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Open source as a process

The next big thing for open source may have nothing to do with projects. Linux Advisor hed: dek: by Maggie Biggs

The open-source community has a lot to celebrate! This month, a large segment of the open-source community will come together for the LinuxWorld Conference at Moscone Center in San Francisco to do just that. Whether you’re a fan of Linux, Apache, Python, Perl, PHP, mySQL, or any number of the thousands of other open-source sensations, the fact is that open source has proven highly successful.

The indicators of open-source success are obvious. For example, industry watcher International Data Corporation (IDC) now estimates that Linux will capture 38 percent of the server market by 2004. Moreover, the Apache Web server continues to lead the Web server market widely with a 62 percent usage rate www.netcraft.com/survey/.

The open-source community has forged ahead into other areas, too, including back-end server software and support for post-PC devices. The sheer volume and wide variety of projects hosted at SourceForge www.sourceforge.net–nearly 22,000 different projects-shows that open-source development can yield significant results that cover nearly any software segment.

But if we step back for a moment to look beyond the projects coming from the open-source community, what makes open source successful is the process by which software is created and maintained. Contrast this with traditional software methodologies and you can surmise what may be the next big thing for the open-source community.

Traditional software practices have changed little since the 1970s, and yet, technology has changed significantly. It’s no small wonder that software projects developed using traditional practices are yielding more than 50 percent failure rates. The rigidity of a location-based development process that contains little collaboration and a top-down approach is no match for today’s distributed computing environments.

In recent years, many developers in the traditional software community have realized that current practices are missing the mark. Thus, we’ve seen the emergence of practices such as Extreme Programming (XP). The XP process does have some things in common with open-source practices–namely collaboration, direct user input, and collective code ownership. Yet XP demands that two programmers sit together at the same location to collaborate on the same code-a practice known as pair programming. This can detract from the success of XP, since developers are much more likely to work in a distributed fashion today.

This is where the open-source process has a significant advantage. Open-source developers around the world can collaborate using Web-based tools to share knowledge and work jointly on code. By taking advantage of multiple time zones and the appropriate tools, open-source developers are able to be more responsive to user input and to achieve results more rapidly than either XP developers or those using traditional programming practices.

Open-source development practices may certainly seem foreign to those who are used to following a project plan and taking individual code ownership. Using mailing lists, discussion groups, bug-tracking software, and the like during highly focused, distributed collaborative development is a radically different method, and for many, it may seem quite chaotic.

Yet many corporate developers and independent software vendors (ISVs) are now beginning to pick up on the fact that the open-source process works. Many interesting projects are in the works that leverage the open-source process in new and exciting ways. For example, a group of iSeries (formerly known as AS/400) developers have started a project called WyattERP www.opensource400.org/wyatterp/ that promises to be the first Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system for the iSeries that is entirely developed using open-source methodologies.

The open-source community needs to embrace the idea that the open-source process will likely be widely adopted during the next few years by corporations and ISVs. Open-source development increases software quality and customer satisfaction in an economical fashion. Given the significant rate of failure, high cost, and the quality of traditionally developed software, the open-source development process is an idea whose time has come.

The folks at SourceForge have the right idea in their OnSite offering-a subscription-based collaborative development solution. Many companies and ISVs will want to plug in an open-source development process. Though many corporate developers and ISVs will create custom adaptations of the open-source process for their environments, the majority will want tools and techniques that enable the open-source process in a plug-and-play manner. Therefore, in the near term, there exists a significant market opportunity to bring open-source development methodologies to a wider audience.

But that’s not the entire story. Wider adoption of open-source development practices will yield higher-quality software at a lower cost. Though projects that are developed using open source may ultimately be turned into commercial products, the result will be more choices for consumers and for businesses. This in turn promises to reshape the software industry by providing a more competitive landscape and that is where the open-source community can have its greatest impact going forward.

Do you agree? Write to me: [email protected]

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