Update: For Drupal Enterprise Software in White House, It's One Step Forward, One Step Back

Dennis Byron

As I promised in an Oct. 26 blog post, I am trying to get more background on the Associated Press (AP) story dated Oct. 24 that whitehouse.gov has changed its underlying content management software (CMS) to a product called Drupal. The story has implications wider than "just another CMS" deployment because the U.S. government is the largest single user of information technology, because Drupal is licensed under open source terms and conditions, and because CMS is likely to be one of the hottest segments of the enterprise-software market in the next decade as social computing (collaborative computing to us greybeards) converges with ERP.


But AP is the only independent primary source for the information and as I explained earlier, AP mangled the facts so badly that no one who follows enterprise software -- or politics for that matter -- can figure out what it was talking about. It turns out that the source I pointed you to, techpresident.com-which, like me, was dealing from the AP story, not from the original source- might have some errors in it, particularly in saying the Obama "White House has ditched the proprietary CMS that had been in place since the days of the Bush Administration." The Bush-era CMS was a home-grown Perl-based package called The Tool by its users and is believed to have been retired last Jan. 20, inauguration day, not on Oct. 24. Whichever, no one would call Perl-based in-house-developed software "proprietary."


Other independent Web sites, in particular The Register and CNET News are equally perplexed. Bloggers with skin in the game like the creator of Drupal and Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Media - an investor in Drupal's corporate sponsor, Acquia - tell us it's a good deal filled with all kinds of meaning. But how is one to put such biased statements into perspective when neither General Dynamics, the large federal contractor that did the whitehouse.gov revamp using Drupal, nor Drupal's creator can or will say what the old CMS was, what other CMS options were looked at -- including open source options -- or even answer simple questions about how much the changes cost? Or who made the decision and why? Or what was the security issue that needed to be addressed so urgently?


Acquia deflects these questions to its PR agency which said, "We're not at liberty to say."


"I will forward your question to our customer as they have requested," said the General Dynamics spokesperson.


So into this vacuum comes two new bits of information, which may or may not be important:

  • You Win One, You Lose One -- Drupal was reportedly just kicked off another new Obama administration Web site, recovery.gov,replaced by Microsoft SharePoint, the little portal server that you have quietly turned into a billion-dollar business for Microsoft. And, unlike Acquia and General Dynamics, the participants in that situation are talking. The information appears on a non-IT site called ohmygov and the political-commentary Web site Slate also took an interesting slant on the news. In the tech journal world, InformationWeek is also reporting on the recovery.gov move from Drupal to SharePoint.
  • You Don't Have the Bush Administration to Kick Around Anymore -- David Almacy, Interent and e-communications director at the Bush White House from March 2005 to May 2007, has also helped out by explaining the minimal role of the previous administration in this story and explaining details about the much-maligned Bush-era CMS. Watch David's blog, capital gig, for the details, but the easy answer is to take the Bush administration out of the story altogether. All the Bush administration did, according to Almacy, primarily through career civil servants that work for the White House's Office of Administration, was let out a contract in 2008 to redesign/rebuild whitehouse.gov for the new administration, no matter what politician won the 2008 election. It was part of the Bush administration's effort to ensure a smooth transition. General Dynamics won that contract, Obama won the White House, but neither had anything to do with the Bush-era whitehouse.gov nor its "proprietary CMS." According to Almacy, the Bush-era, Perl-based in-house-developed CMS was rolled up at noon on Jan. 20, 2009 and shipped to the National Archives along with eight years' worth of content. The General Dynamics-developed site came on line at 12:01 the same day as reported by TechCrunch. (I was incorrect in my Oct. 26 blog post about one other thing: Not only are you not allowed to muck with whitehouse.gov's code, as AP reported, you cannot even leave a comment.)


So thanks to David Almacy and ohmygov for the background information, but I'm still trying to get some useful information to help IT managers and staffs in upcoming enterprise-software buying decisions. And to keep any C-level execs who saw the AP story off your backs. The no/slow news is perplexing because one of the advantages of Drupal, according to the AP story, was openness and transparency. Of course, that was one of the parts of the AP story that made no sense and Drupal/Acquia can't be blamed because the White House IT or PR folks have told its suppliers not to talk to the press.


I am beginning to suspect that the White House IT folks saw the ohmygov story and decided to make sure the new whitehouse.gov site was delivering as promised before talking about it publicly. But someone at the White House didn't get the word -- speaking of General Dynamics -- that loose lips sink ships.


For some possible investment implications of the General Dynamics contract, see my IT Investment Research Web site. But I emphasize "possible implications." There are too many holes in this story still.

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