Archive for the ‘FOSS Community’ Category

Anticipating the Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise (ETE 2010) Event

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

By CJ Fearnley

I will be attending the 5th Annual Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise Conference (ETE 2010) this Thursday and Friday, April 8-9, 2010. The event is billed for “developers, architects, and IT executives” and attempts to provide a dynamic forum for “emerging technology and Open Source”.

I look forward to seeing Robert C. (Uncle Bob) Martin‘s keynote on “Bad Code, Craftsmanship, Engineering, and Certification”, a panel discussion on “Open source is a commercial enterprise”, another panel on “Social Media: Why should I care?”, a second Bob Martin presentation on “Agility and Architecture”, Mary Poppendieck on “Cost Center Disease”, Bonnie Aumann on managing developers, Michael Coté’s keynote on “The Pragmatic Cloud”, Geir Magnusson Jr. on “Project Voldemort”, and Brian McCallister on “Failure Happens” (one of the very few talks on systems administration). Then there’s an interesting panel on “Battle of the Frameworks II” (its predecessor the ETE 2008 “Web Framework Shootout” is on-line in two parts I (here) and II (here). Hopefully this year people will respect each others’ frameworks more and have a mature discussion about the tradeoffs that each incurs. I was impressed with Marjan Bace, the moderator, for helping facilitate some reasonable comments amidst too much hyperbole and for brining the discussion to an effective conclusion). Finally, I think I’ll attend the presentations by Molly Holzschlag on “Demystifiying HTML5”, David A. Black on some CS (computer science) precepts, and Audrey Troutt on “Influencing your way to agile”.

It looks like it will be an engaging two-day event. I’m looking forward to meeting many leaders in the local Philly and broader FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) technology community and getting to downtown Philly for some out of the office learning and networking.

While I’m mentioning events, for those who do not know, I moderate the Q&A for the first Wednesday of the month meeting of the Philadelphia Linux User’s Group (PLUG) which will be on “Functional Programming Using Haskell” this month. It is going to be a busy week! If you plan to attend either event, I’ll see you there.

How and why contributing to FOSS can benefit your organization

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

By Elizabeth Krumbach

At first glance, the ecosystem in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) world can seem a bit complicated. There are several ways to get software: project websites where you can download it directly, use a software management tool that your Linux distribution provides, or you may also be able to install a Linux distribution that includes everything you need right out of the box! Once you understand this ecosystem, you can find where your contributions would be most useful, and why contributing is beneficial to your organization and the FOSS community.

So, where does this all begin? FOSS often originates with a project which maintains the source code for the software and provides its own development and support infrastructure.

A Linux distribution is a carefully culled collection of software from these upstream projects which makes a complete operating system and even includes a lot of application software. This collection of software is tested and prepared to run securely and maintainably together. Debian is built upon this model.

Some distributions of Linux use Debian as a source project unto itself. There are a number of Linux distributions based on Debian, including the popular KNOPPIX and Ubuntu distributions. Being “based on Debian” can mean several things, but it primarily means they draw from the software repository at some point in the release cycle, and they use the Advanced Packaging Tool (apt) to manage this software. In these cases Debian is an intermediary between the original FOSS project and the “children” distributions which may also pull from original software projects to expand upon what Debian provides to target their particular focus.

So where in this software ecosystem should your organization contribute? Why would your organization choose to contribute to Debian rather than to the original project (“upstream” of Debian) or a project like Ubuntu (“downstream” of Debian)? It really depends on your goals.

If your organization is interested in using FOSS in a way which requires rapid development, new and diverse features released quickly, or specializations that the distribution may not easily support, you will probably want to work directly on the upstream project. Frequently this requires programming experience, but many projects need other kinds of help such as bug reports in the form of feature requests which they may be able to satisfy in later releases. In these cases, contributing to development in these projects directly is the best way to meet your needs in using and building upon the software.

If your organization needs to use FOSS in a stable, maintainable and secure way, you should probably work directly with Debian. The primary duty of most developers within the Debian community is working on the “packages” which make up the operating system: creating, updating, patching, tracking their security and handling bugs, forwarding details and patches to the upstream projects when applicable. This is what maintains the solid, core operating system that makes up not only Debian, but the child distributions which depend on it, and which could not exist without it. By contributing to Debian you’re also contributing to Ubuntu, Knoppix, and dozens more, improving the tool shelf for everyone (related: Given 250,000 tools on the shelf, how do you manage them?). Contributing to Debian also helps the upstream projects, taking the burden off of them to provide installation documents and support on Debian and placing that upon you, plus making their software more readily available to users through a simple search through the Debian repository.

If the target of one of Debian’s children better meets your organization’s needs which cannot be achieved through Debian directly, then by all means contribute directly to it. Child distributions already exist which focus on everything from being an Open Source LiveCD toolbox (like KNOPPIX) to being a polished desktop operating system (like Ubuntu). As an example, even within Ubuntu’s family there are targeted projects, like Edubuntu, focused on education by packaging and shipping a collection of educational software and a project devoted to making your computer a PVR like TiVo called Mythbuntu which works with the MythTV project to easily deliver their software on a platform. Contributing to projects like these also expands the open source ecosystem and may be the preferred method to reach your organization’s goals.

Understanding the way in which these projects and distributions work together and selecting a place in the workflow for your organization to contribute is the first step. But perhaps a more important question is why you’d want to work on a FOSS project instead of doing in-house development. The benefits for the FOSS community are obvious, they will reap the benefits of having your expertise, from having the packages in Debian and beyond, but are there benefits for your organization?

I believe there are big benefits, which include:

  • Peer review of packages and software now and in the future
  • Processes for asking the community for assistance
  • Bug reporting infrastructure, which may include patches submitted by community members
  • Procedures to become informed about security problems and policy changes
  • Free collaborative resources provided for FOSS projects (Alioth for Debian,  SourceForge, LaunchPad or the Apache Foundation, etc) for development, including development mailing lists and hosted revision control systems like git, bazaar, svn.
  • Opportunity to learn key FOSS development strategies and industry “best practices” via freely available documentation, chat rooms, forums and mailing lists

In short, by putting the time in to releasing software, packaging for Debian or work in children distributions, you not only are doing good for the FOSS community, you get to take advantage of the plethora of tools, resources and people available to assist in the development process.

Crossroads in FOSS Projects: Some Business Considerations

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

By CJ Fearnley

At our Seminar last month, Managing FOSS to Lower Costs and Achieve Business Results, several participants asked about the dynamics of FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) projects that reach a crossroads (a failure, a merger, loss of key personnel, etc). I had not expected that concern because with commercial software, it seems to me, the problem is more severe. When you have the source code and the right to modify and redistribute it, the source gives many more options (and its freedoms provide many more protections) than when commercial software goes bankrupt or gets bought by a competitor for instance.

But the reason for the questions may be a lack of understanding about how FOSS projects work. They involve individual human beings, perhaps just a single person or, more likely, several people from many organizations and even different cultures around the world joined in common purpose. For various cultural reasons, the project may be “owned” by an entity — usually a non-profit, but some are for-profit or even government owned, while others may simply be an “ad hoc initiative”. Some projects have explicit constitutions and defined processes for organizing the work and handling problems others are more informal.

At any time, any human social structure can experience a crossroads that could lead it to fail suddenly or wither on the vine in a gradual descent into “oblivion”. The cause of the failure will shape the results, but a very common situation is that conflicting visions or approaches for the project result in a “fork”. Then a sub-group of the original project takes the source code and starts a “new” project to develop the code in a new direction. Sometimes the original project “dies” and sometimes both continue resulting in two projects. Since multiple FOSS projects serving the same function or market incur inefficiencies due to duplicate development, there is a strong cultural value in the FOSS world to try to find a way to accommodate everyone in the project and prevent forks. When it works, the result is great software that meets everyone’s needs. But the reality is that often it is more effective to have multiple implementations of the same functionality so that each can be optimized for distinct objectives. Frequently one cannot know which approach will be best until many years of development and evaluation have transpired.

I recently learned about a FOSS project that forked when a friend asked me to copy some files to his new “My Book Essential”, a Western Digital product that provides 1TB of USB (Universal Serial Bus) storage. The My Book uses the poorly documented, non-free NTFS (New Technology File System). Linux has three projects that support NTFS: an in kernel driver, ntfsprogs (the Linux-NTFS project), and NTFS-3G. It turns out that all three were available for my Debian Lenny (5.0.3) system. First, I tried the in kernel support and learned that it was still read-only. Then I tried ntfsprogs which failed to mount the My Book:

NTFS-fs error (device sdc1): load_system_files(): Volume is dirty. Mounting read-only. Run chkdsk and mount in Windows.

I realized that since it was a new device it probably did not ship from the factory with a dirty volume. It was probably a bug. So I tried NTFS-3G which worked very well. In my research of the situation I was able to determine that both NTFS-3G and Linux-NTFS are under active development and have features missing from the other. So each has value and I’m glad my distribution included both. In Debian Lenny, the NTFS-3G driver has better support for writing files.

This illustrates one of the benefits of a crossroads in a FOSS project: you can end up with two good tools to add to your toolbox!

Contributing to FOSS: A Business Perspective

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

By Elizabeth Krumbach

Last weekend I had the pleasure of presenting at the Central Pennsylvania Open Source Conference on the topic of Contributing to FOSS (slides available here).

In the talk I explored the many ways individuals can get involved in FOSS (Free and Open Source Software), briefly covering everything from programming to artwork to documentation. As diverse as these contributions are, the common thread is close collaboration with the project itself. In particular, following the procedures in place for contributing to the project is essential. The talk also reviewed some of the benefits of contributing to FOSS, which include career advancement and the ability to expand your professional network.

Although my presentation focused on individual contributions, these lessons also apply to how businesses benefit by contributing to FOSS. When a business approaches a project they should attempt to build a symbiotic relationship with the community. Such a relationship involves following the established community procedures so that your contributions can be easily adopted by the project. Useful scripts and code developments made within the company that can be useful to the greater public should be contributed back and packaging of popular software within the company can be submitted for inclusion and use by the greater community. Testing and bug reporting based on experience using FOSS on their production (or development) systems can provide important information for FOSS developers about the health and status of their projects.

Benefits for businesses that we at LinuxForce have seen first hand are referrals for projects based on documentation work completed on popular community websites (such as and feedback on our approach leading to improved best practices and building a reputation as experts. By sharing code with projects, others can build upon it to produce more functionality than your team could muster on its own, creating better software for everyone. Additionally, our involvement has allowed us to foster development of Debian packages for software that is used by our clients by, for instance, improving automatic database configuration support and making sure up to date packages are included in releases.

In conclusion, when a business contributes to FOSS they can help drum up business by building a reputation and doing real work within the community, and they help their customers by being on the forefront of development direction and discussions for software that is vital for their own organizations. Contributing to FOSS is good for business, good for your customers, good for the community, and good for the FOSS ecosystem in general.