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Dos and don'ts: Get the most out of free support

IT professional Jameson C. Burt offers a set of dos and don'ts for using open-source support.

Jameson C. Burt has used free support options for open-source software for a decade. With these tips, he shares the lessons learned from his experience. - Jan Stafford, site editor,

Don't rely solely on an open-source project site's search engine. The number of solutions contributed to an open-source project like Debian/GNU Linux becomes daunting without a strong search engine. I've found that an advanced Google search often works more quickly and more thoroughly than an open-source site's search of itself.

Do be selective when subscribing to mailing lists, or you'll be overwhelmed. My e-mail subscription to just one Debian Linux mailing list brings in 100 to 300 messages a day. Only by using tools like procmail can one effectively sort through that level of traffic.

Don't waste your time on chat sessions. Compared with e-mail archives, an open-source chat session gives responses that contributors spent only seconds on, involves users who are impatient and glib, and ignores thousands of archived answers previously offered by others.

Do take the time to learn how to find answers in the open-source arena. You'll quickly recoup the time spent learning the ropes when you know how to get quick and free solutions to your problems.

Do check out how-to documents. When a problem becomes common or important, Linux "howto" documents and "manual" pages get created. To find relevant how-tos, I often use the search engine at the Linux Documentation Project. If you're not impatient, you can use these documents to solve your problems and improve your software approach.

Do use the online how-to and manual pages that come with Linux distributions. With my Debian Linux installation, these resources are located in /usr/share/doc/HOWTO. Since these how-to documents reside locally on most boxes that run Linux, you should be able to easily search for an answer. For instance, egrep -irl mp3 /usr/share/doc/HOWTO lists all documents recursively, ignoring letter capitalization, that contain the word "mp3."

Don't fail to use Debian Linux resources just because you're running another distribution. You'll find a gold mine of info in the hundred-odd Debian Linux e-mail lists.

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