Australian government seeks agility with Drupal migration

Federal government begins shift to open source CMS, with, and a number of pioneer agencies first to migrate to open source-based Web platform

Australian government CTO John Sheridan.

Australian government CTO John Sheridan.

The first site has been migrated to the federal government's new Web platform, govCMS. is the first site to be shifted to new content management system, which is based on the open source Drupal project.

The website went live on the new platform yesterday, the Australian government chief technology officer, John Sheridan announced today.

The site, which receives some 2 million visitors per month, will be followed later this year by

"We used to run on some proprietary hardware, proprietary software in an outsourced facility," Sheridan said. "It worked strongly; it didn't crash or anything else like that. But we had a lot of difficulty in making it flexible," the CTO said.

Before the transition to Drupal, even simple updates could take a significant length of time, Sheridan said.

"It could take months to change a sentence on a Web page," Sheridan said. "A lot of it was hard coded... we've addressed that now using Drupal and govCMS."

Sheridan announced earlier this year that Drupal would be used to build govCMS. govCMS is available an as-a-service option for federal government agencies.

The service is delivered under a contract with Boston-headquartered firm Acquia. The contract is worth up to $24 million over four years for Acquia, depending on uptake of the service among government agencies.

govCMS is hosted in the Acquia Cloud, whose infrastructure is delivered Amazon's public cloud. govCMS will be delivered out of Amazon Web Services' Sydney region. The service is designed for "informational government websites" that don't deal with sensitive or personal data, Sheridan said.

"The trigger for us first [for the shift to govCMS] was when the government decided to move what was the 'my account' function on to become the myGov function hosted by [the Department of Human Service]; it gave us this opportunity to change things — to essentially move to a new way of doing things," the government CTO said.

"The first thing we decided to do... was to move to a new form of content-management system. We chose Drupal in order to do that."

Sheridan said the department wanted something that was open source. "But secondly, we wanted to use the sort of things that Drupal provided," he added.

"We wanted an extensive range of functionality. We wanted an extendable solution — so we didn't want to be tied into the sort of ways we were previously with a proprietary solution, where it was very hard to change things.

"We wanted something that had broad community support because that's an important part of the open source decision. It's not that we're going out to the community to run — clearly we're not doing that — but we did want broad community support."

The CTO said that an ecosystem of third party support was also important. "We didn't want just one organisation to be doing things for us, but we wanted to get help from a range of organisations... The structure of the work we have with Acquia relies on subcontractors if you like; Australian companies that can provide the sort of services that assist us in doing this work."

The department also wanted a platform with modular design, Sheridan added.

The first agency outside the Department of Finance to migrate to the platform will be the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority. Sheridan said ASADA will be one of three or four early adopters of the govCMS ahead of its general availability for agencies in February next year.

An analysis by the department has previously found that between 182 and 450 government websites could be transitioned to GovCMS over four years.

Migration to govCMS will not be mandatory for federal agencies. However, Sheridan said he believes the platform's cost effectiveness and ease of use will make it appealing.

Sites built using the Drupal-based system will out-of-the-box be compliant with federal Web guidelines, such as the WCAG 2.0 AA accessibility guidelines, and by default support responsive design to deal with varied device form factors.

"We think it provides a very useful service for agencies — one that addresses their need to have cost-effective web hosting [and] cost-effective content management," the CTO said.

"It will also help because of the way we are working this through: We are setting up the site with the Digital Service Standard, that's in draft at the moment, that the government has been developing. It will increase some standardisation; it will make things easier to use for people, so we'll improve that user experience very greatly as well as we progress the work...

"The advantage of using both Drupal and the public cloud is we think the notion of iterative change will be a useful, in that we'll be able to address that 'user experience' thing in a much better way than we have previously"

Sheridan said that shifting to the new platform has slashed the hosting costs of by "about 50 per cent".

"We're already realising savings because this [govCMS] is hosting and, the sites that I control, at a cheaper arrangement than we were paying previously."

Government has traditionally been a strong market for Drupal with more than 100 government sites at the federal, state and territory level using the platform, and a number of high profile overseas government sites, including, using the CMS.

govCMS is built on top of a Drupal distribution called 'aGov' built by Australian developers PreviousNext.

Drupal was created by Dries Buytaert, who is now the chief technology officer of Acquia.

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p

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