Avoid tinkering with open source software

Too many tweaks can turn OSS from friend to foe.

Open source software practically begs to be tinkered with. With just a few tweaks, you've got the perfect implementation for your needs. But beware of making too many customizations, says John Turner, Director of Network and Systems at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass: "In the old days, we were pretty footloose and fancy free with making customizations to our software, and now we're paying the price of having to undo all those things."

In an interview with ITworld contributing writer Beth Schultz, Turner shares some lessons he has learned about working with open source software.

[ See also: How to make open source experience shine on your resume and Mentoring in open source communities: 4 don'ts ]

1. Be a good open source citizen. "A lot of times, we took open source software, used it, saw opportunities to make some changes but never contributed those changes back upstream," says Turner. "Later on down the line, there have been updates to the software and they're incompatible with the changes that we've made. If we contributed our changes back to the community, we'd be fairly well-assured that when an update comes out we wouldn't be out of line or incompatible."

2. Take a hard line. Either make changes and contribute back to the source or don't make changes.

3. Don't underestimate the importance of software. You never know how ingrained something will become in your organization, says Turner. "A great example is our use of software from ArsDigita, an MIT spinoff. ArsDigita was the Facebook of its day in many ways, and we thought the company would be around forever, but it disappeared in the dot-bomb era."

4. Avoid being held hostage by changes you make. "We built a huge online community around the ArsDigita Community System, and did a lot of customization," says Turner. "ACS has become one of institution's more important pieces of software -- it does forums on campus, handles polling, votes, events, and all sorts of fun things. But, we're running a version that's unsupportable. There's no way for us to upgrade because it's been so heavily customized--it's no longer ACS, it's now Brandeis' code base of ACS."

5. Know when to choose commercial software. "For our monitoring software, we were using NetSaint, which was a great product but never got a lot of good development effort on the configuration side and became impossible to maintain," says Turner. "So we looked at what we could do. We could write something, but we knew that was the wrong thing to do because we're not code developers, we're a university. So we decided to go with Hyperic which is a commercially supported piece of software."


This tip is adapted from "What I've Learned About Open Source Software" by Beth Schultz.

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