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Last CMS Standing: The Promise of Drupal Versus WordPress and Joomla!

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The popular open-source content-management systems Drupal, Joomla!, and WordPress are all getting new versions, setting the stage for an elimination tournament of market acceptance. Tom Geller, author of Drupal 7: Visual QuickStart Guide, looks at Drupal's comparative position in two regards: developer involvement and business adoption.

You wouldn't know about Drupal's success solely from statistics. Among the web's top 10,000 sites, it still trails WordPress by a huge margin, and Google reports far more searches for Joomla!. All three are enjoying a boom. Project Founder Matt Mullenweg summarized WordPress' growth as "breathtaking"; traffic to joomla.org has increased by 50 percent in the past two years; and statistics show a (fairly) consistent increase in the number of sites running Drupal.

Extraordinary growth begets extraordinary competition. Codewise, all three camps are girding their loins, with the recent release of WordPress 3.0 and imminent releases of Joomla! 1.6 and Drupal 7.0, all considered major versions.

Never before has the buzz been so great, nor signified so much at stake. For the market has a history of siding with a single winner and pushing the rest aside, as it did with OS/2 and AmigaOS. With that in mind, let's consider Drupal's chances by looking at support as regards developers and the business community.

Developer Energy

One measure of strength is the number of person-hours that goes into the software itself. That doesn't gauge of the software's strength in technical terms, of course: You can't polish a road apple, as they say. It also doesn't tell whether the project is interesting (or worthwhile) for any audience other than that of developers themselves. But it does expose personal commitment: Developers choose projects because they believe their time will be rewarded with recognition, useful skills, and job opportunities.

The developer community for Drupal's core software appears to be considerably larger than those of Joomla! or WordPress. More than 1,000 people contributed substantially to produce Drupal 7, versus about 200 for WordPress 3.0. (While the Joomla! project hasn't published its numbers, Joomla! Production Leadership Team member Ian MacLennan extracted a current count of about 200 Joomla! 1.6 contributors from the project's tracking software.) Drupal's security team is particularly responsive, with a well-documented record of reporting and fixing vulnerabilities in both core Drupal and its third-party extensions.

In terms of functional extensions, WordPress kicks the others' butts with more than 12,000 plugins versus around 7,000 each for Drupal and Joomla!. These numbers are open to a lot of interpretation, however, as the definitions of "contributor" and "extension" vary from one camp to another, and the extension count includes obsolete versions.

I believe these extensions are commonly written for one of two reasons. Rarely, they're to fill in gaps in the core software[md]the Wysiwyg module is a prime Drupal example, while K2 is a Joomla! counterpart. In such cases, a high count of extensions is just a sign that the core product is incomplete. More often, though, extensions do something beyond what the core software could be expected to handle, such as complex data presentation. They're a sign that people are engaging with their CMSes in real-world situations[md]that they have itches to scratch, so to speak. If that's true, a high number of extensions is a sign of a project's health.

On another development front, active communities of graphic designers have sprung up to create "themes" for all three CMSes. Oddly, joomla.org refuses to host them (which the Joomla! community calls "template files"), resulting in an active constellation of third-party sites that carry them. One such site claims more than 3,000 templates, which dwarfs WordPress' official count of 1,300 and Drupal's mere 800. (Again, these numbers are somewhat questionable, and don't include the untallied collection of commercial, non-free designs.)

Add it all up, and where does Drupal stand? Well, its advantage in core development is both substantial and significant: Drupal's developers are building a strong foundation for the future. As yet that hasn't translated into equally strong non-core development, particularly among graphic designers.

However, there are promising signs of third-party Drupal development in another direction. An increasing number of parties now produce free Drupal "distributions"[md]that is, core Drupal packaged with additional modules and other assets[md]for specialized purposes such as publishing and non-profit administration. We're also seeing more of what I like to call "supermodules," such as Panels, Rules, and Context that provide a framework for further development rather than just scratch a single itch. On the design front, such tools as Skinr and Sweaver ease (or replace) parts of the theming process. Drupal development is, in short, moving from the brickmaking to the building stage.

What Businesses Are Betting On

Business organizations around the three CMSes stratify distinctly based on their target audiences. WordPress has its teeth firmly in the thick end of the wedge[md]the low-demand, everyday computer user who primarily wants a blog-based web site. As such, WordPress business opportunities tend to be small, but numerous: hosting, site implementation for mom-and-pop companies, theme design, and so forth. Not that all WordPress sites are small: A respectable list of Fortune 500 companies use it, along with five of the world's top 1,000 sites. Joomla! has a strong presence among mid-size businesses, and sports a uniquely thriving market for commercial extensions along with those for implementation services, template designs, and hosting. (I've observed that Joomla's culture tends to be more entrepreneurial in general than Drupal or WordPress'.)

Drupal, in contrast, is increasingly being deployed for enterprise clients, and has attracted the attention of enormous consulting firms such as Accenture and CapGemini. In his presentation on The Business of Drupal, Acquia Senior Drupal Advisor Robert Douglass points out that the Drupal ecosystem now includes not only independent consultants, designers, and hosting services, but full-fledged value-added resellers as well[md]positions that wouldn't be possible without enough enterprise-grade components to integrate as solutions.

Hovering over all is the commercial infrastructure company, Acquia, founded in part by Drupal creator Dries Buytaert to be for Drupal what Red Hat is for Linux. Funded by three rounds of venture financing totalling $23.5 million, Acquia provides support, monitoring, search, hosting, and similar services directly and through a network of partners. No similar company exists in either the Joomla! or WordPress world, although for the latter Automattic offers enterprise-level support and hosting services on the Acquia model.

The market value of Drupal skills is high, and is expected to continue its growth. A look at indeed.com's comparison of available jobs for Drupal, WordPress, and Joomla! shows that there are currently about twice as many listings citing WordPress than Drupal[md]which is still a strong showing for Drupal, as there are approximately a hundred times as many WordPress sites as Drupal sites in the world. But when you look at relative growth, the picture changes: Drupal's job count is growing at five times the rate of WordPress'. (Joomla's job growth rate is also comparatively flat.)

Other measures suggest that Drupal's job market is superior. As I write this in December 2010, the recruitment board monster.com lists 160 Drupal jobs, versus 120 for WordPress and a mere 55 for Joomla!. Similarly, the job board on drupal.org got 50 posts in the last week, versus only nine on the WordPress job board. (Joomla.org doesn't host a formal job board; community members pointed me at joomlancers.com, which lists only a few gigs.)

Having said that, there are pockets where Drupal is weak: The short-term gig board elance.com lists only 100 tasks for Drupal professionals, versus 200 for Joomla! and a staggering 515 for WordPress. It could be that Drupal positions tend to be more permanent than those for WordPress or Joomla!, which its strong position in enterprise-level businesses would support. Or this difference could simply be cultural, the same way Coca-Cola is more popular in the southern U.S.

So: Where Is Drupal Going?

Gather it all together and you get a picture of Drupal's promise as compared to WordPress and Joomla!:

User base:

  • On the web as a whole, WordPress' user base is overwhelmingly bigger than Drupal's and Joomla's, by as much as two orders of magnitude.
  • Among the 10,000 most-trafficked sites, WordPress' lead is narrowed considerably, to about 4x. Drupal clearly leads Joomla! in this group.

Core code:

  • All three are currently experiencing major releases.
  • Drupal's core is comparatively strong, secure, and well-supported.

Third-party code:

  • WordPress has the largest number of functional extensions of the three.
  • Drupal is seeing a growth of distributions and "supermodules" that are platforms in themselves.
  • Joomla! holds a strong lead in the number of graphical site templates.

Business:

  • All three CMSes have vibrant and growing markets for services and consulting.
  • Drupal has had better success in the enterprise market.
  • The long-term job market appears to be favoring Drupal, although the complete picture is unclear.

In the final analysis, these distinctions only affect organizations taking a very long-term view of the matter, or considering very large implementations. For the individual webmaster, no CMS delivers a knockout punch: All three are capable of running most sites, and their support communities will certainly be solid for at least a few years.

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