I really want to attend DrupalCon Chicago, which kicks off in just over 4 weeks. The problem is that since DrupalCon Copenhagen business has been pretty quiet and so I find that I can't really afford to fund it myself. After deciding I had to be in Chicago I got creative about how to make it happen. The buy a line project was born.
Instead of just asking people to kick in some cash to get me to Chicago, I felt it was only right to earn my keep. People can buy a line of code, or sentence of documentation for Drupal. All code and docs created will be contributed to drupal.org. Buyers are free to specify where the lines are to be contributed, or leave me to decide. I'm looking forward to writing some of the lines on the Drupal Bus.
Recently I have been working on porting the UUID module to Drupal 7. I hope to get this module into Drupal 8 core. To make this happen I have to be in Chicago! Improvements to UUID will mean that content can be packaged up and moved around like configuration can be using the Features module.
Please consider buying a line (or more) to help get this Drupal geek to Chicago. This is a great way of getting a module ported to Drupal 7, better documentation or even just a bug fixed. I have a decent track record of contributing to the project.
When deciding how many lines to buy, think about this - if I don't make it to Chicago, who will lock themselves out of their hotel room at 4am - naked!
I managed to catch up with a bunch of people. The relaxed feel about the event was great. Most conferences I've attended recently have either been large or I've helped organise them, this time I could relax and enjoy.
On the Saturday I presented Building Distributions with Drupal 7, which had a small turn out as I was up against Josh Koenig and his Pantheon presentation. My presentation was hampered by lack of internet connectivity, but I think it went well. I used Lego, Duplo and Quatro blocks to demonstrate the evolution of Drupal distros.
Saturday night involved a pub crawl with various DDU and LCA folks. The highlight of the crawl was the Mana Bar, which is a gamers bar, that has a good collection of retro consoles and games on display.
I spent a fair bit of Sunday in the hallway track. I discussed the D7 port of UUID with Dries, which helped confirm the direction I was heading with it. Several people wanted to discuss my $100 Drupal site blog series. I also gave my Horizontally Scaling Drupal presentation, which was very well attended. Unfortunately due to people torrenting there was no usable internet access for my presentation. I had to skip the post event BBQ so I could fly back to Melbourne.
The lack of mobile signal and wifi made it frustrating to prepare and present. I would have liked to have seen an inclusive social event organised on the Saturday night. Overall I really enjoyed DDU and the organisers are to be congratulated. The vegetarian food options were excellent.
Thanks for Four Kitchens for funding me to get to DDU. I have just started contracting with them, so I really appreciated them covering my trip.
When doing development work, from time to time it is handy to be able to look up documentation. Bookmarking manuals is handy, but often you still need to search for the function you're after. Firefox, and possibly other browsers (not Chrome or Chromium), allows you to setup a keyword bookmark linked to a search.
I've setup a few search bookmarks for development resources. This is how I've done it:
- Select Bookmarks > Organise Bookmarks... from the menu.
- Right click on the bookmarks menu (or any folder) on the left pane
- Select New Bookmark... from the context menu
Fill in the information for the bookmark, the import piece is the keyword, that will allow us to search.
- Click save and return to the browser
Now when we want to search the Drupal 7 API, we can just type "dapi Now we should see the appropriate page from the Drupal API documentation. The same method can be used for other PHP web app developer resources, here are some which I'm using. I could have implemented this using OpenSearch plugins, but that requires changing the search provider everytime I want to look for something. By using keyword bookmarks I just type the keyword and the search term into the location bar. Feel free to share your keyword bookmarks in the comments.
PHP Manual - http://php.net/%s
MySQL 5.1 Manual - http://search.mysql.com/search/query/search?q=%s&group=refman-51&search_...
HTML 4 Elements from W3Schools - http://www.w3schools.com/tags/tag_%s.asp
CSS Reference from SitePoint - http://reference.sitepoint.com/css/%s
jQuery API - http://api.jquery.com/?s=%s
Now we should see the appropriate page from the Drupal API documentation.
The same method can be used for other PHP web app developer resources, here are some which I'm using.
I could have implemented this using OpenSearch plugins, but that requires changing the search provider everytime I want to look for something. By using keyword bookmarks I just type the keyword and the search term into the location bar.
Feel free to share your keyword bookmarks in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who read the posts in my $100 Drupal site series. Today I will be responding to some of the points people have raised in comments and via email as well as adding a few closing comments.
Some have suggested that the only way to make a venture like this work is to work for a few dollars an hour. I completely disagree with that! If you are building every project from scratch and only charging your clients 100USD, you will be working for peanuts, but I'm not advocating that model. I'm encouraging people to rethink how they manage their development workflow. Although there are initial costs in learning new tools, over time you will end up spending less time on site builds and so increase your profits.
$100 is too Cheap
I agree that 100USD is very cheap for a high quality Drupal site and in most western markets it is probably too cheap. Sure you can do it and make the profit on the margin, but you have to sell a lot of sites to recover your initial investment. The "$100 Website" can be a useful sales pitch. Don't charge 100USD per site if the market will happily pay 5 or 10 times that. It doesn't matter if you are charging 10USD per site or 250kUSD per site, the same basic rules apply - understand your client's requirements and know the market.
What Does the Competition Offer?
Investigate what the competition is offering. There is a large market for hosted CMSes these days, go see what some of them are doing. What do you think they are doing right? What do you think they lack or could do better? A quick list of services I'd recommend you check out are (in alphabetical order):
I'd recommend spending some time searching for hosted CMS solutions. Sign up for the free or trial services and see what they're like.
Do I Need a lot of Money to do this?
Although in the Resources and Infrastructure post I outlined the positions I thought your team needed to make this happen, it wasn't a list of must haves. You need to figure out what works with you. It would be possible for a couple of switched on people to do this as a basement startup, so long as you have the skills and connections to get everything you need in place. If you can only drive a server using cPanel, then you need to find a sysadmin. If you can't even draw stick figures, then you will need to hire a designer. Your staffing costs are really going to dictate how much money you will need to get this up off the ground.
Why did you do this?
I wanted to put the idea out there. I wanted to see how people would react. It wasn't that long ago that people could build a profitable business selling websites built using Dreamweaver, and some people still do, but the market is changing, so too is the Drupal market.
For some time I have been thinking about how you'd develop a low cost Drupal based hosted CMS solution. There are 2 main reasons why I haven't just gone and built it already. The primary reason is I hate being on call and running a hosting service such as this requires me to never be out of range of a 3G tower for more than 30 minutes, customers won't accept that the server crashed 15 minutes after I hoped on a flight to the US or Europe. Secondly building such a solution takes time and I have a family to feed, I don't think my landlord would cop me not paying the rent until this thing started to turn a buck.
I have very consciously put enough information into this series to allow someone to head off in the right direction. At the same time I've held back on some of my execution specifics, because if I was to go build something like this I want to have some things which make my service unique.
I was hoping to present a session at DrupalCon Chicago on this topic, but I found out yesterday that my proposal hasn't been accepted. As I understand it, there will be a small number of sessions announced sometime in the next 2 weeks, but I'm not holding out much hope of being selected then. There is always London.
Can you Build this for me? / I need Help!
If you are serious about building a service like this or using some of the tools I've discussed, I'd be happy to talk to you. I have about a decade's worth of experience running my own business and developing web apps. I have offered training and consulting around many of the topics I have discussed in this series.
So neither of us waste our time, I will be up front about how I see things working on my end. I expect to be paid for my time, I'm happy to take some equity, but I've got bills to pay. I have put a lot of thought and energy into this, so I am very unlikely to sign a contract which gives you ownership of my IP. If you can live with the above, then please contact me.
It didn't Work for me
Sorry that just the way things go in business sometimes. Not everything I've tried over the years has worked either. Learn from the failure and try again, maybe doing something completely different.
Disclaimer: Don't sue me if this doesn't work out, do your own research and seek professional advice before acting on anything on this site.
Will you Write More on these Topics?
Maybe. I will probably turn some of the content from Horizontally Scaling Drupal workshops and talks into blog posts, and possibly a book. I tend to blog when I feel passionate about something. Subscribe to my RSS feed, or follow me on twitter to find out what I'm working on.
In the mean time, I'd recommend you subscribe to the following blogs / follow these people on twitter:
- Development Seed / @developmentseed
The team who have provided so many of the tools that have made all of this possible
- Dries Buytaert / @dries
The one who started it all
- Emma Jane Hogbin / @emmajanedotnet
Drupal Themer and advocate of using Drupal for small business
- Mogdesign / @mogdesign_eu
A Drupal shop that turn out great work and get the "Aegir workflow"
- Miguel Jacq / @migueljacq
Aegir Core developer and producer of awesome Aegir screencasts
- Planet Drupal / @drupalplanet
Where all the cool Drupal blog posts end up
- DRUPLEH / @drupleh
Never take yourself too seriously
I welcome comments, feel free to leave one below.
During this series on creating a profitable business around the concept of building Drupal sites for $100 I have attempted to demonstrate that there is a viable business model here. I don't believe it is a business that will suit everyone and nor do I believe every developer will want to work on such a project, but for some this will be an excellent opportunity. Today I will cover some of the things that I think you should consider before investing too much in this business model. Some of this is just basic business sense which isn't specific to this project.
Dollars and Sense
Oscar Wilde once wrote "
What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing". If you want to build this type of business, be frugal, but not a Scrooge. Generally a good developer will cost you more in salary than an average one, but the good developer will work out cheaper in the longer term. A similar thing goes for hosting, avoid Virtuozzo based VPS and look for someone offering the more expensive Xen or KVM based platforms, they are less likely to oversell capacity. At the same time keep an eye on the markets you are buying services in to ensure you are always getting the best value for money.
Recognise when you have to pay for something. Spending a little now might save you a lot in the long run.
In House vs Outsourcing
It makes sense to outsource some services, for example email. You want to focus on offering a high quality Drupal driven SaaS, having to support email too is a lot of hassle, use Google Apps for Domains or similar service.
Some things are better performed in house, such as design and themeing. There are businesses around who offer cheap PSD to Drupal theme conversion services, but these services usually cut corners which will cost you more in the longer term. Having someone in house means that they can learn from others on your team and do things the right way for your business.
Although the theme of this series is "$100 Drupal site", that doesn't mean every site you sell should be $100. You need to research your target market/s and make sure you are pricing your product/s appropriately. I would seriously consider offering 3 levels of service, each level should offer more options, bandwidth and storage. Some customers will be drawn by the initial $100 price tag, but when they see the feature list, the $250 product might be more appealing. Give customers a sense of choice.
Options and Up Selling
Find opportunities to sell extras to your clients. Not everything needs to be included in the base level package. I discussed enhanced support offering in my previous post, which could provide additional revenue.
Most of the clients who sign up for this service will have no interest in paying for a custom theme and/or development, but once you have them through the door you have more chance of selling such extras to them. Find the higher traffic clients and connect with them, see if they want more. The price jump is likely to be significant, but if they can see value in it, they may pay for it.
Domain names is a great opportunity to generate extra revenue. By default customers should get biz-name.example.net, and charge them a fee if they want to use another domain, such as mybiz.com. Most people know that GoDaddy sells domains for around 10USD, while Melbourne IT charge around 75USD. Sign up for a reseller account with one of various domain registrars and offer customers domains directly from your service. If a customer brings their own domain charge them a fee, if they buy the domain through you advertise that you waive the setup fee, but then include it in the pricing of the domain name.
Seek out partners. If you can find a company which offers a service which is a good fit with your business, work out a deal with them. Be it bulk licensing, reseller, commissions, find something that works for both parties. Your customers can benefit from such arrangements too.
Previously I mentioned that you will be benefiting from the great work of the Drupal community, you should acknowledge this benefit by contributing back to the community where it is appropriate. Not only does this help build the profile of your business in the community, it can reduce your maintenance workload. For example if you have a patch which fixes a bug or adds generically useful functionality to a module, push it back up stream, so you don't have to maintain the patch. Consider having a budget for sponsoring community events to help build good will.
Allow customers to export their site and go host it with someone else. This might sound counter intuitive, but if they are just a base package customer and you are hosting them, they have paid you. If they are only 2 months into 12 month service, which should be non refundable, then let them take their site, that frees up server resources. It is also the ethical thing to do, don't make your money because people are locked into your service, they will eventually resent you for it.
Drupal itself is licensed under the terms of the GPLv2 (or later) with some contrib modules depending on GPL compatible code. If you are contributing code back to drupal.org it must be under the terms of the GPLv2. You could choose to offer the non PHP parts of your code under CC-BY with an attribution in the footer, you could release your features under the terms of the AGPLv3. These are business decisions you must make in the context of the rest of your business.
Pay for Expert Advice
There are times when you need an expert. Get a lawyer to check your Terms of Service and any significant contracts. Use an accountant to get your financial affairs right from the start. If your servers are performing poorly and your Sys Admin can't work it out, pay for someone who can. Sometimes it is better to pay for something than trying to learn how to do it yourself.
Blog about your experiences, share the knowledge. I'm not advocating putting your entire business plan online, but discuss problems you've solved, code you've created so others can benefit from your experiences. Don't be afraid to share, Scott Adams sums this up perfectly "
Ideas are worthless. Execution is everything". I have nothing to fear in publishing this blog series, after all it is just my ideas.
This is the last substantial post in this series. I have tried to break it up into digestible chunks. Thanks for taking the time to read my posts and I welcome any comments you may have.
I plan to let things sit for a few days. Over the weekend I plan to review the comments posted and emails received as part of preparing a summary response and conclusion. Anything else I think of will get tacked onto that post.
Through out this series, the cost of labour has been identified as one of the biggest risks for this project. As most people who have run a tech business know, support can turn into a massive black hole of wasted time. Today we will look at how to manage support in a way that helps you avoid any direct customer contact for support.
Documentation and Online Resources
People like documentation, or even better videos, to walk them through a process. Invest the time up front to create documentation to help your customers use your platform. Only offer a single admin theme, such as Root Candy or Rubik or something you create yourself, this way the UI remains consistent and users are less likely to get confused. When developing the documentation, assume the user has no Drupal experience and talk in generic lay person terms, not "Drupal babble". You should include links in the Drupal interface back to your help system, so people can access contextually appropriate help. Consider having a FAQ for each discrete piece of functionality so people can get some idea of what it does without having to play with it for half an hour.
A lot of the documentation you generate will be specific to your business and only available to your paying customers, but some of it will have generic value to the Drupal community. For the more generally useful content, publish it in a public place, such as your blog, company website or contribute it to the appropriate section of the documentation on drupal.org. You will be benefiting greatly from the work of the Drupal community, you should be looking for opportunities to give something back.
The flexibility of Drupal means that you should be able to build a documentation system that suits your needs. You probably want to start by extending the book module.
From time to time people won't be able to find what they need using your online documentation. If you have a solid user base, a forum can be a good way of crowd sourcing your support resources. This doesn't mean you can just put up a forum and hope that your users will all help each other solve their problems, you need to be in there responding in a timely manner too. If you have some users who are contributing regularly in the forums, acknowledge that in their profile and even offer them some free time on the service - after all they're saving you money.
Some users will want a more personalised approach to support. This will most likely involve email. When a user emails support directly, they will expect a timely response. This has the potential to add significant costs to your business, especially if you have a global customer base. One way to deal with this additional cost is to charge for it, offer packages of X incidents per month for Y dollars and put them on recurring billing. Most customers will forget to remove the recurring billing, but stop asking questions once they are up and running. There are various support systems available, I'll leave you to find the one which works best for you.
Chat and Telephone Support
Real time support channels such as chat or telephone can really eat into your bottom line. You need to have people sitting there waiting to take the "call", whatever time the customer contacts you and they may not call for a day. Accents and cultural issues can make it difficult to communicate effectively via the telephone. I would avoid offering any telephone support to customers.
A mailing list can be an effective way of communicating with your users. I'm not suggesting something like MailMan or Google Groups, I am talking about a one way announcement list. Check out MailChimp or Campaign Monitor to take care of this for you. Each month send out a newsletter with some useful tips, new features or announce other improvements to the service. Consider including case studies in the newsletter, which you can also feature on your sales site.
The cheapest way to build a business is through referrals or word of mouth. You need to look after your customers, so they become your sales team. Manage their expectations in terms of the support you offer them. Don't be afraid to cut a time sink loose, apologise, give them a refund and encourage them to find another solution. Support vampires can cost you a lot more than they're worth.
We are almost in the home stretch now. In the next post I will cover some of the business considerations in terms of what you offer to customer and how to upsell. The final post in the series will come later this week and will be a summary of the previous posts.
So far in this series we have covered a potential target market and business plan, resources and infrastructure and the tools required to deliver Drupal sites with a sale price of $100 per site. In this post I'll be covering some of the considerations when building Drupal platforms or distributions.
The sites which customers deploy will need to be based on a custom Drupal distribution or "distro". The distro should be modular and primarily driven by Features.
Customers shouldn't have to know anything about administering Drupal when they first buy their site. A customer should be able to turn functionality on and off as they want, through a simple user interface.
The platform should contain a good collection of Features. The following list is an example of what you might offer customers:
- Contact Form
- Image Gallery
- "Static" Pages
- Mailing Lists
- Social Network Integration
- Office / Store Locations
- Staff Profiles
When developing your list of things to include in the site, think in terms of functionality a small business would want, not what modules you should be using. The list of modules should be derived from the functionality, not the other way around.
As the features included in the platform will be modular and generically useful, you should consider releasing them publicly, via your own features server or drupal.org as full modules.
On top of the features listed above you will probably need to include some custom glue code to enhance the user experience. In my first post in this series I discussed the target audience not having high level computer skills, so the user interface should take this into account. Some of the language might need to be changed or form options modified to use sane defaults and some might even be hidden from the user.
As each server may have hundreds or even thousands of sites running on it, security will be an important consideration. Like with all servers you should ensure it is properly locked down and only running the services you need. Apache should be configured to block access to most things except index.php and relevant client side files (images, css, js) and the files directory. At the Drupal level you should make sure that things like the PHP module aren't enabled and secure coding practices are adhered to. The user account given to your customer shouldn't be user 1, they should be user 2, with restricted permissions that only gives them access to what they need.
I strongly recommend that you read Cracking Drupal by Greg Knaddison.
Sales and Support
In order to attract customers you will need a site to promote the service and allow customers to sign up and hand over their credit card details. Drupal now offers 3 ecommerce projects, Drupal e-Commerce, Drupal Commerce and ubercart, you should investigate which of these best suits your needs. The sales system will need some custom code to hook into Aegir, which will be managing the actual site deployments. The sales and support platform/s should be managed in a similar manner to the customer sites.
Once you have paying customers, you will also need to provide them with some resources such as detailed documentation, video walk throughs, forums and possibly a ticketing system. This site can either be part of the sales site or a separate site. In the next instalment I'll cover support in more detail.
We need to keep the whole process very automated, CPU cycles are a lot cheaper than workers. Building and deploying platforms should involve a few clicks or tweaking a configuration file. For example platforms could be built as Debian (or Ubuntu) packages (aka debs) using an automated build process that runs a test suite against the code base before building a deb. The debs could then be deployed using puppet and a post installation script can notify Aegir that it has been installed successfully. The whole process could involve very little human interaction. Migrating client sites to upgraded platforms could also be automated using a simple script which adds a migrate task for each site.
Now that we have the service almost ready to go, we should look into how we are going to get customers to part with their cash and how we will support them once they have paid.
In the previous instalment of my $100 Drupal site series I covered resources and infrastructure. In this post I will be covering the development tools I think you need in order to build and sell Drupal sites at the $100 price point. Given that Drupal 7 is close to release, it is assumed that the sites will be built using D7. I don't believe that it is smart to invest heavily in Drupal 6 for new long term projects, given D8 could be out in 18 months and D6 would then be unsupported.
You are going to need a version control system for storing all of the code. There are many different version control systems available, but I think git is the most flexible and powerful option. Git allows for distributed development, offline commits and best of all, Drupal is switching to git. Gitorious is an open source clone of github which allows you to browse your git repository and manage integration of code from all of your developers.
If you are new to git I strongly recommend you get a dead tree copy of the book Pro Git.
Drush is the DRUpal SHell, a command line interface for Drupal. It is an invaluable tool for developing and maintaining Drupal sites. Simple things like running "drush cc all" to clear all caches when developing sites, through to being able to sync databases from one server to another, or one continent to another, save many hours. Even if you're only running a handful of sites, you should have drush installed on all of your servers.
There are a few modules which you should be using if you want to be able to create polished Drupal based platforms. My list includes:
Features module allows developers to package up configuration as a Drupal module, including access to all the normal hooks that a module can implement. Feature is version control friendly and includes the ability to reset to a known good state, either via the Drupal web GUI or by using drush on the command line.
Strongarm exports values from Drupal's variables table, allowing sane defaults to be set. This means your site will always be configured the way you want it to be.
Context allows you to manage contextual conditions and reactions for different portions of your site. It gives you control over displaying blocks,hierarchy of breadcrumbs, themes and other context sensitive configuration options.
Admin is a menu module which makes it quick and easy to access items. (Disclaimer: I co-maintain the module)
Coder can perform static analysis of your code to ensure it is secure and complies with the Drupal coding standards. The module can also be used to upgrade code from one major version of Drupal to the next.
Devel is a collection of tools to help developers create Drupal sites and modules. Devel integrates with Admin to provide easy access to the devel actions.
WYSIWYG provides a pluggable framework for integrating rich text editors into a Drupal site. Given the target market for the $100 sites, we can't expect our users to hand craft HTML, they'll be expecting "something like Word".
Skinr provides a way for end users to apply predefined CSS to designated parts of a site, without the user having to understand CSS.
When most people install Drupal for the first time they are blissfully unaware that they are using an installation profile. An installation profile sets out a base configuration for a site that is installed by Drupal. Until recently installation profiles contained a list of modules to install and a large chunk of hand crafted PHP code which setup all the configuration for a site. These days most of the configuration can live in Features and so an installation profile can be very lightweight. It is worth reviewing some of the more popular installation profiles, such as Open Atrium, Managing News or Drupal Commons, for inspiration. Installation profiles have changed a lot in Drupal 7, so you will need to port the ideas to the new way of doing things.
Drush Make is a tool for building Drupal platforms. Drush Make allows developers to specify all the components of their site in a text file, then use the command line tool to "make" the site. It is possible to specify a version of Drupal core (including Pressflow), contrib modules and themes, third party components, patches and external libraries.
Aegir is a Drupal site deployment and management tool built using a collection of Drupal modules. With Aeigr you can manage your DNS, http (web) and database servers from a common UI. It is possible to move a bunch of sites from one server to another in a matter of minutes, not hours and the downtime will be measured in seconds. When security fixes are released, testing can involve a few minutes of work then a few more clicks to deploy it to all of your sites.
Instead of me explaining development workflows, I'll defer to Miguel Jacq (aka mig5). Miguel's blog post entitled "Drupal deployments & workflows with version control, drush_make, and Aegir" is considered by many to be the key work on modern Drupal development workflows.
Many of the tools I've covered today should be in your Drupal developer's tool bag. My next post will cover what I think are the important considerations in building the platforms for the service.
In my previous post in this series on the $100 Drupal site I outlined a possible target market and set out why I thought very low cost sites could be a viable business model. Today I will cover the resources and infrastructure you'd need to consider to build such a service.
I am not proposing that the business is built on the premise of working for $5 per hour to build new sites for each client. The whole business should be automated. There should be no need for human interaction to close the sale and deploy the site. As soon as a worker is added to the process costs start to rise. At the same time we need some skilled professionals to build the platform and the cookie cutters.
Building a very basic Drupal site doesn't involve that much skill, it is possible for someone to signup with a web host that uses an automated installer script, such as Fantastico, and then start building a site using stock Drupal core. Building great Drupal sites takes skills and knowledge. In order to build modular Drupal sites that can be used as part of installation profiles and deployed using automated processes, you will need someone who knows Drupal pretty well. The person driving development of the project should be passionate about Drupal as a platform. They are likely to have an opinion on the Drupal specific religious wars - Panels vs Context, CKEditor vs tinyMCE, which Slideshow / Carousel module to use etc.
Most competent PHP developers can be taught how to develop for Drupal. A second, junior, developer can be used to do a lot of the build work. They can start being a "click monkey" developer and as their skills grow they can get their hands dirty writing glue modules and patches. This person should be good at driving the Drupal GUI and working with contrib.
Designer / Themer
Although customers will only be paying $100 for their site, they won't be very impressed if they can only use Garland as their theme. They will expect a choice of themes. The themes should be designed from the ground up to be flexible Drupal themes. The designer should have experience creating designs that will be come Drupal themes. They should understand flexible regions, module themeing and how the Color module can be used to provide control to the user over their theme. Ideally the designer should be able to craft HTML and CSS, and even perform basic Drupal themeing.
Even though the plan is to keep costs low, it doesn't make sense to run the $100 sites on cheap shared hosting. You need to spend money on your own solid hosting infrastructure, and if you have your own hosting infrastructure you'll need someone to manage it. The sys admin will be responsible for keeping everything running, adding new servers, testing backups etc.
You will need a system administrator who has some experience with administering LAMP servers, previous Drupal experience is a big plus. You want someone in this role who hates downtime.
One of the assumptions for this project is that 95% of the sites will have less than 50 page views per day. At first there will be very little traffic for the sites, so you can start off pretty small, but as the business grows you need to have a plan in place to handle that growth.
I wouldn't recommend spending a lot of money on buying servers outright and putting them in a data centre. Start off with some virtual machines from a cloud hosting provider, such as slicehost, linode, rackspace cloud or amazon AWS (if you don't care about liberty). By using cloud hosting providers you can scale your infrastructure up as you need.
To get started you will probably need 3 production virtual machines, one for serving up content, one for the db and one for search using Apache Solr. Each of the VMs should have 1G of RAM and be located in the same data centre with the same hosting company. When things start to grow you can scale up the VMs as you need and even add more servers. Each time you scale things you will also have to retune your configuration. An opcode cache such as APC or xcache will allow you to serve more requests on the same hardware. You should include some kind of monitoring service such as nagios or zabbix to make sure things are running as you want.
Once you have more than a handful of machines to manage, you will want a centralised configuration management tool. This will allow you to add new servers and have them configured as you want them with no (or very little) human intervention. I would recommend puppet for this job. Given the effort involved in retro fitting puppet in an existing environment, it will be easier to add it from the start. You may want to consider using libcloud to even handle the deployment of the VMs too.
To ensure everything can be tested properly before deployment, you should seriously consider having a replicated testing environment. Instead of having 3 more VMs, you can just run up a Linux box with 4G RAM and a relatively modern CPU and run 3 VMs on it using KVM or Xen.
Now we have the business plan, the market, the team and servers in place, it is time to start looking at some of the tools we'll be using to make all of this possible. The next post in this $100 Drupal site series will cover the tools needed to build a sustainable platform for the business.
In late October Gdzine posed the question "$100 CMS web site feasible? What do you think?" on LinkedIn, and the question was also posted on groups.drupal.org. These posts lead to lengthy discussion threads. Some people accused Gdzine of trolling and others claimed that it wasn't possible, but a few of us argued it was possible to build a Drupal site for $100.
Over the next week or so I'll be blogging how I would go about delivering $100 Drupal sites. $100 is in United States Dollars. I won't be providing a complete blueprint, but there should be enough information to help get you started.
I have some experience building large numbers of production sites using Drupal for a small price per site. In 2009 I built, deployed and managed 2086 sites for a European client. For most of this year I have been offering training and consulting around some of the tools and techniques this blog series will cover.
Is it Feasible?
Several companies already offer low cost Drupal site solutions. Acquia's Drupal Gardens is probably the most well known cheap Drupal site building service with its freemium model. Wedful offers a Drupal based site for couples getting married for only 95USD for the first year, then 25USD every following year including hosting. Spoon Media's Pagebuild service offers a customised Drupal platform for 30USD per month. I am sure there are others operating in the same space. wordpress.com offers a similar service using WordPress. I have no idea how financially viable these businesses are, but I think it is safe to assume that they've done some research and planning to get to this point.
These services all rely on making their money on the turnover rather than the margin. Most consultants, myself included, make our money by charging a good hourly rate, but we only get paid for the time we work. These services rely on investing up front then waiting for the long tail revenue. For example if you invest 50,000USD up front into building the service, then you have to sell 500 sites just to break even.
In order to make these services viable, you have to target a particular market segment. Customers for a $100 site are likely to be "mum and dad" businesses, they don't have a lot of money to spend and are also unlikely to have a lot knowledge about the web. A lot of the customers are likely to think "the internet" is that blue e on their desktop or facebook. I know of several small businesses who think that Yellow Pages advertising is not giving the return on investment they want, but can't afford 1500-2000USD for a decent quality brochure site. These are the people this service should be seeking to attract.
Most Drupal developers aspire to work for switched on clients who want high quality sites. Working with well known brands is always a bonus. No one is really going to be interested in hearing about how you built the site for "Joe and Jo's Diner". There is still a lot of problem solving involved in building a service like this, but these problems are very different to those found in large scale site builds. Also many of the people seeking a $100 site are likely to be high needs clients who undervalue the skills involved in building a site.
All posts in this series will be tagged with "100 drupal site". In my next post I will cover what I think you need in terms of infrastructure and resources to make something like this work.