The Pros and Cons of Distributions

It’s been far too long since I blogged.

I’ve got a few good excuses such as a baby, a business, a book, the OSM board and almost weekly trips around the U.S. However, I’ve also got a few good topics stored up, so expect more posts in the coming weeks.

First up, some thoughts on Molajo which is the shaping up to be the first widely-marketed Joomla distribution. Joomla’s had few distros before such as Non-Profit Soapbox and the pre-packaged installs put out by template clubs and extensions like Virtuemart. However, those were never really presented as distributions and that’s what the Molajo folk are aiming for.  They’re expressly aiming to replicate Drupal’s success with distros. I’ve spend about 50% of my time this year in the Drupal world, so I’ve a few thoughts on their pros and cons:

The Pros of Distributions

Innovation and Audience

The huge benefit of distributions is that you can have innovation and an audience. Sadly, those two often are mutually exclusive.

Many innovative projects get lost in the crowd. Check out a site like http://www.cmsmatrix.org and you’ll see hundreds of projects with thousands of interesting ideas that never get any traction. CMSs are like restaurants – 90% of them fail without leaving a mark.

On the flip-side, the core of CMSs often have limitations on how much they can innovate because so many business, add-ons and side-projects depend on them being relatively stable.

Distributions, particularly done under the umbrella of the big 3 CMSs, seem to hit the sweet of spot of allowing innovation while still being able to reach a mass market.

Projects like Open Atrium in Drupal and Molajo in Joomla have the best  of both worlds because they immediately have a large audience share plus the freedom to innovate.

Personally, I’d love to see Molajo capitalize on those advantages and carry through on it’s plan to innovate in terms of Joomla’s usability.

Less Confusion

Because Drupal is further down this track, I’ve really had the chance to discover distributions through the eyes of students.

The basic concepts of Drupal such as nodes, user levels, themes, blocks are pretty easy to grasp for most people.

The two places they really get hung-up with in Drupal 6 are the admin area (the overwhelming number of configuration options) and above all: modules. Drupal is a set of building blocks, but it’s pretty intimidating to realise that even something as simple as a photo gallery needs to be set up using several modules, including Views, which is probably the most complex, important add-on in all the big 3 CMS. Not only do beginners need to research these modules and learn how to put them together, they need to do so without feedback or reviews on http://drupal.org/project/modules. It’s tough.

So having a pre-packaged distribution where experts have already chosen and combined the best modules makes a lot of sense.

Makes More Sense to Decision Makers

From the people I’ve spoken with, having distributions directly targeted to performance (Pressflow), Intranets (Open Atrium) and universities (Open Scholar) is a big selling point. Rather than needing to take a general concept such as Drupal and sell them on the potential, they say it’s much easier to present a product which is already configured for their needs.

They can sell the bacon, not just the sizzle.

The Cons of Distributions

More Confusion

I did just mention “less confusion” above, right? Well, it depends on the situation. I’ve come across people who have been through a long evaluation process of choosing Drupal and then they find themselves immediately confronted with another question … which Drupal? Several students mentioned that finding and deciding on the right distribution added another level of complexity to their project.

Less Documentation

We’ve already talked about the pros and cons of admin themes several times on this blog. The major downside is that most of the documentation, videos and books out there immediately become useless. Add in a whole new set of modules and you really are in a situation where you’re left to rely on the documentation of that distribution.

Documentation is hit-and-miss at the best of times for Open Source projects but for the main versions of Drupal, Joomla and WordPress, there’s certainly no shortage. People are so keen to get Drupal 7 books at the door that one publisher had planned to release there’s in April 2010 and several more out already, even though the project just hit beta.

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Over to You

What do you think? What are the advantages and disadvantages of distributions? Would you use them for your clients?

 

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