Thursday, August 12, 2010

Open source - why bother with anything else?

Since I work in a fine small company where we are breathing open source for at least a decade, it is sometimes weird to be confronted again by open source adversaries or agonists. For example, a colleague wrote a fine technical design based on Mule. All of a sudden we're asked to compare this to BEA AquaLogic and see whether we could implement the project with that. Now this is probably possible, and AquaLogic is probably a fine product family, but why bother?

Since there was already a Mule prototype, I found it a cumbersome idea. To get up to speed with AquaLogic you first have to find out what products in the AquaLogic family you need, and of course you only need a tiny bit of most of them. Secondly you have to go into a trajectory to get the software, including development licenses. Somehow money is not always a problem, but the time to get the products and start working always is, and the deadline won't move. Did I already mention I really hate bureaucracy?

Starting with open source often just takes 5 lines in a pom.xml and a few minutes of download time.

Okay, well suppose this was all taken care of and you are happily underway with development. You then run into a problem. Yes, you will, this is no different from open source. Now lets see how I typically deal with problems with using open source and see how this applies to closed source software.

Finding a solution to a problem with an open source product
1) (Re-)read the documentation
The first step is always to read the documentation. With the source jars attached in your favorite IDE, the javadoc is one key-press away.

2) Debugging
In step 2 we'll do some debugging. Again, with the source jars attached, tracing through your own code is as easy as tracing the open source code. I may not understand all the code, but I know what I need and I can read the JavaDoc of code encountered underway.
More often then not tracing leads to a deeper understanding of the used products, and I frequently find things that are useful for other parts of the project. The deeper understanding helps to form a solution. This can be changing your code, or patching the open source product. Otherwise it helps you formulate a more precise problem statement for the next steps.

3) Read more documentation
As I have now seen the code, I can search the available documentation more efficiently. So I do this first before going into the next step. Documentation in this phase can be anything, from manuals to blogs and forums.

4) Post questions
The last step is to post a question on a forum or mailing list. If you get this far, you are either lazy, you just missed something, or you found out that the library has a bug. The results of this step are not always satisfactory; it really depends on the community around the product. At least you can always change the open source product yourself.

Finding a solution to a problem with a closed source product

1) (Re-)read the documentation
Again, the first step is to read the documentation. However, javadoc is not always available. Rarely is it available in the form of a source jar.

2) Debugging
Oops, we can only trace our own code. Perhaps you can use de-compilation. Note that this might actually be illegal in your country (not in The Netherlands luckily). Secondly, the source might be obfuscated. And of course, I am not even talking about products that run as a complete separate program.

3) Read more documentation
As it is unlikely that debugging gave us more insight, we skip this step.

4) Post questions
In rare cases there are user communities around closed source. These are very valuable! However, usually you just have to ask the manufacturer. By lack of insight, the question won't be as detailed as with open source. And then we rely on the manufacturer. Some react quick and accurate, some don't even give you the the ability to ask questions. More often then not it costs lots of money and time. And of course meanwhile you will have to code workarounds yourself.


Despite the title I am not at all against closed and commercial software. Its just that as a programmer I find it hardly ever worth the bother.