Drupal or Joomla? Picking a CMS

I’ve decided that a Content Management System (CMS) is the best foundation for my site. My next step is to choose the right one.

A great place to start is OpenSourceCMS, a site with user reviews of pretty much all the major players in the CMS space. What sets them apart is that they also provide live demos of each CMS they cover. You can actually log in to the front end or the back end of each one, reconfigure it, and make changes to your heart’s content. Every two hours they “reboot” and put everything back to a fresh install. It’s a great way to experiment without having to go through all the time and hassle of installing each system yourself.

Installing Drupal and Joomla on my host

In addition to testing each platform on OpenSourceCMS, I also wanted to install them myself to gauge how easy they would be to work with. Fortunately my hosting provider, Host Gator, uses a product called Fantastico which makes installing Drupal and Joomla as simple as a few mouse clicks. Both installed successfully with minimal effort. Purists abhor Fantastico, but for my purposes, it was a quick and easy way to get up and running quickly to be able to start kicking the tires of each product.

Installing Drupal and Joomla locally

As I’ll need a test environment before long, installing both products on my local machine is a good idea as well. Before I can do so, though, I need to install the LAMP (or WAMP) stack commonly used by Open Source software. LAMP enables my desktop to act like a web server, so that I can run everything from my local machine just as if it were running on my host.

For the curious, LAMP stands for Linux Apache MySQL PHP, and they are the four products that make up the foundation that Drupal, Joomla, and countless other products use. WAMP is essentially the same thing, but uses Windows as the operating system. Each product offers its own installer, and I got WAMP working on my local machine in no time.

The local installations of Drupal and Joomla were a bit more involved. I had to understand how to setup MySQL databases, and know the right answers to a number of questions, although the wizards that each product offered were pretty good. A complete novice would probably be overwhelmed, but I found it pretty much a snap to get both going quickly.

Picking the best CMS

At the end of the day, neither product stood out as being an obvious, dominant solution. Each had its own quirks and metaphors for organizing information and accomplishing tasks. As might be expected, there were a lot of differences between them. Like learning a language, becoming an expert in either platform would likely be a long process.

I spent a considerable amount of time in each platform creating content, changing around templates, activating modules, and doing my best to get a reasonable feel for what it would be like to work in each environment. I downloaded a number of add ons that were commonly available to assess how easy it would be add to their core functionality. I evaluated the search engine friendliness of the URL’s they generated. Above all, I tried to get a sense of how comfortable I felt in each product, understanding that I would likely be spending a lot of time with my final choice.

It seemed that Drupal had some incredible abilities to define different types of content. I could create a “job” object and define what attributes (title, country, description, etc.) it should contain. It was pretty powerful. I liked how everything was available from one page, without loading and reloading all the time. Adding and formatting content was easy. There were a large number of included modules that could be enabled, from forums to blogs to comments, so that I could extend its functionality quite easily. There’s a lot to like about Drupal.

Joomla draws a hard line between “front end” (what a visitor sees when visiting the site) and “back end” (what an administrator sees to control the site), which is more consistent with other applications I’ve used in the past. The types of content are essentially fixed, although there is a considerable variety in how you can display them. Joomla also comes with fewer bundled features than Drupal, which can be a good or a bad thing depending on your perspective. The number of unique add-ons, though was impressive. In fact, Joomla has a whole section of their site dedicated to Joomla extensions. It took some time to figure out the difference between a component, a module, and a mambot, but once that was clear, I was able to extend Joomla quite easily.

To make my decision, I finally decided to look at the community that surrounded and supported each product. As a test, I made a general inquiry into the support message boards of each product. My Joomla post received a number of helpful responses in a relatively short time frame. My Drupal post languished for days, and even after asking a second time for feedback, was still unanswered. As I’m going to be learning each system, and relying on others to help me, this experience ultimately swung the pendulum to Joomla.

With this key decision out of the way, my next task will be to choose the right mix of extensions to add to my base Joomla installation.

15 comments

  1. Very well considered and ultimate this decision you’ve come to reflects the very same journey that I’ve undertaken.

    Joomla ‘support’ through its vibrant, friendly community really shines through.

    My experience as the same as yours on the Drupal forums. Questions languished for days, were ignored … and eventually went off the radar. Asking the question a second time received the same indifference.

    Obviously, when you’re using an Open Source solution there is an element of self-help required but the destinction between Joomla and Drupal in that sense is a huge gulf. If Drupal was a commercial product it would be game set and match to Joomla and any other support focussed software environment.

    Given that it is an open source project, Drupal has a real problem in this area and needs to address how it delivers ‘support’ and how it looks after newbies. The tech heads can argue till they go blue in the face about relative software superiority or not cause in the end it is support that matters most to new adopters.

    Thumbs up to Joomla, thumbs down the Drupal and double thumbs up for this excellent piece revealing an experience I’ve also had.

    The Emporer’s New Clothes!

  2. Hi Jon,

    Your comments pretty much summed up my conclusions. It’s a pity, too, as Drupal seems to be a really solid platform that I’m sure has been used to develop some impressive sites.

    Bottom line, without a welcoming community to bring new users into the fold, I’m afraid Drupal’s future prospects are not nearly as promising as Joomla’s.

  3. Hi David,

    Try the IRC channels. The support room is always populated, and people there use to respond to questions and issues quickly.

    Cláudio

  4. Drupal does have a steep learning curve, sometimes the answers are in front of us though, we just have to search for them.

    I have spend some time on drupal myself after having spend a couple of years using other systems (and joomla) but I finally decided to stay with drupal (and don’t regret it). It was a tool though made mostly for developers in mind but its changing slowly trying to attract more regular users.

    Anyway I respect your choice on choosing joomla, if you ask me your answers went unanswered was just bad luck

    If anyone wants to give it a try (or a second try) please consider reading the handbooks http://drupal.org/handbooks before asking questions since drupal does have its own unique vocabulary of terms which are essential in understanding and working with drupal.

    For newbies I definetelly recommend the cookbook
    http://drupal.org/node/120612

  5. Thanks for the good comments everyone.

    I definitely agree that Drupal is a solid platform. While I have been very happy with Joomla and feel it was the right choice for my current project, I still plan to work on a Drupal site at some point in the future.

  6. I started out on the path for a PHP CMS just over a year ago, knowing nothing about PHP, MYSQL etc. Drupal seemed the most promising but I just couldn’t get my head around it. The learning curve was too steep. In my experience greater flexibility goes hand in hand with a more complicated user interface. Ultimately I think Drupal’s flexibility could be its downfall.

  7. what about mambo? i’ve been reading a lot of discussions regarding the merits and limitations of each of the three, but a lot of time the threads are one or two years old. i am happy to find this fresh discussion, and would want to hear opinions on joomla. the 2 most important aspects for the current project is SEO friendliness and end user easy of use.

  8. Both, Drupal and Joomla are really great. Both have strengths and flaws.
    Out of the box, joomla has a bit more features, and has shorter learning time.
    On the other site Drupal is more flexible and more powerfull. A lot of “big players” those days converting their sites to Drupal (for example http://www.observer.com/ – New York Observer)

  9. I can’t speak for Joomia, but I had in the past played with WordPress as my personal blogging app and recently have been working on the side for a small magazine to turn a Drupal install into a customized publishing system – following the New York Observer Model.

    So I have some ideas perspective of an end user to a developer. Basically, the potential and flexibility of drupal is amazing, but the usability lacks and as mentioned in some of the comments the learning curve is like smacking into a solid brick wall at full flight.

    That said, if you need customized solutions you have amazing tools like the content construction kit (CCK). Here I was able to define all the fields for the magazine’s story, edition and contributors. So we could get our content to behave exactly as we wanted. The CCK paradigm, combined with views (a module to retrieve information and present it) will depreciate a large number of current drupal modules as you can role your own, how ever you choose.

    However, this last point really belies the learning curve and the current leanings of drupal towards developers. At first I personally found the drupal forums lacking, but as I developed my drupal vocabulary and began to understand the drupal paradigms, I was better able to describe my problem and search for solutions. I am now easily able to find the information I need. Every problem I have had thus far has been described in detail somewhere in the forums – it was a matter of being proactive, rather than reactive.

    I suspect your question may have gone unanswered because it may have been asked before. This doesn’t forgive the negelect, but again belies the leanings towards developers.

    From the little bit of reading I have done on the Joomia/Drupal comparison, Joomia seems to focus on the user and as such may be a good choice for your project. However, if you are really planning to expand what you are doing in the future, and need a very flexible CMS you may still want to play with drupal. For me personally the real power is in the Content Construction Kit, and custom theming and views.

  10. I have just (literally) set up a simple website in the last few days using Drupal and a free template I found on the web. I have previously used Mambo (more or less same as Joomla) and was happy enough with it at the time. Now I’ve tried Drupal, I realise what I was missing! Mambo was clunky, temperamental and fairly convoluted to set up initially, and I never did persuade my users to add content of their own to it. In contrast, Drupal has been a breeze to set up, the internal logic is admirably straightforward, the interfaces are pretty easy to use and the add-on modules I’ve tried so far are excellent.

    But you’re right about the positive user support around Joomla and Mambo, although so far I haven’t has any problems with Drupal that I couldn’t fix myself or with a bit of help from the WWW.

    IBM compared Drupal and a few other CMS for a test project and went for Drupal. They explain why here:

    http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/ibm/osource/index.html

  11. I tried Joomla and Drupal. Finally i fell in love with Drupal. For me there was virtually no learning curve with it. Almost everything was more or less self-explanatory to me.
    Joomla / Mambo was (and is still) very strange in my opinion. I still don’t understand the internal logic of them and my impression of Joomla was: complicated, produces ugly html, unlogical, strange, inflexible; But that was only a first impression. I’am shure, that you can become lucky and productive with joomla, if you get the idea of this cms, but obviously my brain lacks the ability to become familiar with joomla. I think the choice of the right cms is a very personal one.

  12. In my limited experience to date I have actually been pleasantly surprised that Drupal is easier to use than I had been led to believe, and Joomla is actually harder than I had expected. It is not completely clear just how all the elements fit together whereas with Drupal I found a very clear description of the underlying design and understood much more quickly. I have found it difficult to get free well written tutorials and guidelines for Joomla, whereas with Drupal it is much easier. I am still undecided but starting to lean towards Drupal for most sites, and WordPress for Blogs. Maybe Joomla is stuck in the middle? It is pretty, seems great to start with but perhaps isn’t so great once you get into it. One problem though I has was with my Fantastico installation of Drupal as it gives SQL errors. This is not a Drupal problem so I will be manually installing on my real site.

    To help contribute to the discussions I did a review of a Webology survey and put a long ad-free blog on my personal blog.

    Hope you find it useful: http://owenmcnamara.com/2009/08/08/comparison-of-drupal-and-joomla/

    I think both Joomla and Drupal are great but each has strengths and weaknesses and perhaps each appeals to a slightly different type of web developer.

    Thanks for your article

    Owen

  13. I’m on a lot of open source project communities and the one thing I’ve noticed that may help you answer some questions as to your inquiries going unanswered is that the drupal forum is often treated like a linux forum, while a joomla forum is often treated like a corporate help box.

    Let me explain: with a corporate help box people are paid to answer the same questions over, and over, and over again. While the Joomla community members are not paid they are willing to answer the same questions over and over again (although as the forums get bigger and bigger i’m not sure how long that will last).

    In a linux forum people are definitely willing to help but you have to be willing to help yourself first. If the same questions has been answered elsewhere nobody is going to answer it again. That is what a search box is for. It also helps the forums stay a reasonable size with out having to much garbled information in one place or another.

    Now I’ll explaing why the linux approach is better for the searcher. If you want to help yourself and seek something out, you’ll search. If one forum topic is dedicated to your answer, everybody’s ideas, opinions and answers are in one place, you just have to read. However if the forum topic you are searching for has been answered in a million different places, you may not find the answer to your specific problem in one place, you may have to leaf through pages and pages of different forum posts to find what you need assuming you have the patience to do that and not get frustrated and walk away.

    So in conclusion I would never test a forum or community by asking a question and checking response time because every forum has people looking through posts. I would check a forum and a community by searching an example question and seeing if there are intelligent and accurate answers to what I’m looking for. In this way you can also test response time by seeing when each person posted there answer.