GitHub's top 10 most popular projects

Creators and contributors shed light on GitHub's most-popular projects -- and sing praise to the code-sharing site's impact on their community and code

GitHub's top 10 rock-star projects

GitHub's top 10 rock-star projects

Few things in the world of programming are as hot as GitHub. Boasting 4 million users, the code-sharing site boasts itself as the largest code host in the world. With 7.8 million repositories and counting, it's hard to argue.

Based on the Git software version control system engineered by Linux founder Linus Torvalds, GitHub has blossomed since its launch in 2008. From ABAP to Xtend, GitHub offers open source projects in almost every conceivable programming language.

Following is a roundup of the most popular projects on GitHub. Creators, contributors, and users weigh in on what makes these projects special -- and why GitHub is so vital to the development of both community and code.

1. Bootstrap

1. Bootstrap

Bootstrap is a mobile-first front-end framework for Web development. It is the most-popular project on GitHub by far. Originally created by Twitter as a framework for the Twitter GUI, Bootstrap was first released two years ago. Version 3 of Bootstrap was launched in August, featuring a new design with an optional theme, a mobile-first perspective, a new customizer, and more responsive models. 

"It's been a crazy long ride to say the least and we're stoked to finally have this out in the wild," Mark Otto, Jacob Thornton, and team wrote in Version 3's official launch post on the Bootstrap Blog -- right below a video clip of Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It."

2. Node.js

2. Node.js

Node.js is a server-side JavaScript platform for building network applications. It features an event-driven, nonblocking I/O model, and it's long been popular with the GitHub set.

"It's always been meant to handle a lot of connections and move a lot of data," says Jason Hoffman, CTO at Joyent, which has overseen development of Node.js.

Hoffman cites GitHub's usefulness as a social and collaboration platform as well as providing a distributed, centralized way to manage source code. Hoffman also notes hosting Node.js on GitHub gives people the power to fork it -- there have been many forks but not one that has emerged as a separate project.

3. JQuery

3. JQuery

JQuery is a popular JavaScript library, enabling activities such as HTML document traversal, event handling, and animation. Source code, documentation, and meeting notes on the project are stored on GitHub.

"We make extensive use of [GitHub] for just about everything because we find it’s a really good way to organize the project," says David Methvin, JQuery core lead and president of the JQuery Foundation. Although there are fewer than 100 regular contributors, Methvin says thousands have chipped in on the project, which many contend to be the most popular JavaScript framework. "You can pretty much count on just about any Web site using JQuery," Methvin says.

The project features the original core library, as well as UI and mobile components.

4. HTML5 Boilerplate

4. HTML5 Boilerplate

HTML5 Boilerplate is a front-end template for building Web apps or sites.

"It's relatively agnostic of any high-level development philosophy or framework people may use, so it works well as a base on which other things can build upon," says Catalin Maris, an HTML5 Boilerplate participant. "The community around it is great."

According to Maris, GitHub offers a nice interface for managing the project and makes it easy to contribute code, ideas, and bug reports. The popularity of both HTML5 Boilerplate and GitHub can have some unintended consequences, though.

"A significant number of people won't take the time to read the guidelines, documentation, or search past discussions before opening an issue or pull request," Maris says. This results in duplicate or unclear issues being opened.

5. Ruby on Rails

5. Ruby on Rails

Ruby on Rails needs no introduction. The popular Web framework based on Ruby, and often referred to as Rails, has been downloaded many millions of times, says Rails founder David Heinemeier Hansson, who sees several advantages to hosting Rails on GitHub.

"GitHub is simply the best way to organize a big open source project," he says. "It provides a wonderful Web UI to Git, it has pull requests to discuss changes and a simple ticketing system to deal with bug reports. We also use comments on commits a lot to discuss the implementation."

Hansson, a partner at Web application builder 37signals, sees little downside to residing on GitHub. "Like any comment forum, you sometimes get your trolls. But it's less prevalent than most other places."

6. D3

6. D3

D3 is a JavaScript virtualization library for SVG and HTML. It can be used to manipulate documents.

"The 'specialness' of D3 is that it embraces Web standards rather than introducing a proprietary representation. With D3, you continue to use the DOM, SVG, HTML, and other Web standards, but D3 makes it much easier to do so," says D3 creator Mike Bostock, a graphics editor at the New York Times. "This is great for developers because they have full access to the browser's capabilities such as the developer tools and CSS."

Bostock calls GitHub a fantastic tool for sharing code and getting feedback from users. It also works for hosting documentation and project websites, he adds. "I do not know how I would function without GitHub."

7. Impress.js

7. Impress.js

Impress.js is a 3D presentation framework based on CSS3 transforms and transitions in modern browsers. Users pondering the framework are invited to impress their audience with "stunning visualizations" of their talks. The project was inspired by the prezi.com virtual whiteboard.

"Impress.js is definitely the future of Web presentations. It uses CSS transformations and hence has few dependencies unlike desktop software," says Rakhitha Nimesh, author of "Building Impressive Presentations with Impress.js."

"The only drawback is the lack of support in mobile-based devices," Nimesh adds. "Hopefully all browsers will have the support for this amazing framework in the near future."

8. Font Awesome

8. Font Awesome

Font Awesome is a font designed for the Bootstrap framework. Leveraging CSS, Font Awesome features scalable vector icons that can be customized for size, color, and drop shadow. Version 3.2, the latest release, features 58 new icons, as well as new styles. Font Awesone is free for commercial use and desktop-friendly, Font Awesome advocates say.

9. Backbone.js

9. Backbone.js

Backbone.js is an MVC-based JavaScript library for developing Web apps.

"Backbone is special because of its ruthless simplicity and small size. It provides useful utilities without getting in your way, a rarity in my experience," says Brad Dunbar, who works on the Backbone project and is an engineer at social networking services vendor Pathable.

As for the upside of hosting Backbone.js on GitHub, Dunbar says, "The largest benefit is an area for frictionless discussion on very focused portions of code."

10. Homebrew

10. Homebrew

Homebrew is billed as the "missing package manager for OS X," installing what Apple did not.

"Homebrew attempts to make it easy for you to install command-line or open source software on your Mac," says Homebrew developer Max Howell, co-founder of music startup Rackit. "There were existing tools that did this, but I found they weren't sufficiently flexible or easy to contribute to."

Before GitHub, contributing to open source software was "absurdly painful," says Howell. Developers had to find a mailing list or email for a developer and wait weeks for attention. "GitHub made it trivial to make and publish changes to open source. Before GitHub it sometimes amazes me that open source happened at all."