It's really a shame. Drupal Gardens has announced to its users that it's shutting down completely on August 1, and users need to move away from the service before it disappears.
It's a shame because Drupal Gardens was the only low-cost way to run a Drupal site with somebody else handling maintenance for you.
But it's not really a surprise.
The Economics of Cheap Hosting
These days, servers are commodities. Disk space is cheap. Bandwidth doesn't cost that much unless you're doing video or get extremely popular. If you just put up a few static web pages, the cost is extremely minimal -- pennies a month -- which means that "cheap" hosts can do well charging you a few dollars a month.
But... Change out those HTML files for a content management system, a blogging platform, or anything that lets you go change content on your site without needing to actually know HTML, and there's a big, big, hidden cost -- the cost of keeping attackers from taking over your site.
The web is a nasty place. If you can log in to a site and change content, so can attackers, if they can find a way in. And... they do find ways in, all the time. It's a constant race to keep sites secure and easy for their owners to manage, while keeping the bad guys out.
"Cheap" hosts provide all sorts of easy installation options for Drupal, WordPress, and many other platforms -- but they leave it entirely up to you to keep those platforms up-to-date. And while all these platforms have mechanisms for keeping their platforms up-to-date, it's an extremely challenging problem to apply updates without stuff breaking, especially once you've started installing 3rd party add-ons that may depend on code not changing in substantial ways.
Maintenance is the big cost of running any website that is easy to update. No "Cheap" host does this maintenance for you -- it's expensive to do it right.
But what about SquareSpace, Wix, Weebly, etc? They are inexpensive?
"Software as a Service" (SaaS) is hugely popular right now. These are all proprietary hosts, which means they own the entire platform, and you rent a small piece of it. They are able to amortize the costs of keeping their platform maintained across all of their users. But even so, I think they often offer their platforms to end users at a loss.
There's a saying in the tech world -- "if you get it for free, you're the product!" If you're using a free service, you're either getting a bunch of ads, or the service is selling your information to other companies for one reason or another.
If you are paying for a service, the real question is, are you paying enough for it to last? Is it sustainable? For platforms that are extremely well designed and run, it very well could be the case that you are paying enough for the service to sustain itself -- but there is such heated competition in this space that companies backed by venture capital are under a lot of pressure to "capture market share" and so they almost always price the service below their cost in an attempt to get you to use their platform, instead of somebody else's.
Even the "successful" SaaS startups often get acquired by a larger player, and when this happens, the service often changes in ways its users don't like, and sometimes still get shut down. Google is famous for shutting off services because they only had a few million active users -- just not enough to be worth keeping going. At Google's scale, less than 10 million users can be considered "not successful" -- even though many SaaS services would be thrilled to get a few hundred thousand users.
What's different about Drupal Gardens (and WordPress.com)?
There is one huge difference between Drupal Gardens (and WordPress.com) compared to nearly all the other SaaS website builders: The code running DrupalGardens and WordPress is all open source, and so you can easily leave and run it on your own servers. That's something you just can't do on any of these low-cost proprietary SaaS platforms.
With Drupal Gardens, you can export your site and run it on pretty much any host that offers PHP and MySQL -- it's just a regular Drupal site. Same thing for WordPress.com sites -- you can export your content and run your own WordPress site without skipping a beat.
So with Drupal Gardens, the worst case has happened -- and there's a straightforward path to continue, you're not stranded. The one big thing that sucks is that now you have to take responsibility for doing your own maintenance, keeping the site up-to-date with security releases, because nobody at a "cheap" host will do this for you. And paying the actual cost of this will increase what you have to pay for the site substantially.
This is a risk you face with WordPress.com, and the SaaS providers, too -- with WordPress, you at least have the same way out -- with the SaaS providers, you're probably going to need to build a whole new site.
What about WordPress?
I don't have any inside knowledge here, but my guess is, similar economics apply to WordPress.com and Drupal Gardens. There's a big difference in scale here, in that WordPress.com has many more users than Drupal Gardens ever did, and there might be a bit more commitment on the part of Automattic (the company behind WordPress.com) to keep WordPress.com going as is, because it's a huge marketing value for the entire WordPress ecosystem.
Drupal Gardens was Acquia's attempt to do the same thing for Drupal, and that's why it's such a shame to see it go away -- it was a huge marketing benefit for Drupal to get users who could not afford to run and maintain their own Drupal sites, while providing an easy upgrade when they did reach that point.
So... Kudos to Automattic and WordPress.com for recognizing the value of a low-cost service for helping their ecosystem. I do truly hope they can continue -- I'm firmly convinced that the rash of SaaS providers and their entire short-term, venture-driven economics is harmful to the rest of the business community, and any open source-based offering hugely reduces the risk of catatrophe for your business.
Should I switch?
Well, any change of platforms incurs cost, and those development costs can be substantial. I like to take a longer term view of the value of a site to your business, and making sure you are budgeting appropriately to protect that asset.
If your website just isn't worth very much, you can probably put together a replacement relatively easily. Drupal may not be a good fit for you -- it may just cost too much to maintain for its value to your business.
Keep in mind two things though:
- You face the same risks with any platform change. If you go to any SaaS service, it could go away or change underneath you in ways that drive up your costs and no longer meet your needs. And this applies to WordPress.com as well, though as I mentioned there at least you have a way out.
- Drupal is growing in popularity for a reason: it can do extremely sophisticated things easily, that are much harder on other platforms. If you don't need anything special in a site, Drupal can do it but you may spend less getting there on other platforms. If you are managing any kind of data beyond blog posts and static web pages, you might find Drupal far more capable than other platforms -- you likely chose it for that reason in the first place!
What are my options if I want to stay on Drupal?
Acquia is steering people towards BlueHost for moving their sites, and they have decent documentation to help you make that move. But there's a huge difference between a Bluehost-hosted Drupal site and a Drupal Gardens site -- and that is that you are responsible for applying updates, maintaining backups, and everything else involved in running your site. There's a lot more to do than just log in and update your content.
If you neglect doing that work, you run the risk of getting hacked, losing data, hosting malware, or more. Drupal Gardens handled all this for you -- nobody else will do that for free, because it's a substantial cost. (Which is probably why Drupal Gardens is going away -- Acquia just did not see enough value from Drupal Gardens to justify the cost of doing all that work without charging sufficiently for it).
Freelock is in the site maintenance business, and if you have appropriate budget, we'd love to help. So here are the 4 options we can outline for moving forward:
- "Regular" hosting and maintenance. We provide a flat-rate maintenance plan that includes full testing of updates before they roll out to a production copy of your site. This is our main service offering, and we provide very inexpensive hosting if you want us to host it as well. (Note that hosting at this level requires a maintenance plan).
- Maintenance plan with site on your own server. We offer our maintenance plan for sites hosted elsewhere -- generally it's on a dedicated server or "virtual private server" that you host onsite or at a cloud provider. We also provide server maintenance if you need this as well.
- Freelock Shared Drupal hosting. This is our lowest-cost option that keeps your site safe. We do apply all updates, but we don't use our testing infrastructure for this -- which means things will break more often, you're responsible for fixing/working around broken features, and you don't get much of our attention -- this is basically the lowest rate we can offer that at least keeps your site secure, backed up, and running.
- Move to a basic host like Bluehost, and do your own maintenance. We do have customers who have hourly budget available with us, and they call on us when they need help with something. We're happy to assist on this basis, if you need a little extra, but need to keep your running costs down (as long as you're aware of the risks).
For any of these options, we will charge 3 hours at our regular rate to move your site from Drupal Gardens, wherever it's going.
Let us know if we can help!