Hosted Drupal Sites for Social Networks

Drupal is an open source CMS framework that can and has been used to build all kinds of web sites (including Obama’s www.whitehouse.gov). It can also be used to build educational sites with elements of social networking (see Drupal in Education and Bill Fitzgerald’s book Drupal for Education and e-Learning, Packt Publishing, 2008).

Having encouraged my students to use Drupal for Web Sites in Distinguished Teaching Fellow and colleague Tim Davies’ Micromouse Group project (reported in SALT 2009 [video]), and having recently used it myself to develop a platform for managing dissertation projects (explanatory blog post to follow), I can testify that, out of the box, building a web site in Drupal falls into the “some technical experience” required category.

However, if you have a modicum of technical skill and patience, Drupal can be used to build all kinds of web sites including single or group blogging sites like WordPress; wikis; photo, video or podcast sharing site; e-commerce; a Ning or an Elgg; or a even a Moodle (see Byron et al. Using Drupal, O’Reilly, 2008). So it is with interest that I noted the availability of two newly available in beta hosted Drupal offerings that claim to make the building of a Drupal site much easier.
The first of these to be announced is Drupal Gardens, a new service being offered by Aquia. The second is Buzzr, a service that was created by Lullabot, one of the premier Drupal site architects, support and training company, which was launched last week. Both might be worth a look if you like the idea of building a personal web site, discussion site, module web site, social network or other community site to support your teaching.
Drupal Gardens provides an ad-funded free site and unlimited plans are available from $19.95 a month. Buzzr seems to be aimed more at enterprises and prices appear to start at $30 per month per site but it does provide a 60 day free trial. Both make a great virtue of having all the tools you need to build all kinds of sites, with branding and theming available through an easy to use drag and drop interface.
Both offerings support export which means that you can build a site under a free or trial basis, and then export your how web host for self hosting. If you take this option you will need a web server which supports PHP and MySQL, or a web hosting service that gives you these features.
Drupal is certainly at the more technical end of the social-networking options available to fill the vacuum left by Ning. But it is certainly the most flexible and would be worth considering if you wanted to build something that is more than WordPress, or more than Elgg, or more than Moodle. It wouldn’t be my recommendation if your needs are covered by one of the other more focused platforms.
If you want to find out more about Drupal, Lullabot produces a podcast series that, though often a bit techie, regularly discusses the platform, its development and it’s applications. Drupal itself has an excellent community web site (drupal.org) with documentation, discussion and module sharing.

2 Comments

  1. Interesting. We're also looking at the possibilities of using Joomla

  2. Chris

    A couple of years ago, one or our Micromouse teams developed his team's website using Joomla. The others at the time, charlie 2006, bravo 2006, alpha 2006, and since, alpha 2007, bravo 2008, and foxtrot 2009, used Drupal. The same student went on to develop a site for a local charity in Joomla.

    It was three years ago, but the headline results were: Joomla gets a site on-line quicker and appears to be easier to administer and use. Drupal is more of a framework: you get more power, but you have to build it all yourself, it takes longer to get off the ground, and it's not completely transparent for end-users.

    Long term, Drupal has the larger community, a very professional core development team, and a very active plugin community. The Joomla community is smaller, the plugins less flexible and if you need to extend it, you probably have to turn to PHP earlier than you would in Drupal.

    I'd put my money on Drupal, but you'd need a bigger investment. Still there's always Drupal Gardens or Buzzr!

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