White House shift to open-source Web system draws mostly praise

Will choice of Drupal for Web content management bring more flexibility, or more confusion?

The White House's recent deployment of the Drupal open-source content management system for its Web site has created a stir among industry observers, who speculate that the move may portend a shift towards more government use of open-source, social media and emerging semantic Web technologies.

WhiteHouse.gov has the same look and feel it did before, so a casual visitor probably won't notice much different. The blogosphere has pointed out several interesting aspects of this choice of technology though.

Tim O'Reilly, head of O'Reilly Media, praised the White House for its choice of open-source technologies, suggesting that the government could save money by going with open-source. He notes that the implementation is in turn running on a Red Hat Linux system with Apache, MySQL and and the Apache Solr search software.

The move also speaks well of the White House's intent of incorporating more social media in its communications, O'Reilly said, noting that the Drupal community has developed a large number of modules devoted to supporting commenting and other interactive features. Such functionality seemed to be of value to the White House: "We now have a technology platform to get more and more voices on the site," White House new media director Macon Phillips told the Associated Press.

"General Dynamics Information Technology  …, the Virginia-based government contractor who had executed the Bush-era White House CMS contract, was tasked by the Obama Administration with finding a more flexible alternative," noted blog author Nancy Scola, in an entry in the TechPresident blog."The ideal new platform would be one where dynamic features like question-and-answer forums, live video streaming, and collaborative tools could work more fluidly together with the site's infrastructure," 

According to Scola, General Dynamics was supported by Drupal consultants Phase2, search engine optimization consulting firm Alledia, IT infrastructure firm Terremark and Internet distributed hosted firm Akamai.

David Lantner, editor of the Clear Type Press blog noted that Drupal will give the White House a good start in annotating its data in a machine-readable way, if the managers choose to do so. Drupal's use of a Resource Description Framework "enables authors to add semantic metadata … to their markup using attributes that are both machine-readable and human-friendly," Lantner writes. When formatted by RDF, data can then be parsed by other computer programs in a predictable fashion.

A quick look at the source code of the site finds that the Web pages are formatted to the XHTML-RDFA-1 document type, though no data appears to be formatted in the RDF format yet. (XHTML is an HTML Web page markup language that complies to the Extensible Markup Language standard; RDFA is a version of RDF formatted for HTML).

It should be noted not everyone sees the move to Drupal as a good one. Slate contributor Chris Wilson highlighted some of Drupal's more challenging attributes: That it is difficult to deploy and to upgrade, and that its code base is disorganized.

"I can't help but think the new software represents the triumph of hope over experience," Wilson writes. "Drupal looks great in theory: It's a powerful way to govern a Web site that is born out of the collective efforts of the community. In practice, it tends to be a bit of a mess."

The White House site is not the first site to use Drupal, according to a blog entry from Alledia's Steve Burge. Recovery.gov and the New York Senate also use the CMS.


About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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Reader Comments

Thu, Oct 29, 2009 Damien McKenna http://mc-kenna.com/

Shame on you for referencing the Slate article that is completely incorrect on every point. Having built many content management systems myself through the years and having used many commercial and OSS systems, I've found Drupal to be just about the best in terms of structure, upgradability and power per line of code. You see, unlike so many others, practically everything can be extended using APIs and the theming layer rather than hacking away at either the core system files or plugin files, making upgrading a piece of cake.

Thu, Oct 29, 2009 Seth Grimes http://sethgrimes.com

Recovery.gov moved from Drupal to Microsoft Sharepoint with last month's relaunch, a strange choice given the federal government's stated intention to use open source where feasible. My guess is that the move was related to the capabilities and partnerships of the contractor responsible for the technical implementation. Lead contractor Smartronix is Microsoft Gold Certified Partner so obviously had an interest in using the Microsoft platform rather than an open-source option.

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