At Acquia Engage, CTO talks of open source WCM, Red Hat buy

Drupal author and Acquia founder Dries Buytaert talks about how the web content management system written for fun is morphing into a platform from which CX and e-commerce flow.

In 2000, Acquia CTO Dries Buytaert created his own web platform, Drupal, which became an open source web content management system. And, in turn, he launched Acquia, which became the commercially supported instance of the Drupal WCM -- similar to how Red Hat became commercial open source Linux.

We sat down at the Acquia Engage user conference in Austin, Texas, to discuss the open source WCM vendor's recent e-commerce partnerships and how IBM's $34 billion acquisition of Red Hat demonstrates the continuing commercial viability of open source projects.

At the beginning, coding the original Drupal WCM, could you imagine it evolving into an experience platform enabling e-commerce, or hosting your own open source WCM cloud?

Dries Buytaert: No, [because] 18 to 19 years ago, mobile didn't exist. Google was a private company. I remember AT&T launching text messaging a month or so before. Social media didn't exist. I think less than 10% of the world had internet.

I started Drupal; it was very much an experimental platform for me, just to have some fun. I was fascinated with the web, and I didn't have any grand plans. Obviously, that changed over time. I made it open source, [and] it started growing, slowly.

Drupal started to grow, so I started my plans for Drupal and [followed] my conviction of us being onto something. We made a bet-the-farm bet on cloud [in about 2008], and that turned out to be the right bet, because we pioneered a new business model for open source, delivering [it] in the cloud. And a lot of companies are doing that now -- Elastic Path, MongoDB -- and I'm very proud of that.

Acquia was born open source, but also born in the cloud. And, today, that's the killer combination.

Dries Buytaert, founder, AcquiaDries Buytaert

How is the general movement toward building memorable digital customer experiences influencing Acquia's open source WCM product roadmap?

Buytaert: These are like megatrends -- 10 years ago, websites were static. [There was] almost no interactive content; everyone got the same content, [and] there was no integration between the content management and other applications.

Fast-forward to today, there [are] very dynamic experiences. Content is becoming very personalized, and content management systems are highly integrated. It's not unusual to see content management integrated with five or 10 or more other technologies.

These are long-term trends, and I think they are driven by customer expectations changing. They expect different experience, and that's a very powerful voice. I believe it's a fundamental truth that customers want much more simplicity -- more contextualized, personalized -- and it's actually really hard to do under the hood. You have to make the systems more complex to make the experience simpler.

In our roadmap, we're building a lot more complexity through integrations with marketing technologies; we capture more data, so we can drive these experiences; headless; different front-end technologies; [and] different channels you have to manage. These are things [in the past] people didn't have to worry about, but it's exciting, because you can use these technologies to reimagine customer experiences.

From the outside, it looks like your recent Elastic Path and BigCommerce e-commerce partnerships were a direct response to Adobe's acquisition of Magento -- picking up their open source customers who might not want to pay the commercial license fees they'll be paying now and beckoning them also to change to Acquia's open source WCM. What fueled these Acquia partnerships?

Buytaert: There are a couple of different angles. One of the things we've seen is that consumers expect better shopping experiences. E-commerce companies realize that, to drive more transactions, they need to build more compelling shopping experiences. That means more content-rich.

You have to make the systems more complex to make the experience simpler.
Dries BuytaertCTO, Acquia

Think of Instead of a grid of all the shoes, they have pages of videos, athletes, athletes sweating [laughs]. It's an emotional, content-rich experience with images. And, oh, by the way, you can buy these shoes versus boring grids. That's a driver in the market we're trying to capitalize on.

The other thing, from a technology point of view, is that e-commerce [vendors], for better or worse, have invested most of their R&D into building better transaction engines and not content management. Even the largest ones ship with lightweight content management. They all realize they aren't equipped to build these content-rich, compelling shopping experiences.

So, there's a huge pull in the market -- customers coming to us -- with Demandware, Magento, whatever, and they want to build a better content experience on top of it. And they don't want to touch their e-commerce engine with a 10-foot pole, because sometimes they're transacting hundreds of millions of dollars, because it's a lot of risk. They want to try new things, like social media migration, personalization, all these things, all the time -- and go faster with experimentation.

Since the IBM-Red Hat acquisition, have you been getting any calls?

Buytaert: [Laughs]. No.

[The IBM-Red Hat acquisition] is a great thing for us. I feel like this year, IBM buying Red Hat, MuleSoft going to Salesforce, Magento going to Adobe ... these are all software giants of the world, and they've all bought open source businesses. And I put an emphasis on businesses, not just open source projects. These are not acquisitions that live under somebody's desk. These are not mainstream products that these companies sell. The fact that these large software giants are buying these large open source businesses just validates open source even more.

I've been an evangelist and promoter of open source for 20 years, for my entire professional career. This is just another kind of tipping point, or milestone, for open source. IBM spent $34 billion. Guess what they're going to do? They're going to sell the hell out of that to their customers. IBM's customers are the largest in the world, so what will happen is that all the largest customers in the world are going to get extremely comfortable with open source. That makes our job at Acquia easier.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

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