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Monday, 09 November 2009 17:51

White House adopts Drupal open source CMS

Can the US Government see open source as a viable platform driving its web sites? Yes it can!

President Obama’s administration re-launched its primary portal,, as October closed. For the majority of visitors the site is informative and accessible.

Those with a geekier bent looked under the surface and noted with interest that popular open source content management system (CMS) had been employed to drive the site, dynamically rendering it from regularly updated material stored within a database.

This change was possibly hinted at by the Government’s prior use of Drupal back in February, powering its Democracy 2.0 web site Previously the most prominent Drupal site was The Onion.

This was a landmark event for open source advocates, long pushing for Government recognition of free software as a means of stretching budgets and ensuring electronic data remains accessible many years and decades after the applications which created it have been superseded.

Obama’s new media team next turned their sites to the most public electronic face of the White House, driven by a desire to more quickly, easily and gracefully implement their vision of what interactive government should be.

The team conceived of frequently updated rich content like video clips as well as expected material like transcripts of speeches. They imagined opportunities for voter feedback through polls and even forums.

An investigation into possible CMSs turned up Drupal as the best option to fulfil these concepts and desires.

Yet, not all are smitten by the idea of having an important web site built on top of program code which anyone can see.

One of the primary features of open source software is that its program code is freely available, unlike, say, Microsoft Word. This means well-intentioned technically-capable users of the software can track down bugs and actually fix them by themself, hopefully submitting their revision back to the software’s maintainers for everyone else’s benefit.

Of course, this also means people with malicious intent can study the program code and look for vulnerabilities. Luke Skywalker would not have destroyed the Death Star had the Rebels not been able to study its blueprints and discover a weakness.

This argument, along with protecting intellectual property and competitive advantage, ensures proprietary software will continue to flourish because while open source software has a better price tag, risk-adverse managers will always need to consider the possibilities of attack and whether the software used increases this.

The independent Open Source Vulnerability Database (OSVDB) presently lists 363 known flaws in Drupal. If even one of these is current, unpatched and relatively trivial to exploit then the White House can realistically expect to find itself a target by malcontents, no matter their level of technical expertise (because somebody, somewhere will surely publish an example exploit on the Internet which can then be appropriated for the task.)

In fact, because Drupal is freely available, a rogue nation or individual can perform their own hacking experiments day and night without once tipping off the White House.

Fortunately Drupal is not known for being nearly as buggy as WordPress, but even so the White House can protect itself with vigilance and diligence. This includes stripping unnecessary services and features out of the default installation as well as evaluating updates to the software when and as they are made available.

Nevertheless, despite concerns of critics, Dries Buytaert, the original developer of Drupal – and now White House subcontractor – sees the White House choice as implicit recognition that open source does not in itself pose additional risks compared to proprietary software.

Additionally, in times of economic instability using Drupal sends a positive message that the Government is itself seeking to spend taxpayer money in more effective and responsible ways.

The Government clearly is confident the benefits outweigh any perceived risks by critics, and Drupal now joins the likes of Plone and SourceForge which are used by the CIA and Miltary, respectively. It is reasonable to expect both bodies are sensitive and mindful of security concerns!

Ultimately, the choice of Drupal was specifically because it was perceived to be the best tool to deliver a flexible, progressive and engaging experience for visitors. This is a direct result of its open source roots. By being readily available, by being readily extendable, Drupal has received vast amounts of realistic production testing and usability feedback.

Pundits are keenly looking to see if the White House turns into a Drupal contributor itself, injecting its own add-ons and patches into the core code.

Meanwhile, others are undoubtedly hoping the integration of open source into Government continues with version control systems like SVN tracking the composure and alteration of legislation.

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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