Five open source projects worth pursuing

On the TV show American Idol, contestants are weeded out weekly, victims to the popular vote and, of course, a stunning lack of talent.

In the open source world, less popular projects might not be asked to leave the sites they’re hosted on, such as, but the best and the brightest are destined for greatness, often ending up as the code behind major software projects. Defining a good project, though, is somewhat of an art in itself.

“The criteria I’ve always used are that the problem the solution is trying to solve is solved adequately and people are happy with the solution,” says Ross Turk, community manager.

Other good indicators include the breadth of the project’s distribution and its inclusion in different repositories and platforms, he adds. provides a weekly list of the top 100 most active projects based on consumption — the number of hits, the number of downloads, the freshness of the releases, the frequency of logins of project administrators and the amount of collaboration.

But the best open source software projects are those whose developers have understood it’s not just about writing great code, says Turk.

“One of the differences between open source and closed source is because of the availability of software. The key to success is in understanding the barriers that keep people from installing it once they’ve downloaded it,” he says. “The projects I’ve seen that are very successful are the ones that put a lot of effort into the downloading and installation processes and into allowing users to take it one step further and start to participate.”

OpenLogic Inc., a Broomfield, Colo.-based firm that helps enterprises find, deploy and manage open source products, has a library of open source projects customers can browse. That makes it easier for enterprises to be assured of the quality of the project: each has undergone a 42-step selection and certification process.

“We help enterprises consume and manage open source, so we give them one place to go for a trusted set of projects that we keep updated and maintained,” says founder and CTO Rod Cope.

“Over the last several years we’ve collected the cream of the crop of open source. There is a bunch of project repositories that host about 160,000 different projects today, and we’re really scraping off just the top 300 or so enterprises are using or have asked us to add to the library, the ones that are really ready for prime time.”

So which ones are ready for prime time?

We asked some industry experts in the open source field for their top picks.

Apache ActiveMQ An open source message queuing project released under the Apache 2.0 licence.

“It’s basically an underlying infrastructure tool that supports very high-speed communication among servers and other software,” says OpenLogic’s Cope.

“It’s certainly competitive with the commercial implementations of message queuing out there and it is completely open source. It’s very high-speed performance, it’s extremely flexible and it integrates well with lots of other open source tools. So definitely a good choice.”

POI Also hosted by, POI is the master project for developing pure Java ports of file formats based on Microsoft’s OLE 2 compound document format. “It enables programmers to get access to some of the Microsoft documents directly in their code so they can open Word or Excel files and edit them or create them from scratch. That’s pretty powerful and a commonly needed feature when working with business,” says Cope.

Spring Framework A layered Java/J2EE application framework, based on code published in Expert One-on-One J2EE Design and Development by Rod Johnson.

“It enables very flexible configuration of software,” says Cope, making it easy for software developers to change or swap in different pieces or parts of their application over time, or test them in different scenarios or use one particular component. “Later when you go into a production environment and you need to update that to something more powerful, Spring enables you to plug in all those things in a way that doesn’t disturb the rest of your code.”

Enhydra Shark Defined as an extendable and embeddable Java Open Source workflow engine framework, Enhydra Shark includes a standard implementation completely based on WfMC specifications using XPDL as its native workflow process definition format and the WfMC “ToolAgents” API for serverside execution of system activities.

“It can document and diagram all of your workflow processes and it can take those and create a working application that mimics the process you’ve developed,” says Richard Schilling, a developer of Work Tracker, which tracks work requests and assignments, and founder of Seattle-based Cognition Group, an open source consultancy.

“We can model the process of a very large corporation very quickly…and once you capture that business model you can immediately run it as a simulation in real time.”

Acegi Security A software tool that provides security services for J2EE-based enterprise software applications has gotten the attention of Terry Nolen, senior principal software architect, and Dave Gebhart, senior developer, at Sabre Airline Solutions.

“It’s something we have begun to use and it’s very effective,” says Gebhart. “It’s a very good Java type security application for implementing a security foundation into your application, so in other words you can tell people what they can and can’t do within your product.”

Sabre takes a stab at open source

Most major organizations have already made the move to adopting open source for some enterprise functions. But few have adopted the principles and practices of the open source community as an enterprise model. Sabre Airline Solutions’ Terry Nolen, senior principal software architect, and Dave Gebhart, senior developer, will be explaining how they’ve adopted open source at the O’Reilly Open Source Convention 2007 July 23-27 in Portland, Ore.

“From an airline solutions perspective we’re finding the open source solutions are more adaptable — maybe not quite as feature rich — but more adaptable and cost-effective for us,” Nolen says.

Anyone at Sabre can volunteer to work on any open source project being developed internally — as long as it’s on their free time. It developed its own platform.

“Projects will retain the intellectual property for those things, but since we’re such a large development shop, we can share the efforts within our organization,” says Nolen.

“We have lots of talented people that might want to try different technology and be part of a thing that helps them achieve their personal goals.”

For employees, it’s a significant training opportunity as well, adds Gebhart. “A lot of projects that come into this platform are very leading-edge and a lot of people that join in our platform are people who want to self-(teach). They get to write code or develop standards and they get involved. Whenever you’re on break or at lunch you can go in and do coding on something you actually like, as opposed to something you’re being told to do.” Projects can range from documentation to design and everything in between, he says.

“There’s no limitation on what people can do. We try purposely not to govern, just to guide.”

Some projects will stay internal and never go outside the volunteer group, but others mature, says Nolen. “We also have cases where some projects become production-applicable and get funded for full-time staff so it moves from volunteer to full time.”

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