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A Chance Gardener
Harvesting open source products and planting the next crop.
whether the software is closed, open,
or somewhere in between. I find your
question is more intriguing from the
standpoint of how one interacts with
open source projects.
You mentioned that your company
consumes open source, and, in fact,
this is what most people and companies do—consume—and this is the
first stage of working with open source.
When you are consuming open source,
the most important thing to remember
is not to sever the plant from the roots.
You should be consuming the software
directly from the source, even if you are
not following every single change to
the upstream source tree.
The worst thing you can do is copy
the source tree once and then ignore
upstream development for a period of
time. Letting your local tree get even
I am working at a startup where we
use a lot of open source code software,
not just for our operating systems, but
also at the core of several products. We
have been building our systems on top
of open source for several years, but at
this point we only consume the software, we never have time to contribute
patches. Working with 30 to 40 different projects, given our small staff,
would introduce a lot of engineering
overhead that the company simply cannot absorb at the moment.
It also seems to me and the rest of
what passes for management at our
company that open source is like a
massive garden of weeds. New projects
pop up all the time, and it is impossible to know if these are really harmful
or helpful to our overall systems, so we
have to try them out or risk being left
out of some new type of system. The
other day one of the engineers complained he felt like a gardener whose
only tool was a machete, which is not a
Larger companies clearly know how
to work with open source projects, but
how can a startup or even a mediumsize company, which lacks the resources to look at all this stuff, cope in the
open source world. What is the best
way to interact with all these projects?
A Chance Gardener
You have hit upon an excellent meta-
phor for open source software: a gar-
den. I have to admit, I might liken it
more to kindergarten, but let’s proceed
with your original metaphor.
Many people who have not worked
directly with open source assume it is
a single thing, or a single idea, when,
in fact, it is a term that is applied in
as many different ways as there are
open source projects and communi-
ties. Open source truly is like a gar-
den, one with many different species
of plants, some of which are benefi-
cial and give nourishment and others
of which are poison.
Separating the wheat from the chaff
in such a large and diverse ecosystem is
a nontrivial undertaking, but it is one
that KV has addressed in several previous columns, including the letter to
“Acquisitive.” 1 Deciding to use a piece
of software always comes down to the
quality of the software in question,