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How to evaluate an open source project

There are a fantastic number of open source projects out there, on SourceForge, apache, and elsewhere. This is fantastic because you can often leverage other work that folks have done, as well as knowledge and mistakes they’ve made. However, it can be extremely difficult to evaluate accurately how much such projects can help you, especially if you’ve not used them before, or if they are obscure. In addition, you probably don’t have a lot of time to choose a solution–clients that go with open source solutions tend to have budget constraints. I present here a quick checklist that I use to evaluate projects that I’m going to depend upon:

1. Know your drop dead features. These are features that the software package must have in order to be considered. Be careful not to make this too long. The primary purpose of this list is to allow you to quickly exclude packages that you know won’t work for you, and if you make it too long, you might be left with no options.

2. Look at the documentation attached to the project. This is the first place to start ruling a project out–if it doesn’t promise the features you need, move on. Also, look at a demo or screen shots, if possible. This lets you see how the package works. Compare behavior with the list of needed features.

3. Install the software. If you have difficulty installing it, that’s not an insurmountable issue–often open source projects aren’t the smoothest installations. However, installing it and spending a few hours playing around with this software that is going to be a significant part of your project can let you know if the impressions you received from the demo and documentation are correct–is it going to be easy enough to tweak/deploy/extend this software package?

4. In the world of open source support, the mailing list is king. Does this project have a mailing list? Is it archived? Is it googled? How active is it? If there’s no mailing list, is there a set of forums? The mailing list (or forum) is where you’re going to go when you have a smart question to ask, and you will, so you want this resource to be as strong as possible.

5. Look at the documentation again. The first time you did so, you were just looking to exclude a project based on feature set. This time, you want to see how much the documentation can help you. Is there a tutorial? Are the advanced topics that concern you covered? For java projects, is there javadoc? Is it more than just the methods and arguments that are automatically generated? What version of the software is the documentation for?

Of course, the more I depend on a piece of software, the more time I want to spend on evaluation. On the other hand, the process laid out above is entirely technical in nature, and, as we know, there may be other reasons for choosing, or not choosing, software. Installed base, existing team experience and knowledge, project timeline, or the fact that the CEO’s brother is on the board of a company with a rival offering all can influence software package choice. There are many factors to be considered, but this list is how I start off.