Nethserver's robust open source community drives innovation

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A short while ago I was reviewing one of my Twitter lists and I happened upon a tweet that led me to NethServer, an open source project that featured a product the likes of which I had been looking for in recent months.

I'm a volunteer at my local library, and I had been working with the library system's IT director to find a reasonable solution for firewall, intrusion detection, storage, remote backup, and web filtering for a several dozen small public libraries in western New York State. I was also attracted to NethServer because it is built on CentOS, a Linux distribution I'm very familiar with. I also loved the demo running on Docker, which gave me a chance to experiment a bit.

Further exploration of the site piqued my curiosity, so I contacted the Nethserver community manager, Alessio Fattorini, who graciously agreed to this interview.

Tell us about yourself.

I'm NethServer's community manager. I'm also support specialist and product manager at Nethesis. In my spare time, I usually tweet about community management, open source, customer service, Linux, and productivity tips.

How do you engage and animate your community?

Engaging a community, it's hard work—really time-consuming—but it's fun and gives me satisfaction.

Don't hope participants will magically become regulars. Give them something unique to work on and introduce them to members in a similar position.

My job is inviting people to do something for the project, welcoming newcomers, making them comfortable, calling for suggestions/ideas, and helping members make them a reality. Every single day I have to say "thank you" for my members' efforts. I assure you, those are very powerful words! Discussions are not enough, so I try to push members to jump into action since people feel more involved doing things and making stuff.

I provide opportunities for members to help one another by making connections between people. Lately I'm trying to break my community into small teams because bigger is bad, bigger groups are intimidating to newcomers and more exhausting for regulars.

I regularly work in two directions: attract skilled people to technically difficult topics and foster entry-level discussions for newcomers. Enabling fun, lighthearted discussions—not strictly NethServer related—is very important since folks can freely chat and get to know each other better.

How has that engagement helped NethServer?

Community is, of course, the place where you go to discuss NethServer. The community is for people who care about NethServer. They're willing to go one step further, to come together and spend even more of their time deciding how to improve and support it.

We explicitly do everything in public. We spend a lot of time on bugs, feature requests, discussions, and support questions. It's intentionally the opposite of an ivory tower development—community makes NethServer better and more successful, since our aim is to have a widespread, innovative, robust, and well-tested product. For this reason, listening to your community is extremely important because feedback is great!

As one of my mentors @codinghorror says, "Some posts and efforts are pure gold that have the potential to make the product clearly better for everyone, provided you have the intestinal fortitude to look at a hundred posts."

Why someone should get involved with the NethServer community?

Our mission is building the best distribution for servers, designed primarily for small offices and medium-size enterprise, changing the world for system administrators because we believe simplicity can still be powerful. NethServer is not just an OS—it's an idea, a vision. If you have the same aim and the same goal, join us. In addition, the community is composed by awesome members who spend their spare time helping people, proposing new features, and writing very good how-tos! I learn a lot of things from them every single day, so it's a huge opportunity to share knowledge and grow together.

How did NethServer get started?

NethServer started as a fork of SME Server (formerly known as e-smith), when we saw that many features we developed were not being merged. Knowing the limits of the distro we had developed in the last 10 years, we set three simple goals for NethServer:

  • Simple configuration
  • Quick troubleshooting
  • Fast development of new features

Why did you choose CentOS as an operating system?

We always used CentOS because it's widely known and enterprise-ready. Indeed NethServer is mainly addressed to small-medium companies. Moreover, NethServer is focusing on maintainability, extensibility, and standard compliance with CentOS.

How has your affiliation with Docker helped the project?

We are not tied to Docker, but we like it and it's useful for demo on our official site. Docker will be in the upcoming NethServer version 7 and we'd like to use it more and more to "Dockerize" our products.

Could you tell us more about your enterprise model, where most of your customers come from, and/or how they use NethServer?

NethServer is a community effort, but is sponsored by a company (Nethesis). Its business model is to sell software, support, and services to other companies, customers, and resellers. Part of the revenue is used to fund development of NethServer, official site hosting, community initiatives, sponsoring, and so on. Community and company have the same target: making NethServer better and more successful, and NethServer benefits enormously from the resources that the company invests into it.

The company pays NethServer coders to write features the customers need and works with the community to make NethServer a better product. Because the company works in the open and as part of the community, and because the code is released under the GPLv3, NethServer itself continues to be free. That's a virtuous circle and everybody wins!

Where do you see NethServer headed in the short term?

We're working on a new module based on Adagios + OCSInventory + Nagios which are powerful technical management solutions of IT assets, on an integration with FreePBX/Asterisk, the most widely deployed Open Source PBX platform and on a new Radius Server.

Plus, we're working hard on a new groupware solution based on the WebTop project and on NethServer 7, based on CentOS 7.

What are your long range plans for NethServer?

We aim high and dream big, working on NethServer 7, FreeIPA, Samba4, Cockpit, POWER8 hardware support, and a new user dashboard.

User profile image.
Educator, entrepreneur, open source advocate, life long learner, Python teacher. M.A. in Educational Psychology, M.S. Ed. in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator.

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