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Dries Buytaert Explains How Drupal Gardens SaaS Can Contribute to Semantic Web Momentum

By   /  June 25, 2010  /  No Comments

Photo Courtesy Flickr/ Gábor Hojtsy

Now 10,000 sites strong, Acquia’s hosted version of Drupal – Drupal Gardens, which debuted in January – is positioned not only to eliminate barriers to adoption of the open source content management system to a crowd that would rather be hands-off on the hosting, configuration, security and upgrade front. It also is positioned potentially to help push the Semantic Web ahead, bringing technologies such as RDF to the attention of a new swath of users if it successfully surfs the wave behind Drupal.

Think about that passionate community behind Drupal. Some half million sites already have been built in the Drupal do-it-yourself mode, and about 6,000 modules contributed to it. (Whenever this blog has done a story that mentions Drupal, by the way, the response to it is usually significant.) Acquia, the company co-founded by Drupal creator Dries Buytaert to provide software, tools and support for Drupal social publishing sites, has expanded to about 65 employees over the last two years – a growth spurt that was in part responsible for Buytaert’s recent relocation to Boston from his native Belgium. Making Drupal more accessible via a hosted version can stoke those fires – especially as Buytaert moves ahead with plans he disclosed to The Semantic Web blog about building a commercial ecosystem around Drupal Gardens.

Now think about the fact that the wave of users who opt for Drupal Gardens will get the same Semantic Web goodness as any Drupal core user. Drupal 7, in code freeze right now and expected to be officially released in the next couple of months, supports outputting structured data through RDFa, supporting most of the popular ontologies such as FOAF, SIOC, DC and SKOS. “Drupal Gardens is built on Drupal 7, so by extension a Drupal Gardens web site is Semantically Web-enabled to the extent that Drupal 7 is,” says Buytaert.

dries.jpg “That means Drupal can really make a contribution – it might be a small contribution but it’s noticeable to serve the adoption of those Semantic Web technologies,” he continues. “We can help bootstrap some of the Semantic Web stuff for mere mortals, so to speak. We’re hoping to bridge the gap between all the academic work on the Semantic Web and bringing it really to the people through Drupal Gardens and through Drupal itself.”

Among the users he expects to adopt the Drupal Gardens platform are businesses that could see advantage from exposing Drupal’s data as RDF on information pages, blogs, forums, comments and so on. Many companies have any number of smaller sites they need to create around a product launch or event or campaign, for example, and Buytaert sees sponsors of those efforts as good targets for Drupal Gardens for providing a way to quickly set up a powerful microsite, using the service’s templates, to serve their needs. With the RDFa support, for example, products showcased as part of a product launch microsite can show up as enriched results in search engines (See RDFa Support: How Do Google, Facebook & Twitter Compare? And How Will This Impact Their Position In The Semantic Search Engine Market? to read more about who will lead the semantic search engine market.)

“Outputting [RDFa] is a first big step and hopefully in the Drupal 7 release cycle we will see a lot of people taking advantage of that and building applications that demonstrate that this is realy cool stuff, and that will then lead to more semantic web improvements in the Drupal 8 release,” he says. The excitement is there – with Drupal boasting a very active development community specifically centered on its intersection with the Semantic Web, he notes – but Buytaert recognizes there’s still what he call a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem around the Semantic Web. So Drupal hasn’t addressed RDF data consumption … yet.

But the day is probably coming. “Consuming RDF data makes a lot of sense for us, and doing more to connect web sites if you will. Semantic Web technologies make a lot of sense there,” he says. Ultimately he prefers that users be the ones to drive how future releases will improve to account for Semantic Web requirements.

Drupal 7’s extensibility – the ease with which developers can add on contributed modules to do things such as support a new ontology or protocol, such as the OpenGraph Protocol module created in May by Stéphane Corlosquet — has some limitations when it comes to Drupal Gardens. In Drupal Gardens, users only have access to the modules Acquia chooses to make available. They can’t write or upload their own modules to the software-as-a-service. Right now Acquia has been very focused on enabling the base functionality people need to create sites rather than on including Semantic Web-oriented modules.

That might come, but right now “some of those Semantic Web technologies are not necessarily must-haves — at this stage as a company it’s more nice-to-haves,” Buytaert says. “I’m interested in and a fan of the Semantic Web, and a supporter, but I don’t think it’s right for us to focus that much on the Semantic Web at this stage [for Drupal Gardens]. Hopefully in future that will change as it brings a lot of opportunities for us.” It’s up to Buytaert to keep an eye on the Semantic Web’s ripening and to help others consume its fruits (to continue the garden theme) – but that’s as far as it goes, he says.

“We’re more of a watcher, an observer, we see what people get excited about and some of the applications of those Semantic Web technologies, and then pick and include the ones that make the most sense vs. helping to drive them or helping to create them,” Buytaert says. Right now he estimates 100 or 200 modules are available with Drupal Gardens.

Those who start out on Drupal Gardens and want to dive deeper into the Semantic Web through things like the OpenGraph Protocol Drupal module will appreciate that one of the things Buytaert has made a cornerstone of the service is the ability to export an entire site to host yourself. “We want to apply open source principles to SaaS, and for us that means we export the data and source code of your site,” he says. “That’s SaaS done right. It doesn’t lock anyone in.”

But clearly the goal is to offer as much and just what the community needs so that they want to stay. To that end his plans for creating a community around Drupal Gardens could include enabling developers to come in to help and build themes — the look and feel, so to speak, to offer to site owners for a fee. “We are exploring that now,” Buytaert says. “How can we build a successful and passionate ecosystem around Drupal Gardens just like we have a really great ecosystem around Drupal itself… Having a large and passionate community of people is a lot of fun, and it helps to take things to the next level.”

For Drupal Gardens, and ideally the Semantic Web, too.

• Don’t forget to propose your startup for our Semantic Web Impact Awards. The deadline is Sept. 15.

About the author

Jennifer Zaino is a New York-based freelance writer specializing in business and technology journalism. She has been an executive editor at leading technology publications, including InformationWeek, where she spearheaded an award-winning news section, and Network Computing, where she helped develop online content strategies including review exclusives and analyst reports. Her freelance credentials include being a regular contributor of original content to The Semantic Web Blog; acting as a contributing writer to RFID Journal; and serving as executive editor at the Smart Architect Smart Enterprise Exchange group. Her work also has appeared in publications and on web sites including EdTech (K-12 and Higher Ed), Ingram Micro Channel Advisor, The CMO Site, and Federal Computer Week.

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