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White House Web site makes open-source move

The open-source Drupal package now is used to power But please don't conflate open source and open governance.

The Web site now employs open-source software called Drupal to manage and publish its content, a high-profile endorsement for the project and the 2-year-old start-up Acquia that supports it.

Drupal is open-source software, meaning that anyone may see, modify, and redistribute the source code underlying the software that's actually installed on a computer. Specifically, Drupal is governed by the GNU General Public License. Acquia sells support for Drupal, and there are plenty of add-on modules to tailor it to particular uses.

The White House's Web site now uses Drupal and other open-source software.
The White House's Web site now uses Drupal and other open-source software. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The White House announced the move in an Associated Press story that somewhat clumsily tried explaining, "the programming language is written in public view, available for public use, and able for people to edit." Debugging and upgrading the site's code "now...can be done in the matter of days and free to taxpayers."

Well, sort of. First of all, Drupal is a program, not a programming language, and second, just because software is available for free doesn't mean that using it is free. It takes time and expertise to install, configure, and maintain software. Indeed, Drupal and Acquia founder Dries Buytaert said in a blog posting announcing the White House's use of Drupal that companies involved in the Web site switch included not just his but also General Dynamics Information Technology, Phase2 Technology, Akamai, and Terremark Federal Group.

And although open-source software in general can offer a tight feedback loop between the programmers creating the software and the people using it, there's no guarantee that debugging and security patches automatically arrive faster or that software is easier to maintain than with proprietary software.

This move is just the sort of thing that can lead to a lot of misunderstandings about the idea of openness, a term that's up there with motherhood and apple pie these days when it comes to values everybody wants to embrace. Don't confuse the fact that Drupal is cooperatively created and debugged in public with the openness of the present administration's government.

This line in the AP story in particular raised my hackles: "Aides joked that it doesn't get more transparent than showing the world (the) code that their Web site is based on."

That's just silly. Drupal-powered blogs and forums can enable online information sharing and public participation in discussions, but that sort of thing can be accomplished with proprietary software as well. Likewise, it's perfectly possible to use open-source software in a system that's locked-down and closed.

That's not to pluck the feather out of Drupal's cap--or indeed out of the caps of Red Hat's Linux operating system, Apache software for hosting Web site and powering its search, and the MySQL database, all of which also are used in the White House project, according to publisher, tech pundit, and open-source fan Tim O'Reilly.

It's not without reason that open-source software is very popular to power Web properties, including plenty of high-powered ones such as Google and Facebook. The White House's move is an endorsement that could help others--notably the many customers in the federal government itself--feel more comfortable with open-source software.