7 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Open Source Software

Open source software has a lot of advantages, most notably being free to use for any purpose. Accordingly, open source components are being increasingly used by organizations all over the world. However, if your organization wants to get the most out of these components, there are some important steps you’ll need to take.

How to Get More Out of Your Open Source Software

These strategies and tips can help you ensure your open source software and components are put to better use:

  1. Have a solid security strategy in place. One of your biggest priorities should be to get an overall security strategy in place as early as possible, including big-picture approaches like container security, and a specific strategy for open source security. Open source components will often save you both time and money, but if even one of those components has a security vulnerability, it could compromise the security and compliance of your project. Accordingly, you’ll need some kind of overarching strategy in place to deal with these potential weaknesses. Do you have a system to scan your entire project for open source components, noting their current version and update history? Are you conducting a regular software composition analysis (SCA)? Do you have transparency into the direct and indirect dependencies running throughout your project? Do you have clear workflows for correcting vulnerabilities when you find them? Address your open source security strategy early if you want to avoid the worst possible outcomes.
  2. Understand a component before using it. Don’t simply select an open source component because it’s popular—and don’t immediately start using a project because it seems interesting. Do your research first. Who are the developers responsible for creating this project? What are its known strengths and weaknesses? What kind of community is available to answer questions? Is there sufficient documentation for this project? If too many of these factors are missing, you may want to look for something else.
  3. Don’t just copy and paste. One of the advantages of using open source components is that they can save you time, but don’t take this to the extreme. Rather than just copying and pasting the component as is, take a look under the hood and see how it works. Make modifications as you see fit, and get an understanding for how this is going to work in the context of your project.
  4. Master the art of forking. Most open source components not only allow but encourage forking—the practice of creating an entirely different version of the component. With forking, you’ll be able to effectively customize your own version of the component. This is going to demand more upfront work from you, so it may not be the ideal solution in all scenarios. However, it can make the component fit more seamlessly into your project.
  5. Have a plan to manage changes. Open source software isn’t stagnant. Developers often issue new changes and new versions on a regular basis. There are updates to repair security vulnerabilities, add new features, and even change how the component works. When you have such a component integrated into a project with multiple dependencies, this poses a problem; how can you incorporate those new changes without compromising your project’s internal compatibility? You’ll need to have a plan in place to manage these updates without letting things get out of control.
  6. Become active in the community. Arguably the biggest perk of using open source software is that you’ll gain access to an open, active community of developers. If you want to get the most out of your software, it’s important that you’re also an active part of that community. Engage with the developers currently working on this project, and contribute whatever knowledge or insight you’ve been able to find on your own.
  7. Document everything. Finally, take the time to document everything you can, from start to finish. Your exact documentation protocols will vary depending on the nature of your organization, but you should have some documentation in place to keep track of how you’re using each open source component.

Is Open Source Right for Your Business?

Open source is becoming increasingly popular, with the majority of organizations now using at least some open source components in their projects. That said, open source may not be right for every business or every project. Make sure you understand the strengths and weaknesses of open source overall, and be as thorough as possible when integrating these components in your projects.