Kellan (I’m guessing) offers some insightful thoughts about hosting software for nonprofits. He raises two challenages facing folks who build nonprofit solutions using so-called ‘niche’ platforms like Zope or Rails… well, really anything other than PHP, right?
Challenge #1: “Qualified developers for ‘niche’ technologies.”
There are definitely a lotta folks out there who know a little PHP, and not as many (yet) who can hack around with Zope or Rails. But I’m not sure there are that many more people who can effectively make substantial changes to a complex PHP application such as Gallery, CivicSpace or Groundspring’s forthcoming Enterprise. And the great thing about frameworks like Rails or Zope is that they’re pretty easy to learn and generally well documented. Also, the points in the landscape to find help are well-lit and active.
But I definitely agree with the larger point that I think Kellan’s trying to make: the nonprofit tech community needs to do a much better job of teaching itself platforms that aren’t “lowest common denominator” so it can take advantage of the huge leverage that platforms like Zope and Rails offer. I think this is definitely solvable — in fact, ONE/Northwest has already started tackling our local piece of the puzzle by starting the Seattle Plone Users’ Group along with our friend Brian Gershon of RagingWeb. (You can join the email list here.)
But the “lowest common denominator” challenge is definitely real. In fact, I think it’s been one of the largest challenges that Groundspring’s ebase has faced over its life — there just aren’t tons of great FileMaker consultants out there.
Challenge #2) Low cost hosting.
Kellan correctly notes that low-cost PHP hosting is pretty ubiquitous these days while Rails hosting is “at the moment nearly non-existent” and Plone/Zope hosting is a bit more expensive than PHP hosting.
Couple thoughts here. First, the difference between $7/month ($96/year) for bottom-of-the-barrel PHP hosting and ~$15-25/month ($165-300/year) for solid Zope hosting isn’t gonna break the budgets of most nonprofits.
Second, I’d observe that Rails and Plone/Zope are in very different places, and it’s probably not fair to generalize about them both simultaneously. Zope and Plone have been around for a few years now, and while not every Tom/Dick/Harry web host supports them, there is a solid marketplace of hosting providers, like Zettai, Quintagroup, and others. I can’t speak to where the Rails hosting market is at, but I’ll take Kellan’s word for it.
If you’re really concerned about the “cost of experimentation” then I’d note that…
A) Installing a working Plone/Zope environment on a Windows or Mac box is literally a double-click. Great for experimentation at zero cost. PHP and Apache can’t touch that kind of ease of install for novices. (See comments. Thanks, John & Trey.)
B) If you’d rather have someone else host your sandbox for you, there are a few providers of free Zope/Plone hosting such as FreeZope and Objectis. Not too bad.
But again, I think Kellan’s right on the larger lesson: folks like Electric Embers, Community Bandwidth, et al. ought to think seriously about expanding their nonprofit-centric hosting practices to include emerging platforms like Zope and Rails. There is a learning curve to supporting these platforms, but it’s not that bad, and it only takes a few talented sysadmins to climb it to start supporting a pretty huge number of nonprofit clients.