Moving to an Open Source World


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This video segment explains the diverse types of support available, from volunteer-run forums and wikis, to commercial organizations who offer professional support and maintenance.


  • Community support
  • forums
  • wikis
  • chat rooms
  • repository managers
  • commercial support

About this video

Karl Beecher
First online
25 December 2018
Online ISBN
Copyright information
© Karl Beecher 2019

Video Transcript

[Audio Begins] [0:00:00]

Karl Beecher: The available support in open source software is diverse. The simplest way to divide it is into community and commercial types. And this distinction is not exclusive to open source by the way. The proprietary world offers the same mode of support. But there are some important differences you should be aware of.

Community based support is, perhaps not surprisingly, a strong pillar of open source. It’s a form of support that relies on the voluntary exchange of information in venues like forums, chatrooms, and wikis. Forums contain threaded messages and are best used for asynchronous communication. You can start a new discussion thread yourself of apply to an existing one. Chatrooms allow you to exchange messages in real time. An instant messenger app connects you to a chatroom where you can type messages to people around the world. And wikis are online collaboratively edited documents. Open source software projects very often use wikis to provide technical and user documentation. You might well have used such venues already to get support for your proprietary software. So what differences might you experience when moving to the open source equivalents?

First of all, you should be prepared for at least some of the discussion being conducted at a more technical level. Source code is now a publicly available resource and all users have the possibilities to control any aspect of the program. And so, you should be prepared to see discussion involving things like source code, and configuration settings, and directions for the hunting down and editing of obscure files, and so on. This feeds into another key difference between open source and proprietary software. The distinction between the user and the developer is much weaker in the open source world. This means that the same task tracker used by programmers is often accessible by users as well. All sorts of issues will get stored here, like tasks being carried out, feature requests, or bug reports. If you can understand the discussion, task trackers are rich sources of information, particularly when you have problems with your software, and you want to see if fixes are available or are currently being worked on. In chatrooms too, users and developers can rub shoulders very easily. You can talk directly to the people developing your program to get the most current information or feedback your ideas.

This easy access to the programmer might feel very different from the proprietary world where a sales or a tech-support team usually sits between you and the program. But while this is useful for getting information, you must also keep in mind that these people are not necessarily trained in being good communicators and might expect you to behave in certain ways. Different communities have different expectations, so familiarize yourself with community rules beforehand. Wikis often serve as the official documentation. They might contain user guides, tutorials, installation instructions. Otherwise, more administrative things like roadmaps, publish reports, and meeting transcripts. However, be careful. Writing documentation is infamously one of the programmers least favorite activities, and projects where effort is allocated voluntarily rely on members volunteering to do it.

Some open source projects have excellent documentation, while some have little or none. Many lie in between, the documents that are occasionally incomplete or of poor quality. Commercial support approximates the kind of experiences you might have had with proprietary software and they’re ideal for users in no position to carry out their own support. The professionals of an IT support company can support you by taking over responsibility for part or all of your software operations. They can get things set up and installed, keep things running, and fix problems that crop up. They can offer defined levels of service and guarantee minimum response times. And because there’s support in open source software, there’s a marketplace for support vendors, which gives you possibilities for migration. If, for example, you outgrow or come to dislike your current support vendor, you can scour the marketplace for another vendor offering more suitable support for the same software.

In summary, you should decide up front who will be responsible for looking after your software. If support is still in-house, a talented IT staff could be sustained by support from community sources. Otherwise, consider a third-party support company.

[0:05:08] [Audio Ends]