Forum OpenACS Q&A: Reuse in the large is an unsolved problem !?

I just read Lars Pinds article on why he left OpenACS, which made me wonder: Is it really better to start from scratch / copy paste code from one client to another and just build what the client wants? And is it really better in all situations?

Reason I wonder: Take .LRN as an example. A lot of features are being developed for it. Effort is underway to make most of it compatible with OpenACS at large so it can be reused. We used the Portal System of .LRN, the project-manager, the contacts system and bundled them together as a new solution which we will roll out to multiple clients and modify this base slightly according to the clients specific needs. But usually our clients are happy with the way things work in OpenACS, on the one hand because they don't know better and on the other because we rely on multiple users using the same software in different szenarios and if they don't like it, they modify it and bring the better version back to OpenACS.

Lars Posting:

P.S.: The issue with file storage was resolved in a very neat way...

Posted by Neophytos Demetriou on
[I have to say that I have not tried rails extensively but I did skim over their implementation of active record, etc]

If I understand Lars article, the main problem is granularity.

[High-level organization] If you are a developer-user of the platform then granularity stops at the package level and the things you can do with the package manager and the site (map) admin interface.

[Medium-level organization] OTOH, if you are a developer-developer the "granules/constructs" are not as finely grained as they need to be. You would either have to go with the existing constructs, i.e. form, list, page, portlet or you would have to build something from scratch.

This won't cut it. What I believe is missing, is a lower-level of organization which is currently (wrongly) substituted by copy/modify/write practices of tcl procs manipulating db tables and plsql code.

What is needed, is a larger granule that can be customized without copy/pasting existing code. This is mainly subdivided in three items:

* [reusable behaviour] a class granule is a step forward since it provides added flexibility (for example, via subclassing)

* [reusable structure] move data model into a db neutral granule, for example a db class [I do NOT advocate the use of a persistence layer here, just some way of exploiting reusable behaviour for structure]

* [reusable interface] expose UI granules both at the tcl level and also at the highest level via customization services... for example, there must be a way to represent a page as a tree of UI granules/portlets that depend on a collection of data sets and their decoration and placement (layout). This IMO would enable a developer-developer to prepare a page quickly and only at the end improve the graphic design part. [This is not as simple as it sounds but it can be done]

Posted by Torben Brosten on
ROR highlights the point that automated code generation is very useful for saving development time.[1] For example, generators are something that is functionally inbetween the dynamic ad_form and copy/pasting manually generated forms.

Couldn't OpenACS extend code generation similarly? I believe the APM does a little of that. Generating pages from code seems pretty straight forward.

OpenACS has a package in development for converting from UML to code[2][3]. It would be nice to have the system build the basics and framework for a new package from filling out a form or two. It might actually help developers to standardize some of the best practices by codifying them. Maybe packages could be recompiled with revised code libraries to save time in the update process. More detailed discussion here:




Posted by Malte Sussdorff on
Torben, we actually have this in place. One piece is called "package builder" and it is in CVS. Install it, say what objects (and attributes) the package deals with and off you should go (with cr_items, listbuilder lists and add/edit/display/delete forms).

The alternative is to use OAK

I asked Timo to take a look at OAK and enhance it with his current knowledge of package builder and best practises in OpenACS.

Posted by Matthew Dodwell on
I've been using OAK recently and found that it substantially enhanced my OACS experience :-)

Just to have a package build the DB scripts is incredibly useful to me and has helped in learning the system by getting my simple packages working quickly, and then I can enhance them.

Having just been writing TCL code generators for a client I very much like this development method. Encode your expert knowledge in one place and get the routine code produced from a higher level design pattern. There will always be a need for coding the more obscure cases, but I'm fed up with always rewriting the standard stuff!

Reading Lars' articles as a long-time lurker at OACS and a sometime user I can see what he's saying and I'm sad that such a good coder has gone elsewhere, but I still have a lot of affection for this package and will continue to use it as my DB/web environment.


Posted by Stan Kaufman on
Hmm...interesting to see this thread, as I recently spotted Jonathan Ellis' requiem for OpenACS as well as heard these comments from some formerly-active OpenACS community members:

My feeling about OpenACS is that it has become relevant only to .LRN. It is becoming more and more a marginal development platform. That doesn't take away from its technical strengths. Its primary weakness is the lack of innovation. SOAP, AJAX, Web services, all are used marginally.


The OpenACS community is dying or dead.

and of course, Lars' conclusion:

All the problems I’d seen weren’t because of poor execution. It was a dumb idea to begin with! Reuse-in-the-large is exactly the problem that OpenACS is trying to solve, and it “remains a mostly unsolved problem, even though everyone agrees it is important and desirable”. Can it be said any clearer than that?

Problem is, that when you take away that piece, you’re left with an little known, hard-to-install, overly complex, partially debugged, aging toolkit built on a stack that nobody else uses. It started to look very unattractive. I knew I had to get away.

I find this kind of stuff distressing, but I really can't figure out what to conclude from it -- particularly since I also have had other far more optimistic discussions lately. Some random thoughts:

  • What is the difference between a "mature" toolkit and an "aging" one? Now that OpenACS has finally settled a lot of the core stuff that was in rapid evolution earlier, it is now suddenly passe? Have the requirements for Internet-based database-backed applications suddenly changed and I missed some memo? How is it smarter to start over with some new first generation toolkit that has to re-solve all the old problems?

  • Why is the "stack" issue such a problem for so many people? I guess that if you want to build/install systems that you walk away from and leave for maintenance to others who don't/won't know/use AOLserver/PG, then it is an issue. But if maintenance/support is part of your biz model or you're running the system/service on a box you control in some cage, why isn't the stack a black-box issue of no concern to clients? (Same point re installation.)

    However, if the fate of AOL (eg a M$ acquisition) kills off AOLserver, then this is indeed a Big Problem for the OpenACS stack.

  • The complexity and bugginess of the toolkit are indeed important issues, but those are always important issues. Is there any reason to think that a ROR system that does what a typical OpenACS system does is going to be any simpler? Here's what one of my post-OpenACS correspondents admits about that:

    RoR is at the forefront of new technologies. Its real strength is Ruby, a marvelous OO scripting language. RoR's framework isn't suited so well for component reuse in the way of OpenACS's packages. Try combining a blog (Typo) w/ bug tracking (Collaboa) and you'll find that you either have to merge two code bases by hand or that you have to run separate web servers.

    Yikes; this is less complex or prone to bugs? Maybe if you're simply running a blog, but an ecommerce site or clinical trials system? Sounds almost like a joke: "How many http servers does it take to run a ROR intranet?" And note the comment (near the bottom) in this ROR wiki that ROR should derive lots of stuff from OpenACS. So once the ROR community has built its own OpenACS, will developers then flee to the next kool new toolkit because ROR is "too complex"?

  • I've presumed that the relative paucity of posts from core members here (like Don and Jeff, eg) is mostly because much of the core toolkit has stabilized and there's nothing much to say -- not that these key figures have gone away or aren't involved or interested. (Of course, if they would pop up and say this is the case every now and then, they could clearly dispel any such thoughts.)

At this point, OpenACS still appears to me to be a powerful platform to build complex solutions. I'm always looking for a better starting point (isn't everyone?), but I don't think I've seen it yet for the kinds of applications I find interesting.

Posted by Caroline Meeks on
Lar’s post is about his programming choices, but I don't think they can be interpreted in isolation from his business. While he was using OpenACS he was doing more then programming, he was building an Open Source business. Lars built a good sized OpenACS consulting business. I think (could be wrong) that Lars’ is now a solo consultant doing RoR.

Building an OpenACS business, like building any business is about delivering value. The value OpenACS delivers through reuse is larger the closer the next use is to the previous use. The equation is highly dependent on finding the right customers. Solution Grove is actively working to concentrate our market nitches to find problems that are similar enough that we can effectively reuse code. Education (.LRN) is where Solution Grove is having that success. It looks to me like other OpenACS vendors are having success by concentrating in Project Management and in Knowledge Management. I know that there are others that are focused even more narrowly (check out Green Media Toolshed)

I agree with Lars, General Reuse is too hard. To be successful with OpenACS, especially successful enough to build a company that will with stand the inevitable peaks and valleys of consulting work, you need to be a bit picky about what problems you try to solve and pick customers who have similar problems that can be solved with reusable code. The lesson I took from Collaboraid's experience is that Heidelberg University, Greenpeace and a dating site are just too different to cost-effectively share code. I’ve had a few lessons I’ve had to learn first hand about this too.

If you want to do something new and different and interesting for a different type of customer every few months then RoR might be a good choice. OpenACS is a good choice for your company if you want to support client base of similar sites, that require some amount of innovation and custom functionality but also need a large set of standard functionality that already exists in OpenACS. We have learned not to pursue just any client/problem. We have to pick ones where our code is reusable and does deliver value.

For example, the Museum of Science wanted a class registration system but they had a few requirements that no propriety system supported. For example, tracking the relationship of parent, or grandparent etc, signing up a kid for a class; managing a scholarship donation system; integrating with their member database... But mostly they wanted a standard eCommerce class registration system and needed something that they could eventually phase into a full Learning Management System. OpenACS (.LRN) is a great choice that delivers value for this problem because we can effectively reuse code. The existing code really does already address a huge part of their current and anticipated problem space.

Solution Grove chooses our clients and our projects to deliver value. I personally choose to work in OpenACS/.LRN becuase I want my work to be reused all over the planet. I see that happening. I see E-Lane, I run across companies quietly delivering OpenACS backed products via ASP models, and I see new people posting from different organizations world wide.

However, these new people are not interacting with the community the same way the old hackers did. They don’t post that much, they don’t seem to vote for OCT. They sometimes give code back but I would like them to do more. I do think we face a challenge of how to manage our community as the type of use matures and changes. But I think we are wrong to assume that all of the results we have been measuring as signs of our impending doom. I believe some may be signs of a change in our maturity level and the tasks the code is being put to. My experience with Solution Grove is that, right now, for the right customer and problem space, we can provide more value then ever with OpenACS, both in absolute terms and in terms of competition with propriety solutions.

Posted by Jon Griffin on
I have read both the new and the old blog as well as C.R.'s comments.

My take as a completely non-active developer, is many fold.

I was tempted to write a "Why I stayed with OACS and dumped my thoughts to move to ROR", I don't have time. Instead I will try to explain some of the reasons I stayed as well as some perceived problems.

1. ROR is still at pre-release, not a big deal but nonetheless, we will see how big a behmoth it becomes. I remember the old AD days when ACS was much, much smaller. I can't think of any project that doesn't bloat.

2. I don't care that TCL/AOLserver is not mainstream. I am not marketing to anyone and to be honest with you, my short look at ruby didn't impress me. Nice language, but why change, been there done that. In fact I used Perl 1.0 when it was still Practical Extraction and Reporting Languge. I used zortech C++ 1.0, MS C 3.0, Borland Prolog and Turbo Pascal, need I go on. I find the promise of yet another language that will change my life not only boring but counterproductive.

3. Contrary to the MySQL brainwashed, you can't convice me that ACID is a bad thing. is a bunch of hogwash written by a good software engineer that seems to not have a grasp on writing for databases. Yes, I know that is flamebait, but that isn't how I mean it. Mainly that after 20 years of software development, I too know a thing or two about reality.

4. OACS already has many of the apps I need and is improving all the time. Are all the apps category killers... of course not. Are they good enough, certainly and I would still bet there are more ACS/OACS sites going than there are ROR.

5. AOLServer kicks ass, that is the end of the story. Screw Apache, read the history of A Patchy Server and you will gain a much better appreciation of AOLserver. Also, do a little research on security issues and you will definitly be impressed.

Now for the bad..

1. Yes it is true that the complexity of OACS is at an insane level. I can't even figure out the best practices for writing a package anymore. And for the newbie users forget it.

2. .LRN, while a great commercial vehicle, has really hijacked the project. I discussed this with CR and some others 2 years ago and while I understand the impetus for adding this complexity, putting switches in the code always struck a nerve with me.

3. The moving of logic out of the DB into TCL has left me cold. The advantages of DB enforced logic are many as CR pointed out in his reply to Lars.

Now for what I would like to see.

1. Simplify the system. I can't stand the current CSS fiasco. Why is it so hard to make a page look the way you want. Why is it so hard to figure out how to CORRECTLY use the core procs and write an app, etc, etc...

2. Make .lrn a complete layer on top of OACS, not an almost requirement to run the base system. If you have to modify the core with if blocks, something is wrong. By the same token, most likely if the .lrn app needs to modify core packages, most likely that isn't a .lrn feature, put it in the core, but make sure it is really needed.

3. There are way too many ways to do the same thing. Packages should not reinvent the wheel. One of the first things I learned when OO first came out was that if your proc was more than one screen long (and remember screens were 25 lines at the time), it was more than one proc.

4. Learn from ROR and apply it to OACS. Why is there no AJAX? I am not saying this as a critisism of OACS, I completely understand the project and the volunteer nature. Also, we have Gustaf and XOTcl, why not refactor the toolkit and use some of the excellent advantages of OO. We don't need Ruby to do OO. Again, I am fully aware of the constraints of the project, this is my ideal world.

I guess I did write a "Why I stayed with OACS and dumped my thoughts to move to ROR",

Posted by Ciaran De Buitlear on
I agree with Caroline - I couldn't have said it better (and I mean that :-). Also to add to that on the subject of people giving baCK... we (Quest computing) have been involved with ACS and OACS for about 5 years. I have always advocated "giving back" to the community but have found it difficult to negotiate the practicalities. This may be due to an inability on my part to have a successful conversation with a community. If we want to "give back" some code to the community (as I do - see ) but I'm not sure exactly what to contribute and how could one person be put forward to help me do it perhaps? The problem I have is that I can't see a way to come to a decision. We can keep our conversation open , on the bboard. What do you think?
Posted by martin hebrank on
I wasn't really going to respond to anything directly here because just before Lars' posting I had decided to start a series of articles of the problems OpenACS has. But, I suppose a little shameless self promotion won't hurt much:

Anyway, the real reason I decided to post is that I do not agree with any statements about "reuse at large being an unsolved problem". Why? well, if it were true, we would be writing new operating systems, graphical user interface, and apps EVERY time we installed a new computer. And a new set of networking protocols everytime we put in a network. We don't. It clearly works. But, it must be done right.

I think OpenACS is busy failing to do that. And there's a particular line of thinking that seems to exemplify the problem. Caroline says "The value OpenACS delivers through reuse is larger the closer the next use is to the previous use." Well, yes, if you design all your apps to work this way, then it will work out that reuse at large doesn't work. Note that the old electronic word processors, which were designed as having a close use to the previous use, have all disappeared in favor of the far more general personal computer. On the other hand, if you keep actual reuse in mind while designing and coding your apps, it should be fairly simple to end up with a system that can be widely deployed with very little work.

I intend on outlining my ideas and suggestions for OpenACS improvement and growth in a series of (bi)weekly articles on the above listed blog over the next month or so.

** Martin

Posted by Simon at TCB on
I read Lars blog too...

I think the re-use thing is a big red herring :). It sounded much more to me like he's found a new language he likes (which is of course a perfectly good reason to switch).

OpenACS is re-usable alright, the problem I think the community has it that its too focussed on websites.

Now, that might seem a pretty daft statement, but in fact I think its the 'website' centricity thats holding back the product. I've always thought of OpenACS an architectural piece, a platform, an application server... pick your own jargon. Once you get beyond websites the OpenACS is a superb enterprise tool. The very fact that in five years of using it I've never built a 'website' as such only goes to re-enforce that.

Its perfect for
- Agile (XP style) development projects
- Web services (in the enterprise context)
- Service Oriented Architectures
- Data management/migration
- Test driven development (its a perfect enterprise test platform
- Integration engine
- Provisioning system
- Messaging exchange platform (SMS, WAP, Gateways etc)
- Product lifecycle management.

and on and on....

I think Martin's analogy with the operating system is a good one. OpenACS for us has always been about an infrastructure on which we can build almost anything. It just happens to do websites as well. For me its always been an 80%er, and thats just how I like it. The kinds of problems I solve are new, custom and agile. I need a strong basis on which to build, not a finished product to re-use.

The problem OpenACS is having is that Forums, Chat, File -storage and so on are simply not very challenging. They've been done to death, and largely for a customer its all about tweaks and cosmetics.

OpenACS is a sophisticated, re-usable architecture. Unfortunately website are not challenging enough for it.

My suggestion would be to broaden the perceived use of OpenACS into something approximating a development framework. It could undoubtedly prosper in the enterprise environment where heavy-weight Java mush passes itself off as lightweight development...

In doing so this will attract a wider variety of contributors and enhancements.

Well, thats how I'd like to see it going..

Can I be the first in this thread to say.. TCL is an incredible language. Why is TCL always included in the 'what wrong with OpenACS'.. I've never understood that... TCL is a bit like the English language itself. Rich, expressive, eccentric, sometimes counter-intuitive, but ultimately poetic! Anyone who thinks differently is frankly talking ___. ;) I can think of no alternative I;d even remotely consider..

Posted by Janine Ohmer on
Why is TCL always included in the 'what wrong with OpenACS'.. I've never understood that...

I don't speak for everyone, obviously, but from my perspective what's wrong with Tcl is that when you search for it on there are very few hits. I've lost track of the number of potential clients who have told me that. They think they are going to end up with an unmaintainable site because "no-one out there knows Tcl". Combine that with the me-centric perspective of their existing developers, who tell them that Tcl sucks because they don't want to be bothered with learning a language that won't make their resume look better, and you have a pretty serious sales hurdle to overcome.

Adding that to the other hurdles of AOLserver and OpenACS being unfamiliar and things can get quite challenging. You can talk all you want about how client should not care about the underlying architecture and you'd be right, but the fact remains that when the IT dept is doing the evaluating, as it often is in the larger companies we deal with, they care about these things.

I personally have no complaints about working in Tcl but in the long view it's not about me or my preferences, at least not very much. It's about what our clients can feel good about putting their reputations on the line for. And unfortunately, too often the OpenACS stack ends up looking radioactive from their perspective.

Posted by Malte Sussdorff on
Janine, this makes me wonder. Are you chasing the wrong clients? So far (knock on wood), none of our clients ever asked *how* we were going to implement it. They only ask if there are other people that can do the job, I point them to the active community and offer to bring them in touch with others so they can get a second opinion on our work *and* get to know others who could maintain the site if I fall over the bridge. Additionally we usually offer training for their developers if they a) have any free / available and b) want to. Usually they already stop at a), but definitely stop at b).

Now, what is the alternative to our stack? None. The effort to port OpenACS is just to big. So we can either stick with what we got and target to those million companies and potential users which care about a working system no matter how it is implemented (I usually face the uphill battle of convincing them to use Linux, this is what our clients are passionate about as they usually have a Windows IT guy) or we should choose a LAMP combination (though I'm not even sure this would be successful).

Last but not least, if we look at a long term perspective and look how much things change even at, for sure TCL is out of the mainstream, but what will be in the mainstream for some time? People start talking about Java being overtaken by ROR. Others say this is the advent of PHP. Then there is the struggle around middleware, service oriented architectures, enterprise integration applications and so on and so forth. IT consultants are thriving on this. One thing which would be really awesome would be if we could devise a standard way to promote OpenACS as a cool middleware with benefits. A portal system which integrates all those business applications and let's you talk about them. A workflow system which combines data and actions from various sources.

Try not to bring radioactive material to the IT department. Convince the IT department that you provide cheap energy and they don't have to deal with the side effects unless a catastrophy happens. It is not their core competency and they have (more important) stuff they are passionate and care about. And if they are willing to learn something new, offer them a workshop and training (which usually makes more money than to offer development services).

Sadly OpenACS could use a horde of interns who take the time to learn OpenACS and keep the documentation up to date, post about their findings and do all those burdensome tasks that noone else is willing to do (did I mention a nicer website, positioning discussions and papers as .LRN has them). We also need to offer bootcamps again. But one reason at least we at cognovís are unable to do it lies in the fact that we are stretched to the limit with client work, so we only take the time to commit things back to OpenACS. Which is probably more than some others can afford, knowing of the busy schedule.

Here again a joined effort getting motivated interns et. al. to take the code that has been developed and make a reusable package out of it, along with excellent documentation, can break grounds.

BUT.... This becomes totally off topic so I'll shut up now...

P.S.: No disrespect to any interns out there. We value your work and your ideas. But interns are usually the only ones who have the (paid) motivation to learn OpenACS from scratch and write about it. And are cheap enought to be affordable (taking into account that the majority of OCT members are located in high labour cost markets and proximity to experienced developers is a must in our experience).

Posted by Andrew Piskorski on
I find most - not all - of Lars' arguments either bogus, or minimally compelling at best. I mean really, "almost everybody uses MySQL", "many many joins", "Tcl not the sexiest" - all listed as a major flaws of OpenACS? Please, that verges on pathetic. I expected rather better analysis than that from Lars. In fact, AFAICT most of his complaints aren't actually specific to OpenACS at all.

I suspect an unstated problem here may be just that smart hackers get tired of working on the same stuff month after month. You burn out, and want to try something differnt.

Now, of Lars' bullet points (and some of the implicit ideas from his text), IMNSHO these are the only contentions that are actually important:

  1. OpenACS community not growing enough.
  2. OpenACS code quality uneven.
  3. Ruby on Rails is a better toolkit than OpenACS.
I don't have many comments on those points, as I don't really know to what extent they're true. They're important questions to ask though, and I'd like to see others thoughts on them here.

I'm also pretty disapointed with what seems to be the, 'Ruby on Rails rocks, but I'm not going to bother to tell you exactly how or why, it's just better.' subtext of Lars' article. I'm not familiar with Rails, so I'd definitely have liked to learn something about it vis-a-vis OpenACS besides that Lars was "blown away", and that "all the problems that OpenACS had were solved."

Also, like Simon, I think Lars is completely off base with his hand-wavy "reuse in the large is an unsolved problem" argument anyway. What's critical for reuse? Clean, well factored, well maintained code. OpenACS is large, has grown organically over a long time, and has not had nearly as much dedicated house-cleaning and re-factoring as it could benefit from.

Think about it: Don has periodically complained about the ugly beast that ad_form has become (thanks in part to Lars' hacking on it...), and there are probably plenty of other similar (if less obvious) spots in the codebase. (Hell, I volunteered to refactor the acs-tcl code into Tcl packages suitable for use either within or without OpenACS, "sometime", but I've still never got around to even starting on that.)

When it comes to adapting code to new, unanticipated circumstances, simplicity and cleanliness of the codebase are key. IMNSHO OpenACS isn't all that bad in this regard, but there's definitely lots of room for improvement. For OpenACS, a useful yardstick is AOLserver: We should aspire to have OpenACS code at least as clean as that in AOLserver.

Btw, my uses for and interest in both OpenACS and AOLserver are similar to (if a bit less broad than) Simon's. They are both toolkits, and rather full-featured, ready to go ones. Kind of like an industrial sized Dremel tool that comes with 67 bits - but keeping the bits organized and sharpened and replacing the ones lost or broken over time takes real work.

And yes I know, the sticking factor is always time, especially time of the most expert developers. I don't have any answers there, but certainly welcome suggestions from others...

Posted by Frank Bergmann on
First of all: I believe that OpenACS is an exceptional Toolkit and still the best platform on the "market" if we would be looking to reimplementation our ]project-open[ application again.

I read Lars's comment and agree with most of it _if_ you are trying to build a small-scale (in terms of functionality) website with forum discussions etc.

OpenACS is complex. But that's just part of a "maturity cycle" that all (successful) software packages go through: It starts lean & mean & incomplete, then it gets "improved" and finally it's getting too complex and being replaced by the next hyped architecture/toolkit/... Remember when client-server architectures were cool?

So, yes I agree with Lars that it may be quicker and cheaper to use a new lean & mean & incomplete architecture to build "yet another dynamic website" because of the lower overhead. No surprise until now.

However, many of the OpenACS websites, dotLrn and ]project-open[ share a background of organizational and technological complexity (distributed client organizations, not fully rational customer behavior, heterogeneous IT environment, etc.) that require a certain functional complexity (permissions, ...). I think that LDAP integration may be one of the best examples. Lars says it's largely irrelevant in his market. Perfectly possible. However, it's a major sales argument to our customers, because they have already Active Directory deployed in their organization.

Many say that the OpenACS data model or permissions are too complex. I guess that this is an indication that there is a mismatch between the application domain and the toolkit. In this case you should definitely look at RoR. Or SugarCRM. I just had a look at its data model and I was amazed by its simplicity. However, you'd never be able to run a reasonable report using these systems, because there is no referential integrity in the database and you'll probably never get your data right. That's a minor issue for a minor website, but there _are_ applications where it does matter. You are basically trading in the short-term advantage (simplified development of small systems) for a long-term disadvantage (increased complexity in complex applications) because you have to handle RI exceptions on the scripting side.

Having said all of this, I agree however that the OpenACS community is "basically dead". It's dead, because it's not growing as fast as the other ones. At least this is what "open-source economics" say. However, this may not be as bad as it sounds. OpenACS is condemned to be a system in a "niche market". But it may actually a very interesting niche market, comprised of the biggest online communities in the world. However, the "branding" of OpenACS doesn't fit this to this market position at all. But there seem to be already action in place to improve that.

Funnily, this "niche" situation is actually an advantage for us (]project-open[ is basically a small ERP system built on the OpenACS platform, It creates a "barrier of entry" keeping potential competitors from copying us. It is actually comparable to having a proprietary platform. I know that this sounds a bit ugly, but I guess that this was also a consideration during the foundation of the dotLrn consortium. OpenACS service companies such as Solution Grove and Cognovis probably love the lock-in effect that keeps their customers coming back to them for support...

Finally Form Builder. What a nightmare of obscurity. We have actually resisted quite some time from using it, receiving bad Karma points from the community during years. Just like Lars said: Just hand-code the forms, it doesn't take much longer. However, this situation has changed since we have integrated a consistent SQL metadata system, thanks to input from Quest Computing (thanks a lot to Ciaran and Merv!). Now Form Builder allows us to automatically integrate metadata changes in our edit screens. So there is at least a real benefit benefit from using it...

To conclude: OpenACS is already a "niche" product, but I firmly believe that OpenACS is the right choice today to develop new complex web communities and ERP type applications such as dotLrn and ]project-open[. Let's try to spread this message in a more aggressive way.


Posted by Malte Sussdorff on
Hi Frank,

one of the problems I see within the OpenACS community is a tendency for free riding among some of the members. This is in itself okay, though with the advent of 5.3 we at least hope to figure out who is using the system.

On the other hand we have people who write wonderful applications on top of OpenACS and talk about them in detail, but sadly neither to commit their changes (like: "Now Form Builder allows us to automatically integrate metadata changes in our edit screens.") or give a pointer on where to download the sourcecode.

There are usually a ton of reasons why the latter do not release the code or make it easily available, but one of the ideas of an OpenSource Project is to write code and give it back. And if the steering comittee (in our case the OCT) is not happy with the changes, they can prevent them from happening or suggest improvals.

So I'd highly encourage any member of the community to give back code that they have written so others can take a look at it, reuse it in their solutions and generally work with it. It is in your own interest, as a fork generally makes it harder to maintain your code and you will not be able to profit from the experience of the OpenACS community as a whole. Well, that is unless your ego is high enough to believe that the experience of the community as a whole is lower than your own :-).

Posted by Malte Sussdorff on
Out of curiosity, is there a policy on having a standard footer in the forum postings? I mean, if I take the number of forum postings of myself and assume I'd add a link to all the time, the google rating of the site should go up, or am I wrong?

The thought occured to me after reading Franks posting and realising he is always posting the URL to project-open at the end. And if this works, I might be inclined to follow suit.

Posted by Frank Bergmann on

Malte wrote:

Out of curiosity, is there a policy on
having a standard footer in the forum postings?

The footer URL doesn't seem to work... :-) I just add the link for the people reading this thread. The pages aren't really indexed by Google. I even don't get the references when I do "ego surfing"... But you can try it in other forums.

However, I very much wonder about the purpose and intent of your previous comment. I really don't think that the "free riding" ethical misbehaviour applies in our case. I know that you have very detailed knowledge about our GPLed modules and our announcements of their availability. It is a different question why the community hasn't included them in OpenACS. You have had a detailed look yourself at the "Flexbase/DynField" SQL Metatadata system. It was you who decided in our meeting in Hamburg not to include it in OpenACS because of incompatibilities with AMS. That is perfectly reasonable and OK, but please don't blame it on us.

I also know that Quest Computing is sharing the experience of being "ignored" by the community in terms of code being incorporated in the platform. I asume that this is due to the different focus ("ERP" like applications vs. Online Community applications).

Here is the list of our GPLed modules and how to get them (please use: cvs -d checkout module-name for CVS access):

- OpenACS Windows Installer (GPL, source code included in the installer itself. There is a posting on OpenACS about how to compile the installer)
- Flexbase/DynField SQL Metadata system (GPL, module: intranet-dynfield. DynField is a modification of Flexbase, that has been developed at Quest Computing. Also, you can ask Ciaran De Buitlear from Quest for the original code)
- Automatic Software Updates CVS Frontend (code says proprietary, but we can GPL it if you want, intranet-update-client & intranet-update-server)
- PostgreSQL Efficient Intranet search with permissions (GPL, there is a posting on OpenACS explaining the underlying thoughts and architecture.)
- Hierarchical Menu System (GPL, part of the intranet-core module)
- "Plugin Components" GUI System (GPL, part of the intranet-core module)
- Category System with multiple inheritance (GPL, part of intranet-core)
- We were the first to organize a Spanish ACS bootcamp

Also, there are many new maintenance screens (permissions, parameters, menus, ...) as part of the GPLed intranet-core module that you could include.

On the other hand I admit that we have developed several innovative modules for OpenACS that we haven't GPLed for several reasons. These modules include our financial system, a reporting system and the sector specific code for translation and consulting companies. However, I have announced and explained this decision before we actually started developing the modules and I have got positive feedback from the community in general. Maybe this perception is changing?

However, I asume this thread is about why OpenACS is loosing important developers and I am not sure whether the "free riding" problem is at the core of this issue.

Where I do see important need for action to "save" the OpenACS community is the Windows installer and the right branding of OpenACS.

Concerning the installer, we have been contacted by Nima and Rocael. So I asume that this area is progressing. However, it seems as if the community is not very keen to collaborate with us. Instead, e-Lane seems to try to build a separate/ branched installer. That is OK for us, but a bit surprising. I think I have stressed several times the technical and organizational complexity of creating and maintaining a Windows installer, but maybe I haven't expressed myself sufficiently dramatically about the hassle and the suffering that the Windows environment can inflicts on you. The problem is that the job is extremely unpleaseant and that any (sane) developer will run away from it if he or she can. For this reason the Windows installer development is very difficult to manage and only viable with a fixed employee whom you can "force" to work on it...

Concerning branding: We have made experiences with PR and have had some success with it, particularly in our core sector of translation/ localization project management systems. We are perfectly willing to share this experience with the community.

Let's get out of the "niche" existence!

Posted by Gustaf Neumann on
I am not sure, that i would like to see long signatures at the end of each forums posting. How about linking the automatically inserted user name at the end of a posting to the members community page,

and provide more content there (e.g. as well the forum posting of the member). More postings will give the member page more google weight, which will also help a company hompage mentioned there as well...

Posted by Caroline Meeks on
Malte’s perhaps sarcastic comment about commercial footers on posts started me thinking. A number of people in this thread have talked about not effectively putting forward our advantages.

Simon Write:

The problem OpenACS is having is that Forums, Chat, File -storage and so on are simply not very challenging. They've been done to death, and largely for a customer its all about tweaks and cosmetics. OpenACS is a sophisticated, re-usable architecture. Unfortunately website are not challenging enough for it. Rather then trying to be an also ran imitation of the PHP applications which are infact imitations of us (ACS being one of the early movers in the forums, file storage community sites) we should be looking for the things that make us different and highlight them.
OpenACS has matured and is now primarily developed by people who do it as their day job. Not to say there isn’t a lot of volunteer work, but most people are associated with a consulting company or educational institution or other business entity that is using OpenACS.

The conventional wisdom is that open source communities are communities of individual hackers and you have to be very careful if you are an organization approaching them to use their code to make money. (Read the Money chapter, note there area actually a lot of very good ideas in this book.)

I am putting out for thought and discussion the concept that we are a community of organizations and that the new users we wanted to attract are more organizations. If we felt that way we could go even further then a footer and support automatically putting a linked logo on each post similar to the way other forums put in portrait images. Possible Advantages:

  • Look organization friendly. I think we already are an organization friendly open source community. Its an advantage. Lets flaunt it.
  • Help readers understand the context of the post. I often find myself wondering when I read a post what they are doing with that an e-lane person? Is that the company in Italy doing the ERP work? Although we need to explicitly address realy making it easier for people to understand how OpenACS is used, this would provide a way for a motivated person to follow the links and begin to learn what OpenACS is actually being used for.
  • Provide a realistic context for new people. New people sometimes wonder why they don’t get more free support on the boards. Highlighting that it is a community of paid developers might help them understand.
  • Make it easier for developers in organization to justify posting helpful comments and writing up their work for the boards. The vast majority of people here use OpenACS as their day job and may well have to justify to a manager why they are spending time writing answers to other people’s questions. Giving back some good exposure to their organization might help us promote good citizenship.
  • Look Different. We need to stand out for something other then tcl and AOLServer. We should be looking for ways we really are different in a way that is positive for our target new users and do PR around it. If we consciously shifted our orientation from a community of individual developers to a community of organizations developing in OpenACS we might attract attention from the anthropologists/open source scholars. Simply put, it might be an interesting publicity stunt.
  • Show that OpenACS can do forums with little pictures. Forums with little pictures are in right now, and some people assume that since they don’t see them we don’t do it.
Obviously this would be optional. We won’t require anyone to put in a logo or url.

I hear several other probably important points in this recent discussion.

  1. We have companies who want to give back but are not doing so.
  2. Google isn’t indexing our forums well.
I will post on those points also as I get time.
Posted by Malte Sussdorff on
My comment was a little bit sarcastic, but I was seriously wondering if this would work. If it did, it would be a great way of marketing, not only for the company but for OpenACS as a whole.

As for the freerider problem. My intention is to get as many developers as possible to work out of OpenACS CVS and work collaboratively on the core and, if, for whatever reason they do not want this, that they feel the need to provide their enhancements in structured way to the community as a whole. For myself it is too much hassle to work on the OpenACS core which I'm going to use for all my clients and then take the code from some other source where I'm not (directly) able to collaborate and especially not familiar with. This was the case when I looked at dynfields where I thought, wow, nice piece of code, but do I really have the time and nerve to integrate it right away with contacts and the OpenACS core, especially as the original developer would know considerably more about a proper integration than I do.

So maybe the comment regarding the freerider was too hard, but as community we are too small to let even bits of code which are excellent not make it into the toolkit because of our inabilities to properly work together.

Now, what could be possible actions:

- Frank already offered his help with Marketing and his project open site is a great show of the fact that he knows what he is talking about. Maybe you could encourage some other people in joining you to market OpenACS out of the niche market and spearhead this effort? I'd be more than happy to provide help as good as I can.

- With 5.3 we should have a "report our installation back to OpenACS". Maybe this could be modified to allow a reporting of P/O installations to Frank as well. This way we would at least begin to know how many people are actually using OpenACS.

- We should provide a place where people could work together around projects they are interested in. See my previous postings about a Bazaar or the effort to get a Wiki going.

More later :).

Posted by Simon at TCB on
There's an awful lot of wisdom in what Caroline is saying. Just a few additional comments of my own.

The conventional wisdom is that open source communities are communities of individual hackers and you have to be very careful if you are an organization approaching them to use their code to make money.

I've always assumed that the OpenACS community wasn't resistant to commercial activity. After all it started as a commercial, single-company enterprise. I hope thats still true?

What might be an idea is some discussion on how we can make the toolkit more 'commerce-friendly'. I was tempted to raise the 'Is the GPL the right license issue' but perhaps thats too emotive. :) There are other things though that include marketing, organisation, presence and so forth. One criticism of OpenACS is that its a high barrier to entry for new developers/volunteers. Is this such a bad thing? No enterprise I work with has that high issue on its list. Thats what they employ us for! What they want to know is

  • Will it do X million per day?
  • Can it handle user management?
  • Does it have a serious database?
  • Is it easy to integrate into a hetrogenous network?
  • Can it do Busines Services (B2B, Document exchange)?

    And so on

    I am putting out for thought and discussion the concept that we are a community of organizations and that the new users we wanted to attract are more organizations.

    I wouldn't want to be seen to exclude the non-organisation element, but I think as a software project the simple fact is it has far more appeal/potential for organisations than individuals.

    > Look organization friendly. I think we already are an organization friendly open source community. Its an advantage. Lets flaunt it.

    Amen to that!

    Look Different. We need to stand out for something other then tcl and AOLServer. We should be looking for ways we really are different in a way that is positive for our target new users and do PR around it.

    This is key for me. As I mentioned before the fact is has a good webserver or a good scripting language is somewhat by-the-by. The fact that it is an Enterprise Architecture suitable for deploying large scale SOAs, Agile development and high performance XML based B2B services is far more salient.

    Perhaps the key word here (and perhaps it has always been) is architecture. I think we need to focus on this aspect of the community. Modern enterprise development is about agility, time to market, extensibility, standards etc... its a perfect fit.

    If enterprises are not giant collaborative communities then I don't know what is :)

    We have companies who want to give back but are not doing so. And more than that, commercial companies are exposed to much larger scope in terms of software projects. If the toolkit wants to make *big* strides forward it simply must have good commercial backing, both for breadth and depth. It covers far too much ground, and is far to 'industrial' to be progressed by volunteers alone. I think this is why the community seems quiet, volunteers are obviously going to be less interested in developing distributed, xml based, tuple-server support than they are putting pictures on forum postings. The former kind of work is best done under the context of commercial delivery.

    Something that needs clearing up and putting firmly at the forefront of the OpenACS pitch is that it is suitable for combined OS and proprietary usage. i.e. through the package mechansim. It should be clearly stated that this 'architecture' is there to provide a basis for commercial software development. Companies should be comfortable developing commercial propositions designed to run on the architecture.

    This isn't such an issue in the enterprise world because problems often require custom solutions and therefore the OS, service-based model is fine. With a little better 'positioning', this area could explode for OpenACS.

    However innovation drives good software. Companies should feel able to get ROI on what they develop to encourage new venture. Successful companies with healthy revenue streams will have both a vested interest, and the financial capacity to contribute more.

    Why not become a leader again? Perhaps as a web-dev community we are not. But as an affiliation of organisations we could be.

  • Collapse
    Posted by Simon at TCB on
    You can tell its a slow afternoon for me but...

    One of the other things I'm most surprised about is that we're not doing more shouting about having XOTcl available to us.

    Not only is it a fantastic piece of work in it own right (I'm actually having fun coding with it.. thats right fun), but 'Objects make Enterprises Happy' (for both intellectual and fashionable reasons).

    Having this cracking bit software really opens up the possibilty for OpenACS as an MDA platform. (you might like to experiment adding XOTcl transforms into something like Enterprise Architect.)

    And another random thought.

    Does everyone still like the name OpenACS? lol.. now that is contentious ;)

    Posted by Tracy Adams on
    And what about that logo :)

    I'm more exicted about OpenACS than I have ever been.... amazing things and project cropping out all over the place (some years old, some new). The momentum is building.

    Posted by Nick Carroll on
    Strange... I thought I was the only one thinking about a possible change in name and logo. I am all for it, if that is what the rest of the community feels.

    For the sake of entertaining the idea of an identity change, what name would you suggest for this community/toolkit?

    To get the ball rolling, how about "Exokit"? Derived from xotcl and toolkit. Damn someone is already sitting on it. :P

    Seriously though, the name should reflect creativity and innovation, which are two things that don't come to mind when I think of the name "OpenACS". The word "open" is becoming redundant in an age where if it ain't owned by Micro$oft, then it must be OSS.

    Lets have some fun with this, and see where it goes. It could be the start of a new marketing drive.

    Posted by Nick Carroll on
    How about a change to the posting UI? Split the post into two columns, where the first column acts like a side bar and takes up about 20% of the browser's width, leaving the rest for the content of the post.

    The side bar would contain information about the poster, such as a portrait, "member since...", name (link to pvt/home), company/institution (link to homepage). Most of this information can be taken from pvt/home except for the company/institution information.

    Posted by Tracy Adams on
    Hey I wasn't serious! I love cutie gay Alex.
    Posted by Eric Wolfram on
    Malte wrote:
    Out of curiosity, is there a policy on
    having a standard footer in the forum postings?
    >Fank B Wrote
    >for the people reading this thread. The pages
    >aren't really indexed by Google. I even don't get the
    >references when I do "ego surfing"... But you can try it in
    >other forums.

    For the record, Google has almost 1.8 million pages in the index:

    That's a LOT of documentation :-)

    If you want ego surfing, 466 of those pages have Frank Bergmann on them:

    Only 15 or so have the url -- not bad.

    Does it help your google score? It can't hurt. Does it help your site appear higher in search engine result pages? For certain keyphrases, sometimes, yes. Does it hurt Probably not. Does it bug me? Not at all, I like the option of seeing other openacs people's sites.

    As for Lars and the reuse in the large apology: Maybe rewriting applications works for him and the other great programmers here, I do see the point, the added complexity of openacs is often unnecessary, but plebeian programmers like me who rely on the shoulders of giants unfortunately don't have the option of writing whichever applications we dream up, as needed, as if we were Philip Greenspun on a mission. We, thankfully, like the "community in a box" idea and properly discourage clients from their (often un-needed) customizing. :-)

    Rails is a bunch of procs. Maybe one day in the future someone will aspire to use Rail to to make a united multi-user multi-groups "community in a box" application suite that approaches what openacs is today -- but that day is not today and it might never happen.

    And at some level, doesn't reuse in the large have to occur? I mean, even Rails is on linux or some database that IS reused programming?

    Posted by dennis sacks on
    As a web developer just starting to try to understand .LRN/openACS I have some comments and suggestions.

    The .LRN documentation is lacking/frustrating. It is hard to determine whether .LRN will do what I want based on the documentation. It would be helpful if there were instructions on what to do with .LRN after installation. How is it intended to be used? How do you put things in LORS, etc?

    The support situation for .LRN seems to be lacking. Posts on the .LRN Q&A forum sometimes go unanswered. It doesn't seem like many people are reading/answering questions there. The #openacs channel usually only seems to have one person who knows anything about .LRN. Most open source projects I've worked with as a user have better support.

    Are all the .LRN power users and developers hiding on some super secret mailing list somewhere?

    How do I give feedback/request features/offer assistance with a module? How do I find out who authored/supports a module? How do I get involved with what is going on with a module?

    All the cool .LRN stuff seems to be in alpha/cvs only. Is it working well enough to put into production? Companies like Solution Grove seem to have it in production, but I don't know how because certain modules won't install and/or can't be pulled out of cvs. Is there some super secret way of getting things to work?

    How do I start getting into development/customization of .LRN? It seems like there is a huge barrier to getting into development. I tried going through the sample 'here is how you create a module in openacs' but had problems getting it working. People I talked to on #openacs say it is tough to learn the openACS API. What resources are there besides the standard documentation?

    Are there mailing lists for .LRN/openacs? The forums seem to be kind of slow/lacking in response. Maybe if there were mailing lists (gateway'd to forums or a web archive) that .LRN users were encouraged to join for support, a larger group of people would be able to help with problems, etc.

    I know if I am using postgresql and running into problems with pl/pgsql I can subscribe to the psql-sql mailing list, post questions, and get answers from power users or even postgresql developers that monitor the list.

    Thoughts? Suggestions?


    Posted by Nick Carroll on

    Which timezone are you in? At about 12am UTC most days there are about 3-4 OCT members on #openacs.

    We are well aware of the documentation issue. It is something that has been brought up a numerous times. It is an issue that is difficult to resolve. Currently there are two mindsets, one is to persist with docbook, the other is to start using the wiki. Until the community decides which approach to take, we won't be making much progress with improving documentation for the time being.

    Posted by Caroline Meeks on
    Perhaps we should discuss wiki vs docbook in OCT, create a TIP and make a decision.

    I suggest it as a meeting item for out next meeting.

    Posted by Ciaran De Buitlear on
    Just to put people in the picture here's - some reasons why we haven't worked from the OpenACS CVS and given more back to the community. Some of these have greater or smaller impact on us of course. Most of these problems may be “our own fault” and I’m certainly not trying to blame the community or it’s management but simply casting light on the situation.

    1) Our company does lots of non OpenACS based work and so working from the OpenACS CVS wouldn't fit with our company's quality system.
    2) Only a sub group of our company use OpenACS so the open source mindset is not as prevalent here as in other places. This means it can be difficult to explain time spent on this kind of thing (but I do my best  ).
    3) We started out by taking the OpenACS code and changing packages in a fairly business area / client specific manner. This happened in a quite “organic” or chaotic manner initially. These changes would be more of a hindrance than a help to others who are not in the business area we occupy.
    4) We provide a business area packaging of the OpenACS (in a similar way to .Lrn) which centers around the Petri net workflow and ticket tracker and as the Petri net workflow seemed dead in the water it seemed that our stuff would be of no use.
    5) In competitive environment getting changes specified, cleared with our clients, coded, tested and released is pretty much all we have time for. I’m not sure how we could fit in a consultation process with the community. Part of this problem of course could lie with me as I’ve always found it hard to converse usefully via a bulletin board.
    6) We also have some packages that we would prefer not to GPL for similar reasons to Frank’s.
    7) We operate in the same type of space as Frank and have the same issues that things we’re doing are not interesting to the community (or so I’ve found).

    Ok so on what we have done and would like to do:
    1) We have contributed two packages to OpenACS. Templated letters and
    2) ePDQ credit card payment integration
    3) We have hired contractors from the community.
    4) I encourage our developers to contribute to the forums as much as possible.
    5) I believe we have features in our code base that would be useful to the OpenACS and others that would not but would like to figure out which ones would be of benefit to the community so that we release them. Here’s my post about this: . I’ve asked Christian Knopfel Eva to take this on and he should be in the office this week so expect to see more.

    I've read Lars Post and a lot of this forum post (too hard for me, a non-active web developer). It is sad to see good programmers give away and this must give us some lessons like those ones you wrote down here.

    But I'm not agree that this could be a reason to take away OpenACS. From my little experience these are my reflections :

    • We have some typical problems of big open source projects. So, perhaps we need a organization like foundation or something like that and that allow us to have a core full team member to ensure quality software. This is a problem of have funds and money to pay core developers
    • Complexity and bugs not resolved are a problem. We need to make effort on quality (reports of bugs not resolved, posts not answered, etc)
    • We need some strategies to atract good newbies/oldies developers, because our good developers are more and more busy and also they are somewhat tired now. this can not be "sexiest languages or arquitectures"
    • Sorry but I have no answers only questions and reflections because I'm a plebeian not a giant in teh comunity. But, After all, these can be symptoms of a mature community like OpenACS.

    Posted by Ben Koot on
    The Docbook versus wiki conversation, to my mind will never weare off. It seems to be very much a matter of personal preference. Just like I prefer a weblog over a forum to stimulate conversation, because it gives much more options. If you're hooked on Docbook you'll stick with it because it's to use to you!. But that should not be the issue.

    If The Goal is to create the best possible documentation for the all toolkit's users; end users, administrators, graphic designers and developers should be facilitated to contribute to that joint effort.

    I haven't got a clue about Docbook, but when I googled for a conversion tool it came up with Maybe that way we can create a platform that keeps all hapy, and saves many moons of discussion.

    Just a thought.

    Posted by Nick Carroll on
    This quote from Steve Wozniak (of Apple fame) is quite relevant for this thread:

    "... software gets huge and complex and we're always moving to the new things rather than fix old things. I think a lot of it is because people just get complacent with what they have."

    Taken from this interview with Steve Wozniak []

    Posted by Ben Koot on
    That's a good one, but the solution is even better i feel...

    "I think some day it would be nice to have colleges have programs, very strong programs, in this sort of user interface but with a very humanist attitude point of view, and start playing around with new approaches. Some year, some decade, it might just come into the popular conscious to start making things more beautiful for people."

    Maybe one of the first things we have to to in our effort to revamp design & presentation, is close the existing bugs. Many still refer to old releases, or relate to problems on individual installations.

    Chances are users have found work arounds, moved on and left OACS for what it is, or have upgraded to the latest release where the reported bugs have been closed.

    Maybe an idea to appoint a human editor, I mean, someone that keeps track of reported problems, and coordinates if issues are solved or not. I have noted sometimes newbies report problems on the bboard as well that remain unanswered. I feel we need to coordinate these kind of issues better.

    Just a thought.