What you need to know about open source forking

Picture this: Your company is ticking along nicely, making use of a reliable and well-engineered piece of software to support some important business process, when suddenly it becomes apparent that all is not well in the project’s developer community. A fork is in the cards, and the very future of the project hangs in the balance.

Before we get to the crucial questions of whether a fork is really such a bad thing and what a CIO should do when faced with one, let’s first be clear about what we’re talking about.

In their study of software forks, researchers Gregorio Robles and Jesus M. Gonzalez-Barahona of the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Spain define a fork like this:

Forking occurs when a part of a development community (or a third-party not related to the project) starts a completely independent line of development based on the source code basis of the project. To be considered as a fork, a project should have:

  1. A new project name.
  2. A branch of the software.
  3. A parallel infrastructure (website, versioning system, mailing lists, etc.).
  4. And a new developer community (disjoint with the original).

And to put things in perspective, it’s worth remembering that forking is not that common. Although forks have become more frequent in the last few years, the number of forks has not grown in proportion to the number of free software projects, the researchers found.

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