Third & GroveThird & Grove
Mar 18, 2019 - Justin Emond

AEM vs. Drupal (AEM Wins in Only 3 Cases)

track race - 100m sprint

We believe that Drupal is the best technology for most projects (here are 15 things Drupal can do to beat or achieve parity with AEM), but there are three use cases where AEM is likely a better fit:

  1. Institutional investment in the Java programming language. If your organization has decided that Java is the only programming language you’ll use, then AEM is likely a better fit for you. Standardizing the programming language has many drawbacks, but just as many benefits. By focusing on one language, you have an elastic resource pool within your organization that will allow you to move engineers between projects as needed, a single hiring pipeline of Java talent to draw from, and, likely, Java contractors who are ready to be mercenaries no matter the theater of war.

  2. Campaign management. While Drupal can be used successfully in any campaign effort, AEM has superior support for robust, large-scale, complex campaigns. If your organization operates campaigns at high levels of complexity, AEM is likely a better choice than Drupal. (UPDATE: As of May 2019, Acquia acquired a marketing automation company which completely changed the story around campaigns).

  3. Integration with other Adobe tools. If your organization has already invested in other Adobe technologies, you may find institutional approval for deploying AEM is easier than Drupal, despite Drupal’s established compatibility with Adobe’s toolset. As an example, Adobe has a great stock photo management tool that is part of their Creative Cloud. Not only does Adobe Stock integrate well with Creative Cloud, but as an Adobe product, it also integrates seamlessly with Adobe Experience Manager, a completely different product set than Creative Cloud.

Conversely, if time to market, cost, the value of open source, and security are priority concerns at your organization, Drupal is likely to be more successful than AEM. (And Drupal 9 is making this even truer.)

Drupal’s robust open source ecosystem of free system extensions and generally less-complex technical footprint result in lower levels of effort, which decreases cost, improves time to market, and reduces overall risk. A combination of more people, with fewer conflicts of interest, working to improve the core Drupal software in a culture of security prioritization generally means Drupal is the more secure, better-supported platform.

Budget and ROI

The primary total cost of implementation between AEM and Drupal is largely impacted by three factors:

  1. Licensing fees

  2. General platform technical complexity

  3. The extension ecosystem

A typical enterprise Acquia Drupal project would usually have an implementation budget of $250,000-$350,000, while an AEM budget would start north of $500,000 (and that isn’t including the licensing fee you need to pay Adobe). When you add hosting, the first year total spend for an organization to redesign, build, and host an enterprise Acquia Drupal site is likely around $500,000 while in AEM you are looking at $750,000-$1 million.

AEM often describes Drupal’s open source status as free like a puppy—meaning Drupal is free, but it takes a terrific amount of work to build into a compelling digital platform. This is partly true, in that Drupal is more a content management framework (as opposed to a content management system), and can thus be adapted to address many use cases. But so is AEM.

Savings for picking Drupal over AEM come not just from a lack of licensing fees but also from Drupal’s open source community, which has promoted a far more extensive network of free extensions that add functionality to Drupal. AEM’s extension ecosystem is far smaller, and thus less impactful when it comes to accelerating website build efforts.

While AEM and Drupal have robust internal technical architectures that can scale to meet the digital demands of most organizations, the general consensus is that the “technical weight” of AEM is heavier, and thus builds are slower. At Third & Grove, we have seen this first-hand when working with a publicly-traded client with billions in revenue. We created a stir by migrating one of this company’s brand sites to Drupal in less than two months. The internal mandate from the global CTO was to use AEM, but the AEM team needed nine months for the migration we achieved in just six weeks.

Return on investment (ROI) is a different matter. Drupal’s generally smaller implementation budgets mean more value has to be derived from a comparable AEM site to achieve the same ROI. Out of the gate, Drupal has an unfair advantage. Still, the reality of digital technology investment is that when you are choosing between the two or three top platforms in any problem space (in this case, the digital experience space) the value you derive has little to do with the platform you choose and everything to do with how effective it is in helping achieve institutional goals. The reality of IT—that it is simultaneously as critical to the business’s success as it is irrelevant to the business strategy—is just as true for digital investments.

What Your Team Will Think

Your team’s opinion will depend largely on which platform you choose and, often most critically, their past experiences with the platform. One would hope that your team would embrace the platform that best serves the myriad needs of your organization, the overall strategy, IT goals, and marketing goals. However, the reality is that your team’s acceptance of the editorial experience of both platforms by is going to be driven mostly by factors unrelated to the platforms themselves. Instead, it’s more driven by past experiences, job frustrations, and a culture of blame (should one exist).

We’ve worked with many enterprise teams that leverage Acquia Drupal. Here’s what we’ve noticed from working with them:

  • Engineering. Your engineering team may complain about having to write PHP, which they may view as an inferior programming language. (See our article on misconceptions on Drupal for more information on why this assessment is based on years-old information.) If your engineering team already embraces open source solutions, they will be excited by all the open source components that make Drupal great. Moreover, an engineering team with a culture of learning will thrive in the developer-centric ecosystem that uniquely defines Drupal in the CMS space.

  • Marketing. Your marketing team might be anxious about the page-building experience. Older versions of Drupal offered an inferior page-building experience to AEM, which may be the source of this platform anxiety. We have watched many marketers become excited to use a platform with high developer velocity, because that, in turn, allows them to become agile marketers.

And here’s what you might expect if you adopt AEM:

  • Engineering. Your engineering team will probably be excited to use Java, an enterprise-grade programming language with a reputation for scale and stability that is used widely among large companies. But there are drawbacks that will hurt any engineer. The AEM platform requires technical debt to achieve scale and develop integrations. Not least, there is no AEM equivalent of Drupal’s open-source modules, which can elevate a digital experience—or at least remove the pain of resolving problems that have already been solved.

  • Marketing. If we had to guess, your marketing team would likely be impressed by AEM’s slick page-building experience and seamless integration with Adobe tools like Analytics. Even though they will have better resources they might be concerned about the reduced developer velocity in adding new features and making site changes. Agile marketing is the goal of every cutting-edge marketing team, and often a point of frustration as teams try to grow.

Organizations can reduce resistance by working to align the true needs of individual marketing team members to the goals of the marketing organization and the business overall. Both AEM and Drupal can be implemented to make your team feel like they are being set up for success—or failure; the deciding factor is effort.

Evaluation Chart for AEM vs. Drupal

To us, there are four main considerations in choosing AEM vs. Drupal: cost, time to market, cloud platform, and campaign management. We’ve outlined all considerations that we go through with our clients, which help identify an objective decision.



Adobe Experience Manager

Acquia Drupal



AEM requires a licensing fee and often higher implementation budgets than Drupal


Drupal is free to use and implementation budgets are generally lower

Time to market





Since implementation budgets are generally lower than AEM, time to market is generally faster

Fully managed outsourced cloud platform

+/- 0

Adobe now has a cloud platform for AEM, but the platform is just over a year old


Acquia is the enterprise cloud platform for Drupal and is more than ten years old, so their platform is mature, battle-tested, and feature rich

Campaign management


AEM leads for complex, robust campaign management needs


+/- 0

Drupal can power complex customer journeys, but support is not as seamless as it is for AEM. Acquia’s new Journey software is likely to improve support dramatically

Institutional investment in Java resources and the desire to stay within Java


+/- 0

Institutional investment in PHP resources and the desire to stay within PHP

+/- 0


Open source solutions are valued for their scalability, security, transparency, and community value

+/- 0

AEM is closed source and only Adobe employees can enhance the software


Drupal is open source, and benefits from thousands of developers in the community making the product better every day

Large, complex site with many integrations


AEM runs large, complex sites for major organizations like and


Drupal runs large, complex sites for major organizations like Wendy',, and FEMA

Integration with Adobe products like Creative Cloud, Adobe Analytics, Test & Target


AEM integrates well with its own marketing cloud products


Acquia Drupal can integrate with many of the Adobe tools, but nothing beats native integration

Asset management


AEM has slick support for asset management

+/- 0

Acquia Drupal has strong support for asset management, but AEM tends to be better executed out-of-the-box

Running multiple websites, large and small


AEM has strong support for running multiple websites


Acquia Drupal, especially using Acquia Site Factory, has strong support for running multiple websites

Custom reporting capabilities


AEM has many good reports available out-of-the-box




Acquia Drupal provides the powerful Views module (built into Drupal core) that allows non-technical users to use an intuitive GUI to make powerful custom reports for all kinds of data in the system

At the end of the day, it’s not about the best platform—it’s about the right tool for the job. Just make sure that the tool you pick will still be relevant for years to come, otherwise, you’re going to be kicking yourself down the road.