A random tweet drew my attention. U.S. 1 was busy preparing its camp issue, with hundreds of summer opportunities for kids, yet here was a notice about “drupalcampNJ” on February 4. About 30 seconds of research revealed that Drupal is an open source software program, and Drupal Camp was a day-long seminar for adults at Princeton University that cost only $20 including lunch.

I passed that information along in a Tweet and invited my online network to refer me to people who knew about it. Helpful referrals came from Dana Hutchins of Inforest Communications, Tom Sullivan of Princeton Partners, Dick Woodbridge of Fox Rothschild, Ram Iyer of the Midmarket Institute, Louis Basile CPA MBA, and Donna Liu of All Princeton. What I discovered:

Drupal is a free, open-source content management system and web-application framework. “Open source” means it’s free if you know how to use it. You pay with your time, or you pay a skilled consultant. Content management systems (CMS) take care of the online archiving and distribution of information. When you click on a link, the CMS produces the information.

Among Drupal’s users are Princeton University, Rider, Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard, Yale, entertainers like Chris Rock, news organizations like NPR and the Economist, and federal agencies including, yes, the White House. Though Drupal may have a steep learning curve, it has 648,000 U.S. accounts, more than 30 language-specific support groups, and lots of local “camps” for novices and experts alike. The Drupal-ers that put on the February 4 DrupalCampNJ meet regularly. The next meeting is Thursday, March 1, from 7 to 9 p.m. in room 112 at Princeton University’s Friend Center on Olden Avenue. Visit www.meetup.com. Peter Wolanin of Acquia and David Hernandez of the Institute for Advanced Study are co-hosts along with Henry Umanski of Princeton University and Ray Saltini, a consultant with Blink Reaction.

In the olden days of coding with html, home pages linked to actual digital pages, as if you were reaching into a particular file cabinet for a particular file for a particular piece of paper. It was difficult to keep that piece of paper accurate. Current CMSs take the information from database files that can be updated and changed with ease, even automatically. A search produces the very latest updates, dynamically created. Think of looking at the calendar pages of this newspaper versus doing a search online for “today’s events” at www.princetoninfo.com.

Some of Princeton’s biggest institutions have opted to use this free, open source program. Princeton Public Library is transitioning to Drupal, and that’s understandable because libraries are traditionally strapped for cash. But Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study also use the free Drupal instead of a licensed commercial program, and they are hardly lacking in funds.

The do-it-yourself mentality of programmers, I discovered, attracts them to open source programs. They support the “little guys” (themselves) against the “big guys” (Microsoft). For instance, Linux is the quintessential anti-Microsoft program.

“It’s easy to get connected to open source software,” says Jeffrey Berliner, manager of the 20-person computing team at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). Licensed software requires not just the initial price, but additional charges for help desk support and add-ons. In contrast, says Berliner, “It’s easy to try open source programs out and see which ones work. They are really able to compete with programs that are much more expensive.”

Drupal won’t be popular with pharmaceutical firms but is gaining popularity with educational institutions. That’s because universities try to disperse information, whereas pharmas need to be careful about approvals and authorizations, and the commercial programs are stronger in those areas. The IAS began moving its huge website to Drupal in 2009 and finished the process last year. Ias.edu logs in 100,000 sessions per month (not page views, but viewer sessions). Among its thousands of pages are lots of online videos of lectures and concerts. Yet Drupal keeps it so well-organized that just two people work on it, not even full time.

Peter Bromberg, assistant director of the Princeton Public Library, says that PPL is moving from html to Drupal sometime this spring. A 1988 graduate of Rutgers, he has his MLS from Rutgers and came to Princeton in 2010. “Drupal’s content management system allows us to decentralize the management and updating care of our website. With Drupal it’s very easy to assign out certain pages to certain staff members.” Just six people work on the current website, but 20 staffers will be authorized to update their information on the database on the new one.

Other advantages, says Bromberg, is that PPL will not have to pay separately for its events module and a blogging module. “Drupal has hundreds of thousands of free modules and is continually being improved.” Modules can be added as needs arise. “It gives us more control over the look and feel.”

Drupal has its free competitors (Joomla — used by U.S. 1’s princetoninfo.com — and WordPress) as well as its commercial rivals (Lotus, DotNetNuke, and Ektron), among others. Its first author, Dries Buytaert, is a 33-year-old native of Antwerp, Belgium. He tried to name the software (according to Wikipedia) after the Dutch word for village (“dorp”) but mistyped it when checking the domain name, and thought that “druppel” (drop of water) sounded better.

Just because Drupal is open source doesn’t mean that nobody ever makes any money from it. In 2007 Buytaert founded a commercial firm, Acquia, which operates as Red Hat does for Linux. Peter Wolanin, a Princeton University graduate whose career also includes a stint with Signum Biosciences, is a “momentum specialist” at Acquia and co-hosts the Drupal meetups along with David Hernandez, also of the Institute for Advanced Study.

Ben Bakelaar, who is scheduled to make a presentation at the March 1 meeting on PPL’s website, started attending the Drupal meetups in January, shortly after he came on board. In his previous job at Rutgers, his alma mater, he used a commercial CMS, Microsoft-based SiteFinity, which might cost a couple of thousand dollars for the license, plus yearly support of $500 to $1,000. “Drupal is good,” he says. “The community of developers and users are all very supportive and interactive. If you have any questions, you can always find an answer.”

Of the free CMS programs, says Bakelaar, Joomla is the most complicated and WordPress the most user friendly. “WordPress has a built-in structure, whereas Drupal does not enforce any structure; it is up to you to find what you need and build it directly.” In other words, no program is really “free.” If you are not doing the programming yourself, you pay the consultant to figure it out.

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