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Producing Open Source Software by Karl Fogel

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Funding Non-Programming Activities

Programming is only part of the work that goes on in an open source project. From the point of view of the project's volunteers, it's the most visible and glamorous part. This unfortunately means that other activities, such as documentation, formal testing, etc., can sometimes be neglected, at least compared to the amount of attention they often receive in proprietary software. Corporate organizations are sometimes able to make up for this, by devoting some of their internal software development infrastructure to open source projects.

The key to doing this successfully is to translate between the company's internal processes and those of the public development community. Such translation is not effortless: often the two are not a close match, and the differences can be bridged only via human intervention. For example, the company may use a different bug tracker from the public project. Even if they use the same tracking software, the data stored in it will be very different, because the bug-tracking needs of a company are very different from those of a free software community. A piece of information that starts in one tracker may need to be reflected in the other, with confidential portions removed or, in the other direction, added.

The sections that follow are about how to build and maintain such bridges. The end result should be that the open source project runs more smoothly, the community recognizes the company's investment of resources, and yet does not feel that the company is inappropriately steering things toward its own goals.

Quality Assurance (i.e., Professional Testing)

In proprietary software development, it is normal to have teams of people dedicated solely to quality assurance: bug hunting, performance and scalability testing, interface and documentation checking, etc. As a rule, these activities are not pursued as vigorously by the volunteer community on a free software project. This is partly because it's hard to get volunteer labor for unglamorous work like testing, partly because people tend to assume that having a large user community gives the project good testing coverage, and, in the case of performance and scalability testing, partly because volunteers often don't have access to the necessary hardware resources anyway.

The assumption that having many users is equivalent to having many testers is not entirely baseless. Certainly there's little point assigning testers for basic functionality in common environments: bugs there will quickly be found by users in the natural course of things. But because users are just trying to get work done, they do not consciously set out to explore uncharted edge cases in the program's functionality, and are likely to leave certain classes of bugs not found. Furthermore, when they discover a bug with an easy workaround, they often silently implement the workaround without bothering to report the bug. Most insidiously, the usage patterns of your customers (the people who drive your interest, the software) may differ in statistically significant ways from the usage patterns of the Average User in the Street.

A professional testing team can uncover these sorts of bugs, and can do so as easily with free software as with proprietary software. The challenge is to convey the testing team's results back to the public in a useful form. In-house testing departments usually have their own way of reporting test results, involving company-specific jargon, or specialized knowledge about particular customers and their data sets. Such reports would be inappropriate for the public bug tracker, both because of their form and because of confidentiality concerns. Even if your company's internal bug tracking software were the same as that used by the public project, management might need to make company-specific comments and metadata changes to the issues (for example, to raise an issue's internal priority, or schedule its resolution for a particular customer). Usually such notes are confidential—sometimes they're not even shown to the customer. But even when they're not confidential, they're of no concern to the public project, and therefore the public should not be distracted with them.

Yet the core bug report itself is important to the public. In fact, a bug report from your testing department is in some ways more valuable than one received from users at large, since the testing department probes for things that other users won't. Given that you're unlikely to get that particular bug report from any other source, you definitely want to preserve it and make it available to the public project.

To do this, either the QA department can file issues directly in the public issue tracker, if they're comfortable with that, or an intermediary (usually one of the developers) can "translate" the testing department's internal reports into new issues in the public tracker. Translation simply means describing the bug in a way that makes no reference to customer-specific information. The reproduction recipe may use customer data, assuming the customer approves it, of course.

It is somewhat preferable to have the QA department filing issues in the public tracker directly. That gives the public a more direct appreciation of your company's involvement with the project: useful bug reports add to your organization's credibility just as any technical contribution would. It also gives developers a direct line of communication to the testing team. For example, if the internal QA team is monitoring the public issue tracker, a developer can commit a fix for a scalability bug (which the developer may not have the resources to test herself), and then add a note to the issue asking the QA team to see if the fix had the desired effect. Expect a bit of resistance from some of the developers; programmers have a tendency to regard QA as, at best, a necessary evil. The QA team can easily overcome this by finding significant bugs and filing comprehensible reports; on the other hand, if their reports are not at least as good as those coming from the regular user community, then there's no point having them interact directly with the development team.

Either way, once a public issue exists, the original internal issue should simply reference the public issue for technical content. Management and paid developers may continue to annotate the internal issue with company-specific comments as necessary, but use the public issue for information that should be available to everyone.

You should go into this process expecting extra overhead. Maintaining two issues for one bug is, naturally, more work than maintaining one issue. The benefit is that many more coders will see the report and be able to contribute to a solution.

Legal Advice and Protection

Corporations, for-profit or non-profit, are almost the only entities that ever pay attention to complex legal issues in free software. Individual developers often understand the nuances of various open source licenses, but they generally do not have the time or resources to follow copyright, trademark, and patent law in detail. If your company has a legal department, it can help a project by vetting the copyright status of the code, and helping developers understand possible patent and trademark issues. The exact forms this help could take are discussed in Chapter 9. The main thing is to make sure that communications between the legal department and the development community, if they happen at all, happen with a mutual appreciation of the very different universes the parties are coming from. On occasion, these two groups talk past each other, each side assuming domain-specific knowledge that the other does not have. A good strategy is to have a liaison (usually a developer, or else a lawyer with technical expertise) stand in the middle and translate for as long as needed.

Documentation and Usability

Documentation and usability are both famous weak spots in open source projects, although I think, at least in the case of documentation, that the difference between free and proprietary software is frequently exaggerated. Nevertheless, it is empirically true that much open source software lacks first-class documentation and usability research.

If your organization wants to help fill these gaps for a project, probably the best thing it can do is hire people who are not regular developers on the project, but who will be able to interact productively with the developers. Not hiring regular developers is good for two reasons: one, that way you don't take development time away from the project; two, those closest to the software are usually the wrong people to write documentation or investigate usability anyway, because they have trouble seeing the software from an outsider's point of view.

However, it will still be necessary for whoever works on these problems to communicate with the developers. Find people who are technical enough to talk to the coding team, but not so expert in the software that they can't empathize with regular users anymore.

Providing Hosting/Bandwidth

For a project that's not using one of the free canned hosting sites (see Section 3.7.1 in Chapter 3), providing a server and network connection—and most importantly, system administration help—can be of significant assistance. Even if this is all your organization does for the project, it can be a moderately effective way to obtain good public relations karma, though it will not bring any influence over the direction of the project.

You can probably expect a banner ad or an acknowledgment on the project's home page, thanking your company for providing hosting. If you set up the hosting so that the project's web address is under your company's domain name, then you will get some additional association just through the URL. This will cause most users to think of the software as having something to do with your company, even if you don't contribute to development at all. The problem is, the developers are aware of this associative tendency too, and may not be very comfortable with having the project in your domain unless you're contributing more resources than just bandwidth. After all, there are a lot of places to host these days. The community may eventually feel that the implied misallocation of credit is not worth the convenience brought by hosting, and take the project elsewhere. So if you want to provide hosting, do so—but either plan to get even more involved soon, or be circumspect about how much involvement you claim.

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