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Ask Steve! - Choosing suitable open-source software

Posted by s.crouch on 26 October 2011 - 4:39pm

At the SeIUCCR Summer School in September I was asked a blinder of a question:

“How do I choose sustainable software for my project?”

Assuming an open-source context for this question, there are many things worth considering. It could be that the functionality of your software needs extended. Not wanting to re-invent the wheel, you’re looking for an appropriate library to provide that functionality. Or perhaps you have an analysis tool that outputs a certain data format that you need to post-process into an image. What should you look for in software?

It’s easy to reach for the first software package you come across that seems to do what you want. Perhaps it’s already installed in your target platform, or it’s the first thing you found on Google. But picking the wrong software can have expensive consequences if it doesn’t do everything you want or, even worse, development and support comes to a stop!

Taking a little time to make an informed choice is time well spent. So what questions can you ask about the software to find out if it’s suitable?

First off, and most obvious: does it do what you want? Be sure you know your requirements, not only what you need now, but what you need in the future. What are the goals? If it’s for a wider community, think about the goals of the user community too. If the software doesn’t meet your needs, you should check to see if the functionality can be extended, or look for more suitable software.

Have a look at the software’s support, and check for an active user and developer community. Check the forums, issue tracker and mailing lists (they should have them!) for activity and responsiveness. If you run into problems, support is your first port of call, so it must be good.

Most importantly, check that the software has a future! If the software’s development and support were to stop, you could find yourself looking around for a replacement. This is ultimately what you are trying to avoid! Some positive indicators for sustainability – in addition to a well established community – are a roadmap, a solid track record of previous releases and an actively maintained website. If you are aware of appropriate open standards that are commonly used within your research field, does the software use them?

How is the software is provided? Check that documentation is available, and whether the pre-requisites for the software are appropriate for your needs. If you plan to extend the software then access to appropriate source code is very  important – is it provided via a source code repository, and is the code in an understandable and maintainable state that you can extend?

Perhaps the most important of all, check the licence conditions of the software. If you intend to distribute the software, check that the licence allows this, and check that you can distribute any modifications or extensions you make.

Of course, with such a complex question, there’s always more to know. Check out the Software Sustainability Institute’s guide on Choosing the right open source software for your project, which goes into more detail.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask the software developers if you have any questions. If you get prompt and helpful responses, that’s a good indication you’ll be able to get the right support should you need it. If not, it might be time to look elsewhere. Now where did you put that list of alternatives…

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