IT managers urged to dip toes into community-based support

For traditional businesses, navigating the world of open source software development is very different from working with a vendor. Just ask Ed Reaves, the platform product line manager for Toronto-based Nortel Networks, which uses Linux to run the switches that handle mobile telephone call routing.

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That starts with knowing who makes up the communities that are working on the code in the kernel parts that affect your business, he said. "If you don't know who the kernel maintainer (the lead person for a specific part of the kernel development process) is, then you're not even started," Frye said. "You've got to know who the subcommunity is" and who makes up those five to 10-person groups.

To get this information, Frye recommends that companies ask lots of questions, do research and poke around in the mailing lists to see how they work. Communities can work in different ways, making them even more intimidating, he said. "Listen and find out how decisions are made, and then go ahead and participate, then adapt to the community."

Frye also urged companies to get their legal team on board early. Since a company's developers will be contributing code, the legal team will want to ensure there are no violations of the company's intellectual property rights.

Also key, Frye said, is that you have to appraise work done by developers differently in the open source community. "We don't care whether someone gets their own code accepted" in an open source project, he said. "We care if we get out of the community code that we need."

Let someone else do it

Another panel member, Theodore Ts'o, an IBM technical staffer and a fellow and chief platform strategist at the Linux Foundation, urged a bit of caution for businesses that are considering jumping into the kernel development community.

"There are many, many options," Ts'o said. "You don't have to do it yourself." It can be very intimidating to jump into a kernel mailing list, which can receive 800 or more posts daily. "It's very daunting," he said.

What might work better for some enterprise users is to bring in a development partner to handle much of the community work, he said. "If people want to do it, I don't want to discourage them, but at the same time, I worry that they'll jump in and then jump out."

"It's like a car," Ts'o said. "Some people like to fix a car themselves. Some will go to a dealership and some will go to an independent repair shop."

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