This week we chat with Dries Buytaert, best known for his role in creating the open-source content management system, Drupal. He was also a co-founder of company called Acquia.
Dries explains how Drupal began: as a intranet, not internet, message board for his college community. It's now the technology underpinning tens of millions of websites, including some of the biggest in the world.
We get the story behind the name, an accident overlap of language that became the software's iconic mascot. And we talk about the process that allowed this to scale from an open source project shared across a few dorm rooms to something used by massive public companies.
Stay tuned Friday, when we'll publish part two of our chat with Dries.
As always, shout out to our Lifeboat badge winner of the week, for helping to answer the question: Can you use React Native to create a desktop app? As to whether or not you should, well, that's another question for another time.
You can find more about Dries at his website. You can read more about his experience with Acquia here.
Dries Buytaert Maybe I should give you a little bit more background so I can tell this story properly. But, um, when I was running this message board, it was like an intranet. It wasn't accessible from, you know, the public, but when I finished my studies, I moved out of the dorm and I felt like I needed to move this little community that we had to do the public so we could stay in touch with the other students. And so I had to register a domain name, obviously.
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BP Heeyy everybody! Welcome back. We are recording. Good morning, Paul. Good morning, Sara.
Sara Chipps Good morning!
Paul Ford Good morning, Ben! Morning, Sara.
BP Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast. Sara was visiting her folks as many of us have been during this long pandemic and found a very special disc.
BP There's a very special floppy disk. Was it a floppy disc, it was a...?
SC It was a three and a half inch floppy.
BP Yeah three and a half inch, 1.4 mg floppy with a sticky note that just says hot boys on it. So we're going to have to dig in and see what's on there. At some point.
SC Yeah. I don't quite know how to read it.
PF Ohhhh. [Ben laughs]
SC I really want to know what's on it.
PF You know, I actually, because a lot of my floppies are in the Amiga format. I recently EBay'd a cryo flux floppy reader that can read anything.
BP Whoa. Oh my god.
PF So I'm going to volunteer it. I haven't plugged it in it's all USB. Like I got to get like a windows environment or kept my Ubuntu to machine up and running, but it can pretty much read any floppy.
BP What about my jazz disc. [no] Can you read my jazz disc?
PF No, no, no. Ben.
PF But I'm just offering it to you, Sara, if you forensically want to understand what's on that floppy disc.
SC I do! Okay. I'm going to mail it to you.
PF Okay. I'll give you my address.
BP Alright. Very cool. But we have a special guest today, all the way from Europe visiting us. Dries do you want to introduce yourself? Say hello and let the people know what you're here to talk about?
DB Sure. Yeah. Hello, good morning. Or good day. So yeah, my name is Dries I guess I'm best known for being the founder and the project lead of Drupal, which is an open source content management system. Also started a company called Acquia like 12 years ago. And I'm the CTO for Acquia. That's a very short version.
BP That is very short, very concise. Very humble.
BP Where did it come from? And then where is it going where what's the scope of it?
PF Well it came from Greece.
DB This will sound funny, but, um, I was a student. I was living in my dorm and um, we had a little local area network going and we needed kind of a message board to leave some messages between the different students in the different dorm rooms. And at the time PHP and my SQL were kind of new and cool. And so figured I would spend a few evenings working on a quick message board for us and as a way to learn PHP in my SQL. And so that's how I got started. And that message boards kind of evolved into my experimental platform where I started adding capabilities like RSS feeds before that was a standard or I started adding features like public diaries that was before that was called blogging. And eventually that message board evolved into more of a content management system or more of a platform. And then there's a longer story there, but eventually that became Drupal.
PF What is the name?
DB Well, so, the name is kind of funny. So I wanted to register Dorp. D O R P.org, which is Dutch, which is my native language for a small village, a small community. And so that's perfect, but actually made a typo [Ben laughs] and I swapped the O and the R and I ended up registering drop.org and I'm like, wow, that's an English word. It's four letters. A domain name is still available. Like I'm rich kind of thing. And so I ended up with that domain name, cause I couldn't believe it was still available. And so I moved the intranet to drop.org and I started blogging and writing about all of these things like RSS feeds and public diaries and more and more people got involved with my little site. Typically people interested in the future of the web because I was kind of, as I said, experimenting with a lot of these things at the time as my side got bigger and bigger, more and more people got involved and they started asking or making suggestions, I should say like, Hey, maybe you can implement this or maybe you can do that. And at some point I said, you know what? Instead of me implementing all of these suggestions, how about I make my site open source and then it can be your experimental platform as well. And so I literally spent like 30 seconds thinking of a name and I copied the GPL licensed file from my Linux kernel. Cause I was running Linux into my site, created a tar ball and uploaded it to drop.org expecting maybe 10 people to ever download and use Drupal.
DB And so when I had to pick a name, I was like, all right. So, drop, the English word drop in Dutch is drupal and Drupal is how an English speaking person would probably pronounce the Dutch word for drop.
BP Got it.
DB And it's actually a pretty bad name because a lot of people don't know how to pronounce it, but Hey, here we are. You know, 20 years later.
BP No! It's a, I feel like it has a certain ring to it. And we were talking about this before, every great piece of software that's going to succeed, needs a great mascot. And the name of the mascot. They speak to me, the droplet and the Drupal. I dunno. I get it.
DB Yeah? That's great. Yeah. But in the beginning people said Drupal and there was a little bit of like, if you knew how to pronounce Drupal, you're kind of like part of the inner circle.
BP Right. Right. Yeah. The Dutch PayPal competitor. Yeah. Gotta be careful with that. Sara, what were your sort of like early Web 1.0 memories? Like what were you using early on where you Live Journaling when that hot boys disc was made?
SC Mmm good question. I was, I was just talking about this with someone recently. My journey was bulletin boards, then AOL, then MySpace. I kind of missed...
PF You were dialing into bulletin boards?
SC Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
PF Wow. That's a deep cut. I never got there.
DB But our parents didn't know. They didn't understand. [yeah] At least they didn't know like IRC and those things. It was just like a mystery what I was doing on my computer.
BP Right. Just talking to my friends, mom, just hanging out, just chatting with some buddies. So this is pretty interesting. This core community that you met in college, were you a computer science major or just somebody who was interested in this stuff, but focused in studies on something completely different?
DB No, I did a master of science in computer and computers, computer science in Belgium. And then after that, I actually went to work at a startup, which where I fell in love with startups, I guess. And then I went back to college and did a PhD in computer science and had nothing to do with Drupal was all about runtime, compilers, garbage collection, those kinds of things. But all the while, while working at this startup and then while doing my PhD, I kept working on Drupal on the site. That's what I would do at night on the weekends. It was my passion. And then when I finished my PhD, I decided to turn that hobby, if you will, into my full time job. And so that was sort of seven years after I started working on Drupal.
PF Around what year would that be? Where, where are we in time?
DB I started working on Drupal in 2000 and I think I was like 20 or 21 or something. So yeah, we're coming up on the 20th birthday.
SC Wow! So cool.
PF How much code remains from early days? [Ben & Dries laugh]
DB Not a lot. I don't think, no. I mean, if you think about it like 20 years ago, I think Google, I think either was still a private company or just went public. I feel like there was maybe 35 million websites in the world [mhm]. AT&T had not yet launched text messaging. And we're talking about the original text messaging, you know, Web 2.0 wasn't a thing people talked about, responsive web design didn't exist. I mean, we were using HTML three, I think it was. And maybe CSS one?
PF Tables! Just a lot of tables.
DB I mean, so many things have come and gone. Like if it were, if there was still a lot of, yeah. A lot of tables. Exactly.
PF So, Dries, alright. I mean, I've got you and your dorm room, you know, I've got Sara on a BBS. Like there's a lot going on in, in as people are learning stuff. And you know, it feels like there's this pivotal moment where you flip the switch, it's open source and suddenly people are engaged. They really want this code. They want to do things with it. And now today I look at Drupal and I see this very large content and community platform that's API driven, that does an enormous amount of stuff, that has users that include vast government organizations and very large companies. So, you know, what were the sort of big steps along the way? Like how do you get from Dries in his dorm room? Like what were those phases and versions that really sort of got you here?
DB Well today, 1 out of 30 websites run on Drupal.
SC Woah! That's... what a cool statistic. That must feel great.
DB Yeah, it does. I'm very proud of that. Obviously it's a work of many, many people. We have thousands, actually we have every year, 10,000 people contribute code to Drupal.
DB And over a thousand different organizations. And obviously there's many other ways to contribute to Drupal too. Right. It's not just code it's support and events and marketing and all these things. So it's one of the largest open source projects. But yeah, I guess to answer your question, it started with just my website, one, one site and just me, but yes mentioned I open sourced it. And one by one people got involved and there's a few big tipping points. I would say that kind of launched Drupal. And the first one was sort of around 2003. And so this was at the time of the presidential elections in the US and Howard Dean, uh, was one of the candidates. [Ben laughs] He was sort of an underdog.
BP Oh boy.
DB And he became famous so to speak. Or one of the reasons why he became famous is because he was using the internet to campaign. And he was the first presidential candidate to use the internet as a campaign platform. And that campaign platform was built on Drupal. And so, you know, that obviously got a lot of press, I mean, not Drupal, but it was like Dean Space was a name of the platform. And then in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, it was like Dean Howard, Dean and Dean Space. And Oh, by the way, it's runs on Drupal, like sort of in a sub sentence, somewhere in the article, but it gave a lot of credibility to Drupal and it actually led to sort of a first investment in Drupal. There was an investor that said, wow, the next elections, every presidential candidate is going to use the internet to campaign. We need to take Dean Space and sort of polish it up, exp extend it, make it better. So that we're ready for the next presidential election. And actually in fact, the next elections, every presidential candidate did use the internet to campaign. And I think more than half of them actually ended up using Drupal. But anyway, that was a big tipping point for us because it gave us some visibility in the media and it attracted some, some money and more people got involved, which is kind of cool.
SC Now what's the typical use case for someone who's getting started with Drupal? Is it a, usually a company? Is it an individual? Do you see a lot of personal sites being run on it?
DB Yeah. Today. So it's in the beginning I should say Sara, there was a lot of hobbyists the websites, but today it tends to be the more ambitious websites is what we call it. [Ben laughs] Uh, you know, likes websites.
BP Bespoke, maybe?
DB Yeah, bespoke too often. Yeah. Often, you know, people can assemble a website with Drupal using all of the modules or plugins that you have. But very often there is an element of customization that requires custom development. So websites tend to be a little bit larger, more complex, and we run up to some of the largest websites in the world. You know, weather.com I think is in a top 20 websites doing billions of page views a day. That's based on Drupal. We did the website for the Olympics, which according to them was the largest digital event in the history of the web. So again, billions of page views a day. So Drupal tends to specialize in sort of these more complex or more ambitious use cases. You know, if you're an individual trying to launch a blog, Drupal tends to be too complex. I would say, you know, I wouldn't recommend it unless you like working with Drupal.
BP Alright. So Dries, every week we end the podcast by reading out the winner of a lifeboat badge.
BP So a lifeboat badge goes to somebody. There was a question asked on Stack Overflow in this case two years and five months ago, it languished with no answer. And then somebody decided to answer it and got a 20 upvote. So awarded two days ago to Joe Clay answered this question, can you use react native to create a desktop app? Nobody asked and why, but I'll, I'll let you try to answer. And we'll just note that Joe Clay gets the lifeboat badge for answering.
DB I would imagine you can, but I'm not an expert on react or react native, to be candid. But maybe, I don't know. I think you can, but.
BP Every language has to work for everything, right?
DB Like what can you not do with react?
SC I'm interested in the answer. What was the answer?
BP There isn't any official support for desktop applications in react native. There are however, various experimental forks, so react native windows, react native MacOS, react native desktop. They are not developed by the main RN team. Your mileage may vary. Thanks, Joe Clay.
DB Well, I learned something new. That's great.
BP Yeah. Can you use react native to develop a app for interactive set top boxes? No, that's Oak. Okay. I remember that. [Dries laughs] Don't I sound like I know what I'm talking about?
BP Uh, Dries, thank you so much for coming on. And especially for coming on all the way from across the ocean. I know this wasn't part of the podcast, but if you want to say anything about where you are and why you're there, we're happy to hear it. Otherwise we can just keep it professional and you can say where people can find you on the internet if you want to be found.
DB Yeah. I'm here to see family basically, but yeah, my, I'm from Belgium. And so my family's here and I had a reason to come here for family, which is why. You know, I quit Facebook and all of these things. Uh, but you can find me on my own websites, which is uh, you know, Dries, D R I dot E S.
BP Awesome. Alright. I'm Ben Popper, director of content here at Stack Overflow. You can find me on Twitter at BenPopper.
SC And I'm Sarah Chipps, director of community here at Stack Overflow. And I haven't quit Facebook yet, but maybe I should.
PF Yeah. I go back and forth. I am looking at DRI.ES and that is a website. That makes me feel really good about the world. When I look at this site, like it's just, just very pure, very true to what this medium is about. My name is Paul Ford. I'm the co founder of a software development firm called Postlight. You can find us online at Poslight.com.