The value of open source (for customers)

freesoftware, General, openstack, red hat, work 1 Comment

Over at community.redhat.com, the Red Hat community blog, I have posted an article detailing some of the value I see to customers of companies who support and build on free software. The article is basically notes from a presentation I will be giving next Wednesday at the Red Hat Summit, “Community Catalysts: The Value of Open Source Community Development”. The problem statement?

It’s not always obvious, however, what the value of that is to our customers. The four freedoms of the free software definition which personify open source software – the freedom to use, study, modify and share modified copies of the software – at first glance appear to benefit only participants in open source communities. If you are a customer of a company like Red Hat, does it really matter that you have access to the source code, or that you can share the software with others? Aren’t customers, in some sense, paying us to “just take care of all of that stuff?”

This line of thought is not original, but it’s one I’ve had for a long time – and others such as Simon Phipps have given voice to similar insights in the past. Hopefully I can give it a fresh treatment for Red Hat Summit attendees next week!

Webinar: “RDO: An OpenStack community”

openstack, red hat 3 Comments

With my colleague Keith Basil, the OpenStack  product manager here at Red hat, I will be giving a “webinar” about OpenStack, and Red Hat’s community-driven distribution of it, RDO, this Wednesday at 3pm UTC (5pm CEST, 11am EDT, 8am PDT, other timezones). We will cover what OpenStack is, at a high level, why Red Hat cares about it, and what RDO brings to the table.

Register to attend – I’ll see you there!

 

The changing world of adding a service

General Comments Off on The changing world of adding a service

1991

You: “I’d like to install a file server for the LAN – can I have the root password for the server, please”
Admin: “You’re kidding, right? Submit a ticket, we’ll install it when we get around to it”
crickets

1996

You: “I installed a Samba file server for the LAN on my own Linux machine”
Admin: “Gah! You messed up my workgroup. What happens when you turn it off? Bloody amateurs…”

2000

You: “I’d like to install a bug tracker for the dev team”
Admin: “The existing servers are overloaded – you’ll need a hardware req. Lodge a ticket, and get management approval first.”

2005

You: “I’d like to install a bug tracker for the dev team”
Admin: “I’ll create a VM for you to use. Lodge a ticket”

2013

You: “I’d like to install a bug tracker for the dev team”
Admin: “You have a self-service account on OpenStack, don’t you? What are you talking to me for?”

 

Awesome MediaWiki theme

General 1 Comment

For anyone who saw the recent launch of the new oVirt website a while back and was wondering how we could make such an attractive theme and lay-out for a MediaWiki wiki, wonder no more. In fact, you don’t even have to be jealous! Because the theme, called Strapping, so called because it’s based on the Bootstrap web framework, has just been published by my colleague Garrett on GitHub.

Kudos to Garrett, who did amazing work on this theme to make it as beautiful and reusable as possible, and I’m looking forward to using it for other websites in the near future. And so can you!

Open Source Parenting at OSCON 2013?

community, freesoftware 5 Comments

The OSCON 2013 Call for Participation just opened and the list of tracks this year is mostly the same as last year. I am a touch disappointed, because I suggested to some of the conference chairs that a track I’d love to see, and which I think would get lots of attention, would be on how we grown-up hackers ensure that we’re growing the next generation of open source hackers. In other words, as a parent, tips on sharing our passion for technology and the open source, free software, hacker ethos with our kids.

This generally fits into the “Geek lifestyle” theme, which is the most marginal of the tracks, but I bet that if there’s a critical mass of quality proposals on the topic, that we could have a separate open source parenting track at OSCON – and it would be standing room only all week.

Some things I would love to talk about or hear people talk about:

  • Hackable living space – teaching kids they can control their environments
  • Preschool engineering – toys and games that teach your child to hack before they can walk
  • My First Electronics Kit – How my son and I learned how to make a solar powered car from scavenged parts
  • Teaching kids to hack – coding literacy in K12

And anything else which gives me ideas for projects I can do with the kids and their friends, or that I can bring to the local school.

Wouldn’t that be the coolest track *ever*? All it needs to happen is to totally blind-side the conference chairs with a dozen high quality proposals that no-one could possibly refuse! Who’s with me? Won’t somebody please think of the children?!?

 

PlayTerm

General, marketing 4 Comments

Via Simon Phipps, I discovered PlayTerm this morning. You can record and play back terminal sessions, which allow you to show commands and their expected output, played at typed speed. This may be the greatest invention since screencasts.

Open Source communities

community, freesoftware 1 Comment

I was re-reading one of my favourite blog posts on running an Open Source community today, and thought I would share it.

Max Kanat-Alexander is the Bugzilla Release Manager, and put a variety of thoughts on leading an Open Source community together – Open Source Community, Simplified.

The TL;DR version, for those too lazy to click through, is:

  1. Don’t freeze your trunk for long periods
  2. Turnover is inevitable, so recruitment is vital
  3. Respond to contributions immediately
  4. Be extremely kind and appreciative
  5. Encourage a total absence of personal negativity

His own tl;dr version of this is: “be really, abnormally, really, really kind, and don’t be mean”.

He then talks about removing barriers to contribution, promoting your project and getting new contributors interested.

All in all, an excellent contribution, and well worth the read.

“Community citizenship” survey

community, freesoftware 1 Comment

I spoke to Kevin Carillo about what makes a good community citizen a few months ago – he had already been working for some time on his research at that point, and I thought that his approach and ideas were interesting.

Recently, he blogged about his work, and released a survey targeting recent contributors to a variety of projects, including Debian, GNOME and Mozilla.

As a long-time participant in various open source projects, I regularly see sociologists posting announcements for surveys to lists asking for developers time without first trying to get a feel for the communities involved, and figuring out how their work can benefit the community. They are zoologists, studying the behaviour of strange and wondrous beasts they don’t understand.

Kevin, like Evangelia Berdou and Malgorzata Ciesielska in the past, has adopted another approach – talking to people one-on-one and crafting a survey after building an understanding of community dynamics. I have high hopes that his resulting research will be as valuable to us as Evangelia and Gosia’s work was in the past.

I encourage anyone who fits the target profile to participate in his survey.

Humanitarian Free & Open Source Software meeting place

community, freesoftware Comments Off on Humanitarian Free & Open Source Software meeting place

This year, we hosted a Humanitarian Free and Open source software track at the Open World Forum for the third time. The track has been of great value to participants as a way of communicating with other practitioners in the space, and exchanging best practices and experiences around funding, community, and working with NGOs.

Once again, we had great participation from representatives of a wide range of projects, in crisis management, healthcare, social enterprise and microfinance. And the quality of the presentations was excellent – when discussing after the conference with Leslie Hawthorn what our favourite presentations were, the short answer was “all of them”. My personal favourites were Mark Prutsalis’s description of the EUROSHA project, Heather Blanchard’s experiences from working closely with aid agencies, and Leslie’s presentation with Julius Awakame of the great work that OpenMRS is doing in electronic medical record management targeting the poorest communities in the world.

The number one request I have had for the track is to turn it into more of a conversation – part presentations to establish a baseline for discussion, but mostly workshops or discussion forums on issues common to projects in HFOSS. Some organisations have funding, but have not succeeded in developing a commercial ecosystem of partners to support the deployment of the software. Other organisations have a partner ecosystem, but have not succeeded in growing an active community or identifying a sustainable funding model. Others have vibrant communities, but do not have either the funding or the organisational infrastructure to have a full time staff, or to bid for projects with aid agencies.

How would you feel about making next year’s Humanitarian track at the Open World Forum a worldwide meeting place of leaders of HFOSS projects, over two days, with a more traditional conference component including presentations, round-tables and workshops, and a Humanitarian BarCamp the day afterwards in Paris? I bet that if we can get critical mass for the idea that we could make this a regular meeting place for these projects. If there is somewhere else more appropriate as a meeting of minds, I’m happy to point people there instead, but I do not have the impression that there is. It has become obvious to me that there is a need for such a meeting place, and Paris in the Autumn seems like the ideal place to have it – central location, easy accessibility internationally from Europe, America, Asia and Africa.

Is there interest in making a real Humanitarian FOSS conference in Paris next year?

 

 

Attention! Speed bump ahead!

community, freesoftware, General 13 Comments
Speed bump ahead

Speed bump ahead!

This week I was reminded that the first step in an Open Source project is often the hardest. We’ve been using MediaWiki for a project at work, with the “ConfirmAccount” extension to deal with spammers – a very nice extension indeed! It adds account creation requests to a queue where they can be handled by members of the bureaucrat group.

We had one wishlist item. We wanted to have a notification email sent out to every member of the group when a new request was received. There is an existing feature to send a notification email to a configurable email address, but not to the whole bureaucrat group.

So I said to myself, how hard can that be? And I rolled up my sleeves and set aside an afternoon to make the change, and submit it upstream. After a few false-starts which were nothing to do with MediaWiki, I got down to it.

First task: Upgrade to the latest version of MediaWiki – the version on Fedora 17 is MediaWiki 1.16.5, and the latest stable version is 1.19.2. So I download the latest version, and follow the upgrade instructions to over-write the system MediaWiki install in /usr/share/mediawiki with the upstream version. Unfortunately, the way that $IP (the Install Path) is set changed in version  1.17, in a way that took a little time to work around.

Once that was done, I downloaded the HEAD of the trunk branch from SVN which was linked from the old version of the extension home page, and got the extension working. That needed a few additional modules, and some configuration to get the email notifications working locally, but eventually, I was good to go.

I got to work making my change. It took a while, but once I figured out how to turn on debugging and the general idiom for database queries, it was easy enough. After a couple of hours hacking and testing, I was happy with the result.

The first date

I headed back to the extension home page to figure out how to submit a patch. At the same time, out of habit, I joined the project IRC channel, #mediawiki on Freenode, reasoning that if I got lost I could ask for help there. No indication on the Extension page, but a web search showed me that MediaWiki uses Bugzilla. So I registered for Yet Another Bugzilla Account, and confirmed my email address a few minutes later. Then I created a bug on Bugzilla, and attached my patch to the report.

Simultaneously, on IRC, I was asking for help and was told by a very nice community guy called Dereckson that the preferred way to submit patches was through Gerrit. It turned out that the extension home page should have been pointing to the more recent Git repository all along, and I had been developing against the wrong version of MediaWiki. Dereckson updated the extension page with the right repository information as soon as he discovered it hadn’t been updated before. No big deal, I cloned the Git repository, and tried to apply the patch from svn to git. Unfortunately, it didn’t work – some other changes related to translatable strings had changed code in the same area, and I had to re-do the change, but that was pretty easy.

I did try to submit a patch by following the procedure in the git workflow document, but without an account on Gerrit it didn’t work, of course. Dereckson convinced me to apply to developer access. After some initial resistance, because I really didn’t want to be a MediaWiki developer just to submit a drive-by patch, I requested developer access with the comment “I just wanted to submit one patch to an extension I use, Extension:ConfirmAccount.” Half an hour later, jeremyb approved my request with the comment “That’s what you think now!” :-)

Then I went to the documentation on getting access and followed the instructions there until I was directed to upload my ssh key to labs and found I did not have access to that resource. Thanks again to Dereckson (once more to the rescue!) on IRC, I found my way to getting set up for git and Gerrit, and got an SSH key set up for Gerrit. Then I went back to the instructions for submitting a patch and a quick “git review” later, I had submitted my first patch ever to Gerrit.

Jumping through hoops

Jumping through hoops (CC by-sa, rwp-roger@flickr)

Pretty quickly, the first couple of reviews came in. First comment: “There’s some whitespace issues here.” Gee, thanks. Second comment, from Dereckson (again!) started with a “Thank you”, said the idea was a good one, and then gave me an example of the project norms for commit comments,  and made one comment on the code suggesting I use an option.

As a first time user of Gerrit, I noticed a few issues with it for newbies. It’s not at all clear to me how to distinguish “important” commenters from trivial-to-change things like whitespace issues. It’s also not clear whether a -1 blocks a commit, or how to have a discussion with someone about the approach taken in a patch. Also, it was unclear what the suggested way to update a patch was and propose a new, improved version. My first try, I made some changes, committed them into a new revision on my local branch, and pushed the lot for review (normal git workflow, I daresay). Unfortunately, this was not correct. I ended up squashing the two commits with a “rebase -i”, and since then I have been using “commit –amend”.

After a few more rounds of comments (another whitespace comment, and a suggestion to avoid hard-coding the group name), I am currently on the 5th patchset, which I think does what it says it should, and will pass review muster, when someone gets around to reviewing it. I’ve been told that the review time for a small patch like this can be up to 5 or 10 days, and I don’t know exactly how I know that the process is over and it’s good to commit.

Sunk costs

The end result is that for a small change to a fairly simple MediaWiki extension, I spent about 2 hours coding, and about 4 or 5 hours (a full afternoon) going through the various hoops involved in submitting the change for review upstream.

I’m aware that this is a one-off cost – that now that I have a Bugzilla account, and a git and Gerrit account, it will be easier next time. Now that I have spent the time reading the MediaWiki coding conventions, git workflow, and have spent time understanding how to use Gerrit, I won’t have these issues again. The next patch will only take a few minutes to submit, and I won’t be wondering if I did something wrong if I don’t get a review in the first 10 minutes.

But along with some installation and firewall issues, I ended up spending slightly more than a full day on this. In hindsight, I’m saying to myself “was it  really worth a full day of work to avoid maintaining this 20 line patch over time?”

I think it’s important that projects make newcomers jump through some hoops when joining your project – the tools you use and the community processes you follow are an important part of your culture. Sometimes, however, the initial investment that you have to put into the first-time use of a tool – the investment that regular contributors never see any more – is big.

If you’ve never used Bugzilla, git, Gerrit, or SSH, how long would it take you to submit a first patch to a project? How many hurdles does someone have to jump through to submit a patch for your project? Is there a way to ease people into it? I could imagine something like an email based process for newcomers, and only after they’ve made a few contributions, insist that all of the community’s preferred tools and processes be used. Or having true single sign-on, where you have only one account-creation process for all of your interactions with the project, so that you don’t end up creating a wiki account, a Bugzilla account, a Labs account and configuring a Gerrit account.

I want to make clear – I am not picking on MediaWiki here. I rate the project well above average in the speed and friendliness with which I was helped at every turn. But they, like every project, have adopted tools to make it easier for regular contributors, and to help ensure that no patches get dropped on the floor because of poor processes. Here’s the $64,000 question: are the tools and processes which make it easier for regular contributors making it harder for first-time contributors?

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