Saturday, August 29, 2009

Building the Connect Community

On August 27th, I attended the Connect Code-a-Thon in Washington D.C. Connect is an project originally designed to hook up 20 federal agencies to the NHIN, or National Health Information Network. The leadership recognized it had much broader applications, and so released the sources to the public earlier this year.

Like our other open-source products, my company, Object Computing, Inc. has been investing in Connect for a while now, building testing, providing feedback to the team and helping others in the community do the same. We were excited to hear about Code-a-Thon, but were lucky to get in. The 100 seats filled up fast.

One thing which happens frequently in open source products is a broadening of the solution to a larger problem set. Connect was fitting this model. While looking at the sources I realized it was currently tied to a specific directory. In this case it was C:\Projects\NHINC. Other paths were assumed as well. I found this to be unusable for the community, I proposed a project, called Path Neutrality, to allow the code to be checked out anywhere, deployed anywhere, tested anywhere. I posted my idea to the Connect forums and asked for those interested to respond.

I waited to hear from the community, but did not get a reply. The community manager, Brian Behlendorf, replied promptly that it was a well-written project and it made technical sense. Yet, the community was strangely silent as Code-a-Thon approached.

Another announcement about Code-a-Thon indicated there would be 10 tables - one for each of the project areas - including one for Path Neutrality. This was great support, but I still worried how embarrassing it would be to sit alone at that table. Still, the acceptance of this project, even into the agenda of the event, made me know, that community was important to the Connect team.

The day arrived, and I entered the Hubert H. Humphrey Health and Human Services Building which I called H5SB, met some of the staff and a few developers. I tried selling another developer who was interested in a Linux version on the idea of Path Neutrality. We found the table, and there were already two other people there. What a relief.

The event started and Brian introduced the topics at the various tables and asked people to indicate their interest. I was stunned that the table was, in fact popular. Path Neutrality, naturally, was critical to getting Connect running on Linux, and the Linux contingent had arrived. Also included at the Path Neutrality table were discussions on containers neutrality, database neutrality, and even EJB-independence. The Social Security Administration, who used Connect on Solaris, showed a lot of interest, as did Connect's Chief Architect.

We worked on some of the key issues surrounding path-neutrality and prototyped some possible solutions. Jason from the development team joined us for most of the day. There was a real sense of a can-do attitude in the community. It was great to be part of these passionate developers wanting to broaden the application of this product.

With all the buzz around our table, a reporter from GovHealthIT stopped by and we spoke for a while, and she wrote up the project in an article.

If you have an interest in helping out, check out the Connect project. This community is a very welcoming one. If you have Java web services experience or health IT domain knowledge, this open source project can use your help. Release 2.2 is coming soon, and quarterly Code-a-Thons are planned. California, Atlanta, and St. Louis are possible future sites. I hope I have the time to help keep momentum of Path Neutrality going.

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