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Open Source Software and Documents

Open Source Software and Documents

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Published by: arendale on Aug 12, 2009
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Open Source Software and Documents: A Literature and OnlineResource Review
John G. DrummondApril 5, 2000
Open source software (OSS) and open source documents (OSD) are arising star in technology today. The term "open source" was coinedmerely two years ago (1998)
, and is now a media buzzword (Raymond,205). With its rapidly growing market share and corporate and publicinterest to match, open source as a concept will not stay a fringe phenomenon for long; in fact, it is rapidly entering the mainstream. Thisliterature and online resource review is a starting point for anyoneinterested in the subject.
The Open Source Revolution
Since open source is relatively novel (as far as the mainstream,non-hacker 
culture is concerned) and largely exists online, there areonly two printed works on the subject-and most of the material in thesetwo books is also freely available online. One of the things that make theopen source movement so unusual is that as it has developed over thelast twenty years or so, it has done little self-documenting. This is onereason thatEric S. Raymond, self-appointed chief advocate for opensource, wrote his now-famous essay"The Cathedral and the Bazaar."ESR (as the hacker community refers to Mr. Raymond) wrote "Cathedraland Bazaar" largely to ameliorate this condition of non-documentation.Fascinated by the rapid development and growing sophistication of theLinux
operating system, ESR began studying the open sourcedevelopment model (Raymond, 198). Why was Linux so mature, whentheFree Software Foundationhad been trying to develop asimilar  operating systemfor years without success? He found that while thecorporate, mainstream, closed-source method (the "cathedral" model) of coding large programs like operating systems is bound byBrooke's Law,the open source development process (the "bazaar" model) actually
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reverses it. Brooke's Law states that programming work performedincreases with direct proportion to the number of programmers (N), butthe complexity of a project increases by the square of the number of  programmers (N2). Therefore, it should follow that thousands of  programmers working on a single project should become mired in anightmare of human communication and version control. As "Cathedraland Bazaar" explains, the open source model (the "bazaar") overcomesthis problem through customary central version control, mutual respect,and an army of developers and bug testers. This is summed up in afamous statement by ESR known as "Linus' Law" (so named for LinusTorvalds, original author and maintainer of the Linux kernel
): "Manyeyes make all bugs shallow." "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," first givenin 1997 at the Linux Kongress in Bavaria, led directly to the release of the Netscape browser source (seehttp://www.mozilla.org) and thecurrent open source boom (Raymond, 200).
So how did all this come about? The open source concept is as old as thehistory of computing, and is closer to the original academic developmentof computing systems than the corporate model of today. These earlydays are illustrated in two excellent essays,"A Brief History of Hackerdom"by Eric S. Raymond, and"The GNU Operating System andthe Free Software Movement"byRichard M. Stallman.Both of these essays trace the simultaneous beginnings of modern computing, theInternet, and open source software development. More historicalinformation (along with the origins of many arcane computer terms) can be found at the Jargon File (athttp://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/jargon/
) or inits published counterpart, The New Hacker's Dictionary (which was,incidentally, one of the first books to be commercially published andsimultaneously available online for free).The first organized effort to produced open source software was theFreeSoftware Foundation (FSF), founded byRichard M. Stallman(known as RMS) in 1985 (Stallman, 60). RMS formed the nonprofit foundation for two reasons: to further develop GNU
software, and to create a thinktank to further the notion of "Copyleft."Copyleft is a pun-the idea being toturn copyright around upon itself. The FSF developed this concept intotheGNU Public License(GPL), a software distribution license thatstipulates (in a nutshell):Software released under the GPL shall be freely distributableThe software shall be distributed along with its source codeAnyone is free to modify the source code and change the program,as long as the resulting program is also freely distributable andmodifiableThis ensures that all of the GNU software (and any other softwarereleased under the GPL) is protected from those who would use the codeto create proprietary, closed-source programs. Around half of the open
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source software available today is made available under the terms of theGPL. Today there exist several similar licenses of varying restrictionsand attitudes toward commercial use and sale of covered software (seehttp://www.opensource.org/licenses/).
Open Source Documents
The first documents that truly followed the open source model (in thesense of having many contributors and reviewers coupled with onlineavailability) were Frequently Asked Questions lists, known as FAQs. Thefirst online FAQ to go by that title is attributed to Eugene Miya, a NASAemployee (Hersch, 1). His SPACE-digest mailing list FAQ was written in1982, when the Internet was a little-known experimental network knownas the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) (seehttp://www.faqs.org/faqs/faqs/about-faqs/). Unfortunately, little isknown about the history of these now-ubiquitous informationaldocuments. An attempt was begun in 1996 to write a book about FAQs, but the web page for this project has not been updated since 1997 (seehttp://www.faqs.org/faqbook/).Unfortunately, documentation is one of the weakest aspects of opensource program (Stallman, 68). This is, perhaps, a result of the fact thathackers enjoy coding so very much; updating the documentation issometimes an afterthought. Conversely, the idea that programmers make poor writers is an unfortunate stereotype. Eric Raymond insists that thevery best hackers are also excellent writers, since good programminginvolves both logical analysis of a problem and a high level of creativity(Raymond, 246). This is evident in the fact that ESR (author of the popular Fetchmailprogram and numerous modules for the Emacs texteditor), Richard Stallman (author of GNU Emacs, theGNU C compiler , and other keystone programs),Larry Wall(creator of thePerl  programming language), and other open source luminaries have writtennumerous (and excellent) essays, manuals, and technical books.This is changing, however. Since open source software, particularly theLinux operating system, needs good documentation to expand to newusers, much work has been done to improve this situation. Open source programs are usually documented in three forms:README files that are distributed with each individual programManual pages ("man pages", so named after the man commandused to access them), technical references which are alsodistributed with each program (seeftp://ftp.win.tue.nl/pub/linux/docs/manpages/)HOWTO documents, which are instructional in nature, and usuallytask- (as opposed to program-) oriented (seehttp://www.linux.org/help/ldp/howto/howto.html). There is also a smaller, lessstep-by-step subset of the HOWTO documents known asMini-HOWTOs (seehttp://www.linux.org/help/ldp/mini/minihowto.html)
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