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Managing distributed software development gains traction

Geographically distributed software development projects are fast becoming the norm, and managing far flung dev teams is shaping up to become one of the biggest challenges faced by enterprise IT today. Conference calls, email, and instant messaging are basic to the process, but the increasing complexity of the software being developed is stirring up demand for what industry icon Grady Booch has described as "new development environments that support interactions between geographically disparate stake holders."

Industry analysts at Yankee Group have recognized these environments as a new product category. Dubbed "collaborative software development" (CSD), it includes solutions that "enable engineers, marketers, manufacturers, and service providers to share information and coordinate activities without compromising the integrity or security of the engineering process."

Earlier this year, Booch cited VA Software’s SourceForge, CollabNet's SourceCast, and a product code-named "Jazz," currently in the works at IBM Software Group, where Booch serves as principal architect, as tools to watch in this space.

"We’re no longer talking about managing a bunch of cubicles with 20 engineers sitting together and working on a project," says Brian Behlendorf, CTO and co-founder of CollabNet. "Now we’re talking about pulling together the crypto expert from Eastern Europe, the QA team from India, and some hotshot programmers in Brazil.

"You can't pile a bunch of source code into a zip file and send it out to these guys via email once every couple of months and expect them to be very productive. You've got to get them working together in real time."

Behlendorf has been thinking about the challenges of managing globally distributed development teams since 1999, when he co-founded CollabNet with O'Reilly & Associates. He was also one of the original eight developers of the code for the Apache Web Server Project.

The company was founded on what CollabNet CEO Bill Portelli calls the "open-source gene."

"Open source was globally distributed from day one," he says. "When Linus Torvalds posted the first lines of Linux code on the Internet in 1991, he had feedback in the first week from people in the U.S., Europe, South America, and Asia."

Behlendorf and Portelli, who joined the company shortly after its founding, believed that open source had paved the way for a new age of Internet-based collaboration. "What was it about Apache that made it so solid when the first release came out?" Portelli says. "It was because, prior to that release, developers all over the world had access to the code."

But it wasn't the open-source methodology per se that interested them, or the open-source licensing obsession, Behlendorf says. It was the transparent nature of open source development--transparency not just into the code, but into the community and even the context of the development process.

"That was the big deal to us," Behlendorf says. "That's what we thought needed to be brought to the rest of the software industry."

Today, CollabNet provides a range of CSD solutions that combine a Web-based software application with a suite of consulting services. The Brisbane, Calif.-based company's products are designed to allow software development teams to collaborate across locations within an enterprise, or securely integrate business partners, contractors, or offshore development firms.

In June, CollabNet upgraded its SourceCast platform and renamed it CollabNet Enterprise Edition 3.0 (CEE). CEE now provides a Web-based development environment designed to enable geographically dispersed groups of developers to collaborate on software projects. CEE includes tools for revision control, issue tracking, mailing-list creation and management, Web-based administration, and custom branding and content.

Early on, CollabNet worked with Sun Microsystems to develop an open source community around its NetBeans development tools. CollabNet's CEE provides the environment for both internal and external NetBeans developers to collaborate across organizational boundaries and geographical distances. CollabNet also hosts Sun’s OpenOffice productivity applications on its collaborative development platform, as well as Sun’s Jxta.org for distributed computing protocols, and SunSource.net, which acts as the focal point for discussions between and about Sun and the free and open-source communities. The company recently announced that OpenOffice.org has surpassed the 170,000 registered member mark.

CollabNet environment is used by hundreds of thousands of developers at Fortune 500 and industry-leading enterprise companies around the world, the company claims.

Interestingly, companies are also beginning to utilize collaborative development tools like CEE for what might be thought of as a new kind of accelerated integration, Portelli says.

"The old way would have been to say, I’ll provide you with my API, and now you try to build some kind of Java phone application that let’s you play chess on a Motorola handset," he says. "The new way is getting all of that out of the way early so that when you come to market, these things are interoperable. The Internet is transforming the way companies are going to market together, attacking markets, creating ecosystems around them."

For more information, see http://www.collab.net/.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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