ARLINGTON, Va.—Walt Scacchi of the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues are conducting formal studies of the informal world of open-source software development, in which a distributed community of developers produces software source code that is freely available to share, study, modify and redistribute. They’re finding that, in many ways, open-source development can be faster, better and cheaper than the “textbook” software engineering often used in corporate settings.
In a series of reports posted online (see www.isr.uci.edu), Scacchi is documenting how open-source development breaks many of the software engineering rules formulated during 30 years of academic research. Far from finding that open-source development is just software engineering poorly done, Scacchi and colleagues show that it represents a new approach based on community building and other socio-technical mechanisms that might benefit traditional software engineering.
“Free and open-source software development is faster, better and cheaper in building a community and at reinforcing and institutionalizing a culture for how to develop software,” said Scacchi, a senior research scientist at UC Irvine’s Institute for Software Research who has taught software engineering for two decades. “We’re not ready to assert that open-source development is the be-all end-all for software engineering practice, but there’s something going on in open-source development that is different from what we see in the textbooks.”
Scacchi and his colleagues are studying open-source projects to understand when the processes and practices work and when they don’t. These findings may help businesses understand the implications of adopting open-source methods internally or investing in external open-source communities. The studies are supported by several Information Technology Research awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering.
Three projects—one by Les Gasser at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Scacchi, one by Scacchi and John Noll of Santa Clara University and one led by UC Irvine’s Richard Taylor—are applying the lessons learned from open-source practices to create new design, process-management and knowledge-management tools for large-scale, multi-organization development projects.
“In many ways, open-source development projects are treasure troves of information for how large software systems get developed in the wild, if you will,” Scacchi said.
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