I had the opportunity to talk a little bit with Dirk Riehle at LinuxTag about business models, collaboration and infrastructures, and one of the arguments was about software forges, like SourceForge or GForge. I would like to provide a little bit of overview of our discussion, along with my reasoning about the future of such forges.
First of all, I am a strong believer in the idea that forges were one of the important elements for the maturation and creation of a large scale market of users and developers of open source; forges provided free, simple and no-cost infrastructure for the basic necessities of a project, like file storage, CVS, mailing lists and so on. In this sense, forges also helped in discovering software, by providing basic taxonomies of software code, and comprehensive search facilities.
But two main aspects are in my opinion reducing the potential of forges for recent projects, namely distributed development and information dissemination. One of the important evolutions in code development has been the widespread adoption of distributed version control, through Git, Bazaar, Mercurial and (to a lesser extent) other minor solutions. Git, for example, substantially increased the productivity of projects like Wine, and provide a good management framework for large scale development by nearly independent group, like in the case of the Linux kernel.
The other aspect is related to information dissemination: what happens to a project is lost between bug tracking, mailing lists, forum (why the replication of features? how to find if something was already solved in some other place?); projects are difficult to interact one with the other, with the impossibility of tracking evolution of one project from another without passing from one person in the middle subscribed to both. And, as Dirk graciously conceded, managing or adapting a forge is a real nightmare I remember our past work in the Spirit forge (a healthcare-oriented forge, that used digital certificates to authenticate and sign code entered in the platform) and still got the shivers.
For this reason, I believe that future forges will be structurally different from the current ones: they will be based on small, efficient pieces, for example a central Git repo, that is enhanced by external modules that subscribe to modifications in the code stream and provide this information to higher-level applications, that for example produce graphs or link each atomic action to a wiki or tracking system. By moving things from a monolithic tool to loosely coupled pieces, we can end up with something that is more “facebook-like” than forge like, with individual apps that provide for example code quality services (like Sonar) or visualization services. I am a strong believer in a publish-subscribe mechanism for this, for example through XMPP, because it allows to solve easily the problem of how to track strongly coupled projects. For example, if my code is dependent on an external project I can subscribe to its own code announcement strams, or issue streams, since the same issues will probably apply to my code as well; this without an explicit interaction, and with the opportunity to link issues to individual actions (commits, reports, etc.) that remain valid even if I fork the library, or act independently on modifications that will eventually be merged in a single tree. I believe that in the future the number of strong or weak coupling will increase, and this will seriously limit the capabilities of current forges.