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Seven Observations On Software Maintenance and FOSS

FOSS projects “continuously” apply bug fixes and feature enhancements at no additional cost to their users

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The November 2009 issue of Communications of the ACM (CACM) has a very interesting article by Paul Stachour and David Collier-Brown entitled “You Don’t Know Jack About Software Maintenance”. The authors argue energetically for using versioned data structures and “continuous upgrading” to improve the state of the art of software maintenance.

The piece got me thinking about FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) and “continuous upgrading”. Here are seven observations on FOSS software maintenance that occurred to me as I reflected on the CACM article:

  1. FOSS projects “continuously” apply bug fixes and feature enhancements at no additional cost to their users. By applying these improvements “continuously”, the user reaps a steady stream of “interest payments” providing ever-improving security, performance, and functionality.
  2. Since FOSS incurs no licensing or license management costs, upgrading FOSS is not hindered by capital expenses.
  3. Typically support in FOSS projects is focused on the current stable version. Therefore, upgrading to the current stable version is the preferred way to receive the best support from FOSS communities.
  4. One of the key reasons behind Debian’s strong track record of “continuous upgrading” is its way of handling the tricky issues involved with dependent library upgrades (such as libc6, libssl.so.0.9.8, & etc). The chapter on Shared Libraries in the Debian Policy Manual details a proven method to effectively handle library upgrade issues (including its sophisticated handling of versions).
  5. When upgrading is applied routinely and “continuously”, it becomes crucial to support customizations across upgrades which can be one of the biggest obstacles to a smooth upgrade (see my earlier post on customization and upgradeability). One reason for Debian’s effectiveness in this regard is its robust configuration file handling policy.
  6. It is worth noting that the “continuous” implied here is not the one emphasized in dictionaries (which takes its nuances from the mathematical / physics concept of “no interruptions” and the epsilon-delta definition that students of Calculus learn). That concept of “continuous” is impossible in systems administration which is necessarily discrete as are all computer operations. The connotation required here is, perhaps, “unending”, or “eternal” or somesuch.
  7. The “right” frequency for “continuous” upgrades is a complex tradeoff between business requirements and upgrade infrastructure maturity. Debian and Ubuntu provide vary mature support for “continuous upgrading”. They support the upgrade of production servers through release after release after major release with minimal downtime or risk of a glitch that could affect users. Their current release frequency of about 2 years may be the best we can do given the current state of the art of software maintenance. I hope we can learn to increase the frequency as better engineered upgrade policies are developed.

I prefer the name “eternally regenerative software administration” over “continuous upgrading”. It avoids the philosophical problems with the word “continuous” and emphasizes the active, “ecological” approach needed to envision the engineering of “regenerativity” in software. By that I mean software maintenance should involve building the system so each new version enables installation of the next while facilitating management of any customizations and integration with other software (including libraries and other “helper” applications). Regenerativity is the process of growth and change used by Nature itself. Software maintenance needs to follow similar principles.

More Stories By CJ Fearnley

CJ Fearnley was an early leader in the adoption and implementation of Linux and Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in Philadelphia.

In 1993, he recognized the emerging value of the Linux operating system. Through his leadership position in the Philadelphia Area Computer Society (PACS), he began introducing Linux to organizations in the Greater Philadelphia region. At PACS, he organized monthly presentations on Linux and FOSS and wrote 29 columns in the organization’s print periodical, The Databus. He then founded and helped build Philadelphia’s premiere Linux user group, the Philadelphia area Linux User Group (PLUG), where he continues to facilitate its first Wednesday meetings. After helping to establish a community and culture for Linux and FOSS in Philadelphia, CJ started building his first company, LinuxForce, to be the “go-to” firm for organizations wanting to realize the promise and power of Linux. LinuxForce is a leading technology services provider specializing in the development, implementation, management and support of Linux-based systems, with a particular expertise in Debian GNU/Linux and Ubuntu. LinuxForce provides remote Linux systems management services to clients including The Franklin Institute Science Museum and the Aker Philadelphia Shipyard through its flagship service offering Remote Responder.

In addition, CJ Fearnley has applied his organizational and leadership talent to building Buckminster Fuller’s legacy. CJ published an essay Reading Synergetics: Some Tips to help students of Fuller’s magnum opus, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, wade through that complex, multi-dimensional tome. He started maintaining The R. Buckminster Fuller FAQ on the Internet in 1994. His work on Buckminster Fuller was featured in an extensive interview published by Dome Magazine in 1999. In 2002 CJ started building the Synergetics Collaborative (SNEC) as an organization to bring together people with an interest in Synergetics’ methods and principles in workshops, symposia, seminars, and other meetings.

CJ received his BA in Mathematical Sciences and Philosophy from Binghamton University in 1989 where he was a Regents Scholar and has done graduate work at Drexel University. CJ was named to the Philadelphia Business Journal’s 2006 “40 Under 40″ List as one of the region’s most accomplished young professionals.

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