If Drupal is "free", what are professional Drupal development budgets based on?

With Drupal being an open source software and having such a great set of features right out-of-the-box, people may wonder what they pay for when going to an expert Drupal developer or shop for their Drupal install.

A good Drupal site may cost thousands of dollars. For an enterprise level site the budget may be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. What’s that all about? I thought Drupal was “free”. The following is a bit of explanation.

Most web site features are already built into Drupal and ready to be configured. With professional Drupal development you are not paying for features, but rather expertise. What expertise?

Professional Drupal developers and shops offer expertise in Drupal site:

  1. branding and visual design
  2. theming (to be defined below),
  3. feature integration,
  4. architecture,
  5. scaling,
  6. optimization,
  7. and security.

What are professional Drupal development budgets based on?

Not Just Features

As Drupal’s base install already has a large feature set which will meet many site’s needs, it is important to note that there are actually very little features lost or gained at budget levels past a certain point (the cost of install, setup, and deployment).  What budget levels do affect, that is, what is lost or gained are levels of feature integration (interaction) and design implementation (theming).


To meet real business branding and marketing objectives, companies need their professional visual design developed into Drupal in a way that effectively and successfully communicates their brand.

Applying a graphic design to a content management system like Drupal is called theming.  It’s not easy to do, and it’s what makes all the difference between a default Drupal install and an enterprise level brand site.  A large portion of the budget for an enterprise level Drupal site project will likely be in theming. Theming makes all the difference between an out-of-the-box Drupal install and a well branded, well designed site which differentiates brand.

Feature Integration & Architecture

Beyond the great feature set in core Drupal, there are a second tier of features offered in the form of thousands of third-party Drupal modules which plug into the Drupal system. Unlike the integrated look and feel of the core feature set, all third-party modules may not integrate perfectly and equally. This is for two reasons; although they likely follow the standard well defined Drupal API, 1) they may have been designed for their own specific use cases and 2) they were designed according to the developers own UI preferences. Not being in core Drupal may sometimes mean not having been through the rigorous testing against core Drupal design principles.

In any case, there are tons of great modules out there, which a site can use. These modules just need to be slightly tweaked to go from meeting 90% of a site’s specific needs to meeting 100%. Additionally, the third-party modules need to integrate well with the rest of the site’s features.

It’s this 90% to 100% factor and the level of integration between features that professional Drupal development addresses. These final qualitative touches may seem minor, however all professional companies want them. Delivering these final touches requires a good deal of special skill in Drupal site architecture and planning. It’s on these two factors that professional Drupal development will deliver significant difference between a mediocre web site and an excellent site which will meet its business and marketing objectives. [That means make money.]

Scaling, Optimization, and Security

A few short words on:

  1. scaling,
  2. optimization,
  3. and security.

To put it strongly, addressing these issues correctly is a must for any site, not just a Drupal site. If not you’ll risk failing at all your site’s objectives. If it does not scale it will not grow, if it is not optimized it will be too slow, and if you have a security problem then uh-oh; you’ll never recover.

The take away

If Drupal is “free”, what are professional Drupal development budgets based on?

  1. Not Just Features
  2. Theming
  3. Feature Integration & Architecture
  4. Scaling, Optimization, and Security

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