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Producing Open Source Software: Be Open From Day One

Karl Fogel
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In his book about the human side of open source development, Karl Fogel stresses the importance of having your project out in the open from Day 1 to avoid the difficulties associated with the transition from closed to open sourced enterprise.

Start your project out in the open from the very first day. The longer a project is run in a closed source manner, the harder it is to open source later.[1]

Being open source from the start doesn’t mean your developers must immediately take on the extra responsibilities of community management. People often think that “open source” means “strangers distracting us with questions”, but that’s optional — it’s something you might do down the road, if and when it makes sense for your project. It’s under your control. There are still major advantages to be had by running the project out in open, publicly-visible forums from the beginning. Conversely, the longer the project is run closed-source, the more difficult it will be to open up later.

I think there’s one underlying cause for this:

At each step in a project, programmers face a choice: to do that step in a manner compatible with a hypothetical future open-sourcing, or do it in a manner incompatible with open-sourcing. And every time they choose the latter, the project gets just a little bit harder to open source.

The crucial thing is, they can’t help choosing the latter occasionally — all the pressures of development propel them that way. It’s very difficult to give a future event the same present-day weight as, say, fixing the incoming bugs reported by the testers, or finishing that feature the customer just added to the spec. Also, programmers struggling to stay on budget will inevitably cut corners here and there (in Ward Cunningham’s phrase, they will incur “technical debt“), with the intention of cleaning it up later.

Thus, when it’s time to open source, you’ll suddenly find there are things like:

  • Customer-specific configurations and passwords checked into the code repository;
  • Sample data constructed from live (and confidential) information;
  • Bug reports containing sensitive information that cannot be made public;
  • Comments in the code expressing perhaps overly-honest reactions to the customer’s latest urgent request;
  • Archives of correspondence among the developer team, in which useful technical information is interleaved with personal opinions not intended for strangers;
  • Licensing issues due to dependency libraries whose terms might have been fine for internal deployment (or not even that), but aren’t compatible with open source distribution;
  • Documentation written in the wrong format (e.g., that proprietary internal wiki your department uses), with no easy translation tool available to get it into formats appropriate for public distribution;
  • Non-portable build dependencies that only become apparent when you try to move the software out of your internal build environment;
  • Modularity violations that everyone knows need cleaning up, but that there just hasn’t been time to take care of yet…
  • (This list could go on.)

The problem isn’t just the work of doing the cleanups; it’s the extra decision-making they sometimes require. For example, if sensitive material was checked into the code repository in the past, your team now faces a choice between cleaning it out of the historical revisions entirely, so you can open source the entire (sanitized) history, or just cleaning up the latest revision and open-sourcing from that (sometimes called a “top-skim”). Neither method is wrong or right — and that’s the problem: now you’ve got one more discussion to have and one more decision to make. In some projects, that decision gets made and reversed several times before the final release. The thrashing itself is part of the cost.

Waiting Just Creates an Exposure Event

The other problem with opening up a developed code base is that it creates a needlessly large exposure event. Whatever issues there may be in the code (modularity corner-cutting, security vulnerabilities, etc), they are all exposed to public scrutiny at once — the open-sourcing event becomes an opportunity for the technical blogosphere to pounce on the code and see what they can find.

Contrast that with the scenario where development was done in the open from the beginning: code changes come in one at a time, so problems are handled as they come up (and are often caught sooner, since there are more eyeballs on the code). Because changes reach the public at a low, continuous rate of exposure, no one blames your development team for the occasional corner-cutting or flawed code checkin. Everyone’s been there, after all; these tradeoffs are inevitable in real-world development. As long as the technical debt is properly recorded in “FIXME” comments and bug reports, and any security issues are addressed promptly, it’s fine. Yet if those same issues were to appear suddenly all at once, unsympathetic observers may jump on the aggregate exposure in a way they never would have if the issues had come up piecemeal in the normal course of development.

(These concerns apply even more strongly to government software projects; see the section called “Being Open Source From Day One is Especially Important for Government Projects” in the section called “Governments and Open Source”.)

The good news is that these are all unforced errors. A project incurs little extra cost by avoiding them in the simplest way possible: by running in the open from Day One.

SEE ALSO: Producing Open Source Software: “Free” versus “Open Source”

“In the open” means the following things are publicly accessible, in standard formats, from the first day of the project: the code repository, bug tracker, design documents, user documentation, wiki, and developer discussion forums. It also means the code and documentation are placed under an open source license, of course. It also means your team’s day-to-day work takes place in the publicly visible area.

“In the open” does not have to mean: allowing strangers to check code into your repository (they’re free to copy it into their own repository, if they want, and work with it there); allowing anyone to file bug reports in your tracker (you’re free to choose your own QA process, and if allowing reports from strangers doesn’t help you, you don’t have to do it); reading and responding to every bug report filed, even if you do allow strangers to file; responding to every question people ask in the forums (even if you moderate them through); reviewing every patch or suggestion posted, when doing so may cost valuable development time; etc.

One way to think of it is that you’re open sourcing your code, not your time. One of those resources is infinitely replicable, the other is not. You’ll have to determine the point at which engaging with outside users and developers makes sense for your project. In the long run it usually does, and most of this book is about how to do it effectively. But it’s still under your control. Developing in the open does not change this, it just ensures that everything done in the project is, by definition, done in a way that’s compatible with being open source.


[1] This section started out as a blog post, though it’s been edited a lot for inclusion here.

This excerpt is from Karl Fogel’s book Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project and is Copyright © 2005-2015 Karl Fogel, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (3.0) license. More information about the book can be found here.

Karl Fogel
Karl Fogel has been working in free software since 1993, as a programmer and later as a specialist in open source project management. He was one of the founders of the Subversion project at CollabNet and is the author of Producing Open Source Software. He is now a partner at Open Tech Strategies, LLC. Karl is also a former director at the Open Source Initiative and a member of the Apache Software Foundation.

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