steve losh
 

Posted on January 13, 2009.

Well, I’ve finally taken the plunge and made this site open source. It’s held in a Mercurial repository, but you can view or download the source code from http://bitbucket.org/sjl/stevelosh/ without any special tools.

The site was built with the Django framework. If you want to know more check out the project page. This post isn’t going to duplicate what’s there; instead I want to write about why I made the site open source at all. There are a couple of main reasons, and not all of them are selfish!

I Get More Traffic

The first reason to make a site open source is to try to get more hits. You certainly don’t lose any hits from doing it, and when developers find your link on places like DjangoSites they might be more inclined to visit if they knew they could look at the source code later.

You also have the chance to post on Twitter, Tumblr, or other places about the source code of the site. Each of those posts can expose more people to the website. It’s easy to overdo this though. I heartily agree with the sentiments of howtousetwitterformarketingandpr.com on that issue.

Don’t worry, I won’t be obnoxious about it.

I Can Give Back to the (Programming) Community

Yeah, I know. It sounds cliched, but it’s true.

The open source community has produced a ridiculous amount of software, some of which we use every day. Software like Apache, Django, and countless others simply wouldn’t exist in anything remotely close to their current forms.

Being able to look at the source code for a particular project can be extremely helpful to someone trying to learn how to do something similar. Instead of firing up an email client and sending a message to the creator they can simply look at how it works themselves. They can download it, tweak it, break it, and figure out what makes it tick. There’s no substitute for that.

I strongly believe that the world would be a better place if everyone shared their knowledge (in all fields) and we all learned from each other. In some cases it’s simply not practical, but more often than not I think people want to horde their knowledge and feel superior. Sure, that might be nice for your ego, but does it really make the world a happier, more beautiful place to live?

I Might Get Free Code!

Well, probably not, but who knows? Maybe some developer has a lot of free time on his or her hands?

Distributed version control systems like Mercurial make it extremely easy to help out with open source projects. For example, if you were looking through my code and saw a bug that you wanted to fix, you could do the following:

  • Clone the repository to your own machine.
  • Fix the bug in that local copy, committing to your local repository as you go.
  • Go back to the website and click the “Pull Request” button.
  • I review the changes.
  • If I like them I press a button to merge them into the main repository.

Once the changes are in the main repository I just run a single script to redeploy the site as usual and the changes are live. It’s really an almost painless process. Compare that to something like Subversion or (ick) CVS:

  • Check out the repository to your own machine.
  • Fix the bug in that local copy, without committing (don’t mess up!).
  • Create a patch using diff or something similar.
  • Email me the patch.
  • I review the changes.
  • If I like them I check out a fresh copy of the repository.
  • I apply the patch to this copy.
  • I merge the patch back into the main repository.

It’s much more difficult because I don’t want to just give any anonymous person commit access to my repository.

It Makes Me Fix My Damn Code

This is probably the most tangible and important benefit of my open sourcing this site. It forced me to rewrite parts of the code that weren’t secure and do it the right way.

Passwords stored in source control? Yeah, definitely a bad thing.

Of course, it was kind of a pain in the ass to refactor a bunch of stuff. Really, though, the main problem I had was my own procrastination and going open source was a good nudge. Plus when I start work on another site I’ll know how to do it right the first time.

Aside from major security and privacy issues, it also gives me a big incentive to clean up my code and make it more elegant. Clean, elegant code makes me happy. It’s less likely to have bugs (because there are fewer places for them to hide) and it’s far easier to maintain in the long run.

It’s also simply more fun to read and work with.

You Should Probably Try It

Obviously not all software is appropriate for open sourcing, but if you’ve got a pet project that you’ve been working and you think it might benefit from a few more sets of eyes, try it!

You don’t need to spend money or configure much of anything to share your code; sites like BitBucket and GitHub offer free hosting and great interfaces for repositories of open source code.

If you have any questions or comments I’d love to hear them!