are built and maintained part-time, and as a result they are not always ‘plug and play’” – Welcome to open source. Did you want us to build your website for you as well? ;) (i.e. Would you like Fries with that?)

    • http://purkiss.com Steve Purkiss

      I think what most annoys me about this article is the title “Finding the perfect CMS”. I played with subhub a while back, and it’s not a “normal” use-case of Drupal – subhub is a system for people to create their own websites, so you’re trying to build a Drupal on top of a Drupal, which is going to make things hard.

      I think you were/are a bit before your time – if codeigniter serves you well then that’s cool, however I totally believe this is the sort of thing Drupal will be able to do out-of-the-box in a year or two’s time.

      I’m sorry you didn’t have a great time with Drupal as many thousands do, it’s a shame you didn’t stick with it and help mould Drupal into something which would be your ideal tool, but that’s your choice. For me, the community is what makes Drupal, and having met many of them over the last few years I feel good in the fact I know anything I want to achieve I can achieve it with Drupal – given the time, effort, passion and understanding of how the Drupal community works.

    • marcvangend

      Thanks for writing this. No product can be perfect for every one, but as a member of the Drupal community, I like to read about your experiences. That’s how we can learn and improve.

      That said, I’m a bit surprised by two statements in the last paragraph. First of all, you write that Drupal is not becoming any more popular, but do you have statistics to support that statement? Many articles I read (eg. http://www.cmswire.com/cms/customer-experience/the-future-of-drupal-sustaining-effective-growth-016533.php) seem to disagree. Second, if you say that Drupal is not addressing its limitations, you clearly have not been following the news about Drupal 8.

      I wish you the best of luck with your website.

    • http://www.web-designer.com.sg/ Web Design

      I wanted to leave a little comment to support you and wish you a good continuation.

    • Kevin OLeary

      Echoing Steve, it’s really a shame you made this decision in the middle of the in the middle of the Drupal 8 release cycle.

      I understand your immediate business goal of serving your existing customer base but I’m fairly certain that you will kick yourself when you realize that the features you will throw money and people at developing and supporting come for free in D8.

      (full disclosure, I am the UX lead on Spark at Acquia and deeply involved in the development of Drupal 8)

    • http://uk.linkedin.com/in/jameseskinner/ James Skinner

      This is an interesting piece. In 2007 I led a project to abandon an in-house developed CMS platform in favour of Drupal, and to date over 1,000 Drupal sites have been delivered, including around 900 on a shared content distribution platform built on Drupal.

      However I do agree with Evan that certain aspects of Drupal are engineered for developers rather than end users. I understand that 8 has a lot of UX work going into it but in terms of basic usability for web editors and bloggers, WordPress is streets ahead. I was also regularly astonished at how long it could take to achieve simple things, such as setting up a straightforward, **good looking** blog. As someone who can quite capably build sites using WordPress, I could just never get a decent install of Drupal sorted.

      And as a business leader, acquiring and retaining great Drupal people is getting harder and harder. Like Evan, we were somewhat hamstrung being in the South West rather than London, but nonetheless it seemed like every Bristol agency had to fight each other to get hold of new people. The underlying popularity popularity of Drupal has to be a factor here.

      For me, Drupal has a **lot** to do to catch up with WordPress, let alone regain a position ahead of it as a leading CMS.

    • http://www.logicsofts.co.uk/cms.html Sam

      I believe the technologies are made for people or users and it is depended upon requirements to select the one…….

    • Pingback: The death of the CMS, my prediction of CMS's future Roy Sivan

    • Paul

      Why bring up WordPress and cast it in a favourable light because it provides commercial incentives even when it couldn’t have done what you wanted either?

    • http://fullfatthings.com/ Stewart Robinson

      This is just another published example of how companies can fail with open source software where others succeed and profit.

      There are good companies who can build on top of software and there are ones who fail.

      My opinion is that this article doesn’t really have anything to do with Drupal. I think it probably signals a lack of technical leadership, building for quality and understanding how to interact with a community.

      I can’t wait for the next article in 2015 about dumping Code Igniter for Symfony or similar.

    • wiseguy

      what an idiot!

    • Luke

      There is a proverb that says, “do not bite the hand that feeds you.”

      If I understand … Drupal has been key to the success of its business until 2012.

      Mr. Rudowski you have a remarkable capacity for analysis. I hope for you that the majority of your customers will not bind this interview. What will happen the day that your customers will not agree with you? Did you tell him … thank you for all the money you gave me during these years … your website is based on a proprietary technology … and it belongs to me … Now start working … thank you and good luck … ?

      If I do not have “Finding the perfect CMS,” I always know there’s a company that I do not want to do business!

      Good luck Mr. pdg,

      (Sorry for the quality of my English is not my native language.)