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In the Linux loop

By Minda Zetlin
April 7, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Using open-source software like Linux is a no-brainer for many companies. It's stable and can be fixed easily if bugs appear, and you can't beat the price. But some companies and government organizations are taking their commitment to open source a step further by actively participating in the open-source community.
The Linux operating system is only one example of the many pieces of open-source software currently in circulation. In each case, the software's license allows it to be freely copied and distributed by anyone, the source code is available along with a working version of the software, and anyone can modify or expand on the code. Most open-source software can be downloaded free from the Internet and is maintained and expanded by a community of developers who donate their patches and modifications.
These days, some corporate and government entities are getting into the act as well. When their developers write patches, modifications or new implementations of open-source software for in-house use, these organizations are releasing that new code back to the open-source community, thereby assisting in the software's ongoing development.
What's the payoff? It makes for better software. "If we find a bug or a problem, we're interested in fixing that problem. We're also interested in not fixing it again in the next version," explains Robert M. Lefkowitz, director of open-source strategy at Merrill Lynch & Co. in New York.
"If you download open-source software, then take it in-house and don't share your revised code, you wind up maintaining your own separate fork of the software for all time," says Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative, a Web-based nonprofit group that helps define and promote the open-source concept. "On the other hand, by participating in open-source projects, you make sure your corporate needs have a seat at the table when large-scale design decisions are being made."
This is why Merrill Lynch sent the fixes it made to open-source software during one of its projects back to the open-source community. "The way a typical open-source project works is that there is a core team in the community with direct access to modifying the code on its central Web site," Lefkowitz says. "People who want to contribute to that community submit their code, which is looked at by a core team and integrated if found appropriate."
Creative Archiving
Sharing can be especially helpful if your software needs are different from those of most organizations, notes Jim Willis, director of eGovernment at the Rhode Island Department of State.
His office used open-source software to design a repository for the

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