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StarOffice Code Released in Largest Open Source Project

Oct 13, 2000, 12:00 (17 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt

Sun Microsystems is taking huge steps into the world of open source software today, and at the same time is taking great pains not to make those steps awkward ones.

Sun's joint effort with CollabNet kicked into high gear on the OpenOffice Web site at 5 a.m. PST this morning with the release of much of the source code for the upcoming 6.0 version of StarOffice. According to Sun, this release of 9 million lines of code under GPL is the beginning of the largest open source software project ever.

In an organization of 75 modules within 18 projects, participants can join any project they wish to contribute to and begin working with fellow developer using the OpenOffice Web site as the primary communications conduit. The site features entry portals and archives of project-centric mailing lists as well as a Whiteboard area for general issues to be tossed around and mulled over.

The decision to start OpenOffice with a future release of StarOffice, rather than a shipped release such as 5.2, demonstrates Sun's commitment to this project.

"We did that to show how deeply we believed in the open source model," explained Bill Roth, Sun's Group Product Manager for OpenOffice.org.

Today's premiere of the Web site may be able to justify that commitment all by itself. Not only will OpenOffice feature all of the source code, there will also be three ready to run binaries of the OpenOffice.org suite for download, one each for the Linux, Solaris, and Windows platforms.

Wither StarOffice?

OpenOffice.org will not just be a separate development track for a public version of StarOffice, either. According to Roth, the Sun developers for the StarOffice product will be creating the commercial version of the office suite directly from the versions of code found in the OpenOffice.org CVS database.

In this way, the company that created the Java Community Process for its open source dealings will actually start using more of a Mozilla-based model when it comes to the interaction of the OpenOffice.org suite and the commercial StarOffice. There will be one open source repository of code being constantly improved and enhanced. At various intervals, Sun will be able to create a parallel development to a commercial release of StarOffice.

The OpenOffice.org site has been open to the public for some time now, letting potential contributors get a taste of the projects to come. This is part of CollabNet's strategy of community building, which the company's executives feel is one of the keys to a successful open source project.

Already 450 contributors have signed on to various discussion groups, busily going over the future of the code about to be handed to them. One of the first things this budding community noticed was the planned lack of three components of StarOffice: the mail, news, and PIM tools.

Roth stressed that the exclusion of these tools does not necessarily mean they are out of StarOffice's future permanently. The contributors, he feels, will determine whether there is a need to replace these tools with other applications, such as Mozilla for the news and messaging functions; build new code into the suite to replace the functionality; or leave the functions out altogether. In this matter, "we are waiting for community feedback," Roth said.

Community Structure in OpenOffice

The impetus of the community at large will play a prime factor in the directions that the OpenOffice.org suite takes. Even the names of the individual components, which are now just given generic names such as OpenOffice.org wordprocessor application or OpenOffice.org spreadsheet application, will eventually be determined by the members of the community.

While the open source process is certainly different from the traditional corporate top-down model, Roth emphasized this will not be a completely non-hierarchical structure.

"Even with the Linux kernel," Roth pointed out, "there are still only two people in the world with the ability to commit code."

The hierarchy of the OpenOffice.org community at the onset will have all 18 of the project managers as employees of Sun. This will allow Sun to keep the development of the individual modules and the overall project on some sort of agenda, though not necessarily Sun's. Sun and CollabNet are taking great care to avoid the decisions made in the two-year-old Mozilla open source project, where a lack of a central leadership, critics argue, has pulled that project into a directionless spiral.

Another way Sun plans to build OpenOffice.org's community is through very open communication with the contributors, including the release of marketing data and other information that will allow contributors to make informed decisions on the direction to take.

To a closed-source mindset, this action might appear to be just short of insane, since marketing data is one of the sacred cows of the corporate world. Roth does not see things in quite those terms.

"These 450 people are an extension of our development group," Roth said.

"The way you lead now is no longer by control of intellectual property," he continued. "You lead by the content of your ideas."

Language, another obstacle for communities to face, has been removed from the equation, at least in terms of programming language. All of the APIs in the code are submitted in the Java Interface Definition Language (IDL), which give CORBA-like attributes to the APIs. In other words, the APIs are language neutral. Which means, Roth explained, that although the APIs may initially have Java bindings, any contributor can add scripts later in Java, Fortran, C++, whatever they wish.

CollabNet's Give and Take

Setting up a functioning community is the hand CollabNet brings to the table. When they made their bets today, they will get to see how the development community plays out their hand. After three months of working closely with Sun, CollabNet is confident they'll share the pot with Sun.

This is not CollabNet's first effort with Sun--that honor goes to their joint Netbeans.org project. Still, no one in the world has ever gone into an open source project involving nine million lines of code before.

In the three months the two companies have been actively working together, CollabNet, a commercial open source facilitation firm, has not gotten too many surprises, but with Sun they had plenty of opportunities to learn new facets of open source. Bill Phipps, Consulting Services Manager for CollabNet, said the two companies are still "continuing to learn."

What made this project so different to prepare for, Phipps explained, was not the size of the code involved, but its nature. The StarOffice code base has 10-12 years of inertia built into it, and was never intended to be open source code. When Sun decided to use the StarOffice 6.0 code, they had made some progress in eliminating the multitude of intellectual property code, but there are still a lot of libraries and utilities that will appear as a black box to the OpenOffice.org community, since Sun cannot release third-party source code.

It will be up to the contributors, Phipps said, to decide how to replace these third-party segments of the code. Phipps predicts that today's release of the source code will be an education for the open source development community at large, because they will be facing a huge amount of commercially-oriented code with all of the attending pros and cons.

Phipps sees keeping the community together as the primary goal for making an open source project like this, and CollabNet brings technology as well as experience to the game.

On the technology side, there is SourceCast, CollabNet's Swiss army knife of version control, bug tracking, and communications tools that work together throughout the development workflow. Found bugs, for instance, can be noted during check-in of code into the CVS repository, then automatically posted for review in the enhanced Bugzilla module, and messages sent to the necessary people using the qmail utility.

On the experience side, CollabNet's Chief Technology Officer and founder is Brian Behlendorf, co-founder of the Apache web server project and president of the Apache Foundation. His knowledge is a big influence on the governance of the OpenOffice.org project, as its governing rules are modeled after those of the Apache Foundation's.

Phipps does not see this project going off in multiple directions as other open source projects have done. The very size of the code base means that builds are going to take much longer to make than on smaller code projects, making splitting directions difficult to occur.

"Sun did invest a substantial effort in the build process," Phipps added, indicating that this investment would allow them to keep a hand on the wheel.

The sense of community will also gain some measure of strength from the diversity of roles that available to contributors. Not just developers are needed for these projects, as people skilled in quality assurance, release management, and documentation can definitely lend a hand. Other projects will include porting the applications to other platforms and internationalization of the product, to name two.

The Future According to OpenOffice.org

Right out of the gate, users and developers of the OpenOffice.org suite will notice more than just the missing messaging and scheduling components. Before they decided to release this code, Sun had decided to move away from a proprietary binary file format and have files be created in XML format.

Despite all of these changes during the metamorphosis to OpenOffice.org, Roth emphasized that this source code release would in no way affect the status of StarOffice as the upcoming default office suite to the Gnome desktop environment.

"Bonobo is a key technology to what we're doing," Roth said.

Phipps has his own thoughts on the future of OpenOffice.org. He sees this project as a way to leverage the open source model onto the desktop for not just Linux, but other platforms as well, including Windows and PDAs. The latter may not be so far-fetched, as the first topic of discussion on the OpenOffice.org Whiteboard is "Personal Digital Assistants and OpenOffice."

The next few weeks will be interesting to watch, both from a technological and a sociological point of view. The new online community founded today will undoubtedly face many growing pains and triumphs as it matures into something completely new in scope for the open source community.

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