Open Source v traditional Software (ding, ding, ding)
At the tail end of last month I spent two days attending talks at the yearly Internet World exhibition. I always enjoy listening to speakers and the quality was, by and large, very good. On the final day CMS Watch (@cmswatch) hosted a panel discussion in the Content Management theatre entitled: “Open Source v Traditional Software”. It’s was a strange title, I thought, as the line, for many vendors, between open and closed source becomes more and more vague. This blending was, however, represented in the panel, which included Stephen Morgan (@stephen_morgan) of Squiz – a commercial open source vendor.
On the whole the panel was very good and the debate interesting. The open source contingent argued eloquently the pros of spreading knowledge throughout the community and of the response times to bug fixes compared with the release cycles of proprietary software. One of Stephen’s responses when asked for reasons to go with an open source system, however, struck me as – at best – ill conceived.
Stephen had argued that as a customer of a closed source software retailer you fall, entirely, to their mercy in terms of functional changes. The assertion was that when you – as a customer – have access to source code you can modify it to suit your needs. Conversely, he claimed that changes to a closed source solution could only be requested, may never happen and would be subject to a lengthy release cycle even if they were implemented.
Now I’m sorry but that is just not the case; as I told the panel once the discussion was opened to the audience. The software I work with, Nstein’s WCM, features an expansive and well designed extension framework to do just what Stephen was referring to. In fact, I went further and put the polemic to the panel that hacking core source code is obviously not desirable and severely hinders an applications upgrade path. Stephen’s countered with the fact that changes made to the code-base can be submitted to Squiz (or almost any other open source software maintainer, for that matter) and may be committed into the core application.
Before I start a holy war here (and a succession of flames in this sites comments) I would like to state my position on open source: I love it. I love the concept. I love free software. I love the freedom to modify and distribute software. Basically, I get it. I’m a huge fan of Linux and at the end of the day a PHP programmer. Just yesterday, I spent my Saturday contributing PHPTs (that’s PHP tests, for non-geeks) with the PHP London user group. I really do dig open source. Also, for the record, I thought Stephen Morgan represented his brand and community very well and I enjoyed his commentary; this is not meant to be a personal attack 😉 .
In fact, this post is not criticizing open source software at all. The discussion here, as far as I am concerned is about best practices. Okay, sure, one can modify the source code to an open source project and that change may be incorporated into the software. May be incorporated; probably won’t be. And with closed source software that option is not available – you have less choice. But that is, I think, a good thing.
At least the prelude to a good thing. Software evolves, like all technology, and the beautiful simplicity of Darwinian evolution applies. It’s survival of the fittest. If we, at Nstein, were to compete with open source CMS projects with a solution which was not customisable, which had no mechanism for modification we would have died out. The fact is we make a vast amount of customisation possible – we’ve had to. Because we don’t encourage customers to delve into the core source code (it’s a PHP app so they can if they really want) we’ve had to employ other methods. Extensible object models built around best practices derived from industry experience. Plug-in frameworks. Generic extension frameworks. If one of our customers cannot extend or change something that they need to the chances out that another client will at some point want that same, absent flexibility. So, through good design practices we have constructed a system which clients can (and do) modify, yet when they decide to upgrade to the next point release it is a trivial process.
Now, I’m not saying that open source software is poorly designed. I’m writing this piece now on WordPress – a fantastic example of an open source project – which features an extremely rich and well documented plug-in framework. The sheer number of plug-ins and themes available for WorldPress is a testament to the system. And, as with Nstein’s software, when I upgrade WordPress all of my extensions still work (at least 95%, or more, of the time).
I doubt anyone would disagree with the merits of a plug-in based system. My interest, however, is in this question: how much of a temptation is there to hack open source software? I know I’ve done it in the past. I’ve heard a number of times that Drupal upgrades are nigh on impossible due to the nature of the inevitible customisations a Web content management system requires. I’m not in a position to answer that question authorititively, and I won’t attempt to. I would like to stir the debate up though. So, thoughts, please….