Getting Help the Free Software (and Open Source) Way

What happens when the effectiveness of your favorite search engine turns against you, when it becomes almost too effective to be useful, giving you so much information that you’re not sure where to start?… Well, my overworked friend, you’re in luck. Today, I’ll be covering the holy grail of information gathering: asking people… In the process, I will also show you some of the better locations to begin your searches and give you a few pointers in getting the most out of your queries.

Here’s a scenario: The boss just chose you to head a new project in line with the company’s new cost cutting, Open Source initiative. He gave you this assignment because somewhere in your resume you said that you’re an expert in Open Source technologies: Red Hat, PHP, Apache, Zope – you got it all. In fact, you claimed you’ve been using Linux since the infamous version 0.99. Of course, this must all be true, because you would never lie on a resume, would you? Anyway, so your boss made you the go-to guy when it comes to Open Source. Now, you’re hard at work on your new Open Source project. You’re humming along and all the pieces are falling into place. Still, somewhere along the line you run into a problem that doesn’t seem to be covered in the included man or info pages. But you’re not worried. After all, someone must have run into this problem before, right? Since you’re dealing with Open Source software you know that all you have to do is point your web browser at your favorite search engine and begin the quest for your answer there. You’re sure that some friendly people out there in Internet-land must have put up some documentation when they ran into this problem. Since you don’t really know how to describe the problem or what it is, you start with a vague search and then try to narrow it down. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

What happens when you’ve narrowed your search and you’re still stuck looking through 100,000 or more pages worth of information for something which needed answering five minutes ago? What happens when the effectiveness of your favorite search engine turns against you, when it becomes almost too effective to be useful, giving you so much information that you’re not sure where to start? Of course, the first forty websites that come up are wise enough to use SEO Chat, so their sites come up first, but they’re not quite what you’re looking for. Conversely, what happens when you can’t find your answer anywhere, when your search yields no useful results? You’ve done the footwork, but nothing has come up. You’re getting frustrated. Your team is getting impatient. You need those answers now!

Instead of going through all of this, do you ever wish that you knew someone, anyone, whom you could quickly tap for information on specific subjects so that you can get on your merry developing way? Well, my overworked friend, you’re in luck. Today, I’ll be covering the holy grail of information gathering: asking people. I’ll be discussing some of the most popular methods and locations for free, live help available: Newsgroups, mailing lists, and IRC channels. In the process, I will also show you some of the better locations to begin your searches and give you a few pointers in getting the most out of your queries. {mospagebreak title=What You Should Know Before You Get Started} Before I start ranting and raving about where you ought to go, I feel obligated to cover some important points when it comes to gathering information through live sources. Reliable, fast, and friendly as they might be, they don’t always turn a blind eye towards people who don’t follow the rules, spoken or not. Just keep the following guidelines in mind when asking for help: 

  1. Keep a good attitude. No one likes a loud-mouth know-it-all, so ask nicely and thank people for their answers.
  2. Be willing to do some of your own foot-work and learn. Give a man a fish; you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish; you feed him for a lifetime.
  3. Be willing to give answers as well as ask for them. Be willing also to give more relevant information on your topic when it is requested of you.

Unlike web pages, which don’t care whether you’re a jerk or not, chat channels, e-mail lists, and newsgroups require some amount of social finesse in order to get the information you need quickly and effectively. This is especially true in the world of Open Source and Free Software. Like a search engine, to get the best results you have to be able to play by the rules and to know how to ask a question. The better you know the rules, the faster and more accurate results you are likely to receive. Before you go off into the world of Free Software and Open Source development, however, make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into. Sometimes there’s more to keep in mind that just getting your project done.

The following are some sources I highly recommend you check out now, before you need to start your search for technical knowledge in the Open Source and Free Software communities:

The brainchild of Richard M. Stallman (commonly known as RMS), the Free Software Foundation (FSF) is an organization set up on the premise that the practice of Copyright, unlike in the paper-and-ink publishing industry, is not particularly appropriate for the digital software industry. In 1984, RMS began creating the GNU OS (GNU is Not UNIX Operating System), seven years before Torvalds created the Linux kernel. Out of the development of the GNU tools came much software, including the category killer Emacs. A category killer, as Eric Raymond explains in his work, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, is a piece of software so good at what it does that it has no competition because no one feels the need to compete with it. Stallman and the FSF are also to be credited for the creation of the General Public License (GPL), also known as Copyleft. 

Note that Free Software is not the same thing as Open Source. Open Source Software, like Free Software, espouses the principles of creating open, high quality, powerful software. The FSF claims that unlike Free Software, however, Open Source shuns the ideas of freedom, community, and principle which are at the foundation of Free Software. Agreeing with the goals and principles of the FSF is not necessary; knowing what those goals and principles are should be.

This monumental work by Eric S. Raymond (ESR) explains the methodology and philosophy behind OSS. This paper, first presented at Linux Kongress in May of 1997, uses the story of ESR’s creation of Fetchmail to describe how he figured Open Source development should work. In it, he explains his realization of how amazingly effective peer reviews and feedback loops are within the Open Source model. His ideas can be summarized in the following quote: “Release early. Release often. And listen to your customers.”

From their website, “the Open Source Initiative is a non profit corporation dedicated to managing and promoting the Open Source Definition for the good of the community…” Containing everything from a list and explanation of various OSI certified Open Source software licenses to the infamous Halloween Papers, this web page is essential to helping anyone build and argument for open source in all relevant aspects, including technical, philosophical, and business.

Simply put, The Jargon File is the most comprehensive guide to hacker-talk ever assembled, period. Even the most seasoned programmer will from time to time run into phrases that he/she doesn’t readily recognize. Because of this, ESR’s Jargon File is a necessary tool for anyone serious about information gathering on the Net.

With that out of the way, it’s time to get started. After all, if you’re planning to do any sort of Open Source project management, or if you simply want to look for answers to a current conundrum, you’ll need to learn how to dig for information quickly, right? {mospagebreak title=Newsgroups} Although the best sources of information might not be on the Web (after all, the World Wide Web is only a component of the Internet), there is one place which is considered by many to be the best and quickest source of information on the internet: Google.com. This website is probably the best general resource you have at your disposal. As a member of both the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group (SVLUG) and the Suncoast Linux Users Group (SLUG), I’ve seen more than my share of references to this website. As a writer, I’ve often relied on it for quick bits of information. As a developer, however, the newsgroups search on Google.com is even more valuable. As far as Open Source software is concerned, if you need to find the meaning of almost any error message for any piece of software, you have no further to go than the newsgroup archives at http://groups.google.com.

This being said, aside from this rather behemoth exception, which can, in all honesty, command a category all its own, newsgroups and mailing lists are probably the slowest of the methods covered. Don’t mistake this last statement to mean that they are not quick, however. In some lists you’re likely to receive your answer within a minute from the time you post the question, which is better than can be said for some searches. As I mentioned before, the problem with search engines comes when you either get too many answers, not enough, or when your problem requires a bit of human analysis, wisdom, ingenuity, and direct intervention. In any of these cases, newsgroups and mailing lists make great alternatives.

Now, at face value, the process of finding a newsgroup of worth and then finding your subject being discussed within those groups can be a bit of a hassle (in the same way that this was a bit of an understatement). If this is all you’re looking to do, then do yourself a favor and stick to the search engines. Think about it; Go to your favorite Newsgroup reader and type in PHP at the “Group Find” prompt. When I did it, I got a listing of thirty-six different groups. Don’t even ask how many hits I received when I typed in Linux; this is just as useless as getting that hundred thousand hits that I got before.

In contrast, some searches can be small and to the point. Searching for MySQL yielded one list (mailing.database.mysql) with approximately 635 messages. On the other hand, Zope returned no results. That wouldn’t give me much hope of finding my answer already there, but I can always shoot off a message to a list and ask for help. At the very least, I can expect to be pointed in the right direction. For example, in the case of Zope, I’m can send off queries to the comp.lang.python list and expect at least some success. You results will vary, depending on your manners, the number of participants, their willingness to help, and the nature of your question. Note, however, that having a reliable, fast newsgroup reader comes in very handy when doing this sort of thing, so choose your software well.

To save you some time, I’ve compiled a list of the busiest groups (that is, the ones with the largest amount of volume) that I could find. In this case, the old saying that “there’s strength in numbers” certainly holds true.

  • Python: comp.lang.python, which beat out alt.fan.monty-python by about 1245 entries.
  • Perl: comp.lang.perl.*, especially .misc.
  • PHP: comp.lang.php and php.general were pretty close.
  • Java: comp.lang.java.*, especially .programmer.
  • MySQL: mailing.database.mysql, which was outnumbered by microsoft.public.sqlserver.*, especially .programming, by about 800 queries.
  • XML: comp.text.xml, microsoft.public.dotnet.xml, and micosoft.public.xml.
  • Linux: *.comp.os.linux.* (Surprised? I didn’t think so. The “*” beforehand is for those groups in other countries, such as pl, fr, es, and de.) An especially large number of messages was also available at the linux.* groups, especially ….debian.
  • GNU: gnu.*, particularly .emacs.
  • BSD: comp.unix.bsd.*, especially .netbsd.misc, .freebsd.misc, and .openbsd.misc. Also fido7.ru.unix.bsd, a Russian newsgroup had a large enough readership to deserve mention, although I presume most of my audience consists of fluent English speakers.

 (*Note: This list deals only with Open Source related components. Other components, such as Flash, have a good following, but are not within the scope of this article.)

This is just a sampling of some of the largest lists out there in the field of Open Source. If you’re serious about using newsgroups as a source of information then go ahead and pick a few to make your favorites and familiarize yourself with them. Doing this will save you time and frustration in the future.

As a final note, remember that message boards, although not technically newsgroups, can often be even quicker than newsgroups. If you want to try one out, check out our message boards here at DevShed. I invite you to put your comments about this story on those boards. It’s probably also a great place to ask newsgroup, mailing list and IRC related questions!{mospagebreak title=Mailing Lists} What happens when you want to ask a question to a group, but you can’t find a suitable newsgroup (such as was my case with Apache), or would rather deal with more personal or more familiar sources? That’s when you turn your eyes towards mailing lists.

Unlike newsgroups, mailing lists often have a sense of community, greater even than real-time chat channels. Because of this, response times tend to be faster, as group members seek to help one another, seeking to be a rising tide, lifting all ships. Just keep in mind that many of these lists will expect that you’ve already done some footwork on your own.

Please note that although this story is about Open Source software and where to get the help often touted as being so readily available amongst Free Software and Open Source advocates, you’re probably going to notice that I’m pretty Linux-centric when it comes to the mailing lists I chose. That’s because you’ll find that Linux lists are more about Free Software and Open Source than they are about Linux, per se. After all, the lists wouldn’t be as popular as they are if all they talked about a single topic, such as the kernel. Although many lists do quite well developing a community of engineers, as have the Emacs and Fetchmail communities with their lists (found at http://savannah.gnu.org/mail/?group=emacs and http://www.catb.org/~esr/fetchmail/, respectively), go ahead and compare their numbers to the Groups of Linux Users Everywhere.. See the size difference? You’ll find that these Linux User Group lists are some of the best places to start almost any search. A group with a large enough membership will usually contain its fair share of Zope and Apache administrators, PHP and Java programmers, and people who simply enjoy to tinker around with everything, from XML to multimedia. Just remember that these lists do have rules and regulations which must be followed, so make sure you know them before you go off and start asking questions about closed source issues, like Flash, which might incur some scolding, flaming, and – in some lists - tarring, feathering, and maybe even gunzipping. Instead, off topic questions like that, if they can’t be avoided, can be addressed by simply asking for anyone who knows about a certain subject to e-mail you off list, or asking where you’d be able to get information on the subject, making sure to apologize for the off-topic post. At that point, only the biggest of jerks will usually say anything derogative, provided that you haven’t been a jerk yourself and abused your right to ask those questions.

The following is a list of some of the more helpful mailing lists that I have found. Just remember that when it comes to Open Source and Free Software, a good Linux Users Group (LUG) is usually a great place to begin any search. I’ve attempted to make sure that the link leads directly to the sign up page of the list mentioned, however a large number of these list numerous lists within the pages, such as the XML and Perl lists.

Be forewarned: some of these lists are very high volume, so before you go off and sign up for all of these, make sure that you can handle the load. If you don’t find what you need on this list, then go ahead and run a search on <your topic>+mailing+list in your favorite search engine. Chances are that there’s something out there devoted to what you’re seeking. {mospagebreak title=IRC Channels} Finally, we reach what is perhaps the fastest way to gather live information online: IRC channels. If you’ve followed the links, you may have noticed that many of the pages listed in the Mailing Lists section also mentioned IRC channels.

With that in mind, I found it interesting that, when writing this story, I ran into the following message, posted to the ufra.lists.php newsgroup in 1998:

“There are probably quite a few people who use IRC and also PHP.  Many do not have time for the relatively inefficient mechanism it provides. Things tend to end up in useless and unproductive chatter back and forth. And even for the people who can get beyond that, chances are that if they are on IRC then they are on different networks.  Undernet is just one of many.  I, for example, when I am on IRC am always on EFNet, or sometimes on IRCnet.  A PHP channel on Undernet doesn’t help me very much.”

While the PHP/IRC correlation might not be accurate anymore, what about the rest of the statement? If this is true, then who in their right minds would choose IRC? Can you actually get your tasks done this way? Well, that depends on both your need and how you like to work. The author is right when he points out that things end up in chatter back and forth. But is it all unproductive? It’s been my experience that, as far as hard-core programming goes, chat channels are usually not the best places to go. This is not the case with administration and maintenance, which I find, are best benefited by the use of these lists.

The writer of this message points out three well known IRC servers: IRCnet (irc.ircnet.org), Undernet (irc.undernet.org), and EFNet (irc.efnet.org). If you know anything about IRC, however, then you realize that these contain within them thousands of individual, active chat channels for you to carouse through. In fact, when I fire up my favorite IRC client (X-Chat), I get a listing of 63 chat servers right off the bat, not to mention the channels to be found within them! So much for quick answers, right?

Well, like in the previous categories, it’s simply a matter of finding the right chat servers and channels to tap for information. I’ve compiled a list of servers and channels which I believe you’ll find useful. Like before, if I don’t list what you’re looking for, then go ahead and search the servers. If you find something that you thing would be of interest to other readers, I invite you to post it on the DevShed.com message boards. By the way, if you’ve never used IRC before, or are have questionable skills, check out the IRC home page at http://www.irc.net, which just so happens to be partly sponsored DevShed.

The following is a list of links (in no particular order) to some of the biggest servers out there. Remember that if you want to check out their website, you’ll need to change the irc.servername.org into www.servername.org.

  • irc.Undernet.org
  • irc.Freenode.net
  • irc.EFnet.org
  • irc.DAL.net
  • irc.IRCnet.net 

On most of these, you can safely type #<subject> (where <subject> is your subject, such as #linux, #cocoon, or #python) and expect to find a channel dedicated to the subject. If you can’t, then go ahead and do a search for the channels on the server, although a faster way would probably be to search on Google.com for <subject> IRC channel. Chances are that you’ll find the channel you’re looking for within the first ten links.

As a related side note, while writing this story, I ran into the list of one-hundred most popular IRC channels, accessible at http://searchirc.com/top100.php. Not one of them had anything to do with development or, surprisingly enough, Open Source software. Free software was represented, but only if you count warez (illegally acquired and distributed commercial software). Note that Free Software, as in the case of GNU, and free software, as in pirated commercial programs, or warez,  are not by any means the same thing. Heck, they’re not even in the same ideological park.
{mospagebreak title=Putting it All Together} Ok, so now you’re ready to search with the best of them. You can take on any challenge and know for a fact that you can overcome anything that comes your way.  Armed with your books, search engines, newsgroups, mailing lists, IRC channels, and affiliations you feel like you can decipher even the most mysterious error messages and piece together the most complicated of puzzles, don’t you?

If so, then please heed the following piece of advice; There are others like you out there, seeking help from these very sources. Someone took the time to help you out, so maybe it’s your turn to help someone else out. And even if no one lends you a helping hand, go ahead and lend it to them anyways. Remember that when the pebble hits the water, it doesn’t know how far the ripples will go.

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