All software developers depend on little helpers, whether visible or invisible. Open Source developers tend to call upon a large number of resources to get help, very few of which require a contract or a wellstocked bank account. I introduce a selection of them here to make your life a little easier, but please be aware of the fact that new resources are being created all the time. This is just meant to get you started.
As far as I know, Google doesn’t have a university - yet. But searching via Google seems to be the best first approach. When you search, make sure you take advantage both the web search and the newsgroup search. Google has an archive of newsgroup messages since before the advent of Linux. Many talented engineers share what they know through personal pages, project pages, and blog postings; and Google, as you know, is the perfect way to find this sort of information on the Web. Some crafty web sites grab the contents of mailing lists and/or newsgroups and wrap them in a web page as a way of attracting visitors to their ad-laden slices of hell; they don’t have any better content than you find on a newsgroup, so feel free to look elsewhere.
Mailing lists constitute the primary means of communication and serve as the mechanism of record for open source projects. A mailing list is nothing more than a system whereby communications are posted via e-mail and the postings are then forwarded to the list’s subscribers. The software managing the mailing list keeps an archive of the messages, usually grouped by month and then organized by topic. Reading the archives is a great way to understand how people use the software you’re interested in and what sorts of problems are common. You should also feel free to subscribe to the mailing lists of projects in which you have greater interest. To do this, you need to supply your e-mail address. Don’t worry about being spammed - these sites are run by people like you and aren’t interested in enhancing anything other than your technical knowledge. As a subscriber to the list, you can choose to receive messages as they’re posted or once a day, in digest mode. Digest mode is fine for occasional readers; but if you find yourself more involved in the project, once-a-day updates introduce too much latency. For the newbie, the mailing list archives offer a wealth of knowledge. The open source community is large enough that somebody has worked through a problem like yours before. Google searches the mailing lists, but reading them directly gives you more context and understanding than reading a few messages in isolation. If you ask a question on the mailing list, you may get a reply that this has already been resolved or answered and a pointer to a URL of a message in the archives.
When groups of people regularly get together, rules form to make interaction pleasant for all those involved; this is the notion of etiquette. Etiquette involves thinking about others before yourself and making life easier for them. Now, stop slouching and start using the proper fork for your salad. If you’re new to using mailing lists or newsgroups, here are some basic rules:
• No spam: If it’s not related to the mailing list, don’t post it. If you’re asking about C++ syntax corner cases on a C mailing list, somebody will likely tell you nicely that your question is off topic. Posting about your latest medical procedure or trying to sell something is verboten.
• Keep it short and to the point, and use simple English. This makes your message easy to download and easy to read for non–English speakers who may be participating. Don’t include large attachments with your message (where large is more than a few kilobytes).
• Post in plain text. Many people reading the mailing list don’t have a mail client that renders the message with fancy formatting.
• Don’t post in ALL CAPS. It’s the computer equivalent of shouting.
• When replying, don’t include all the text from the prior poster. Clip out what you need to reference, and include that in the message.
• Don’t post “questions” that are thinly veiled invitations for somebody else to do your work. Likewise, don’t set deadlines or make demands of your fellow readers.
Open source somehow has attracted some of the smartest people and also some of the nicest. Fear not when posting a message; be reasonable and respectful, and your treatment will be the same.
Because having Linux running on a board is an important part of a vendor’s release strategy, many vendors also offer support in varying degrees for the Linux distributed with the board. For some vendors, the only way to get Linux is to download it from their site. The advantage of using one of these sites is that you have access to the Linux kernel and root file system that have been tested with the board and at the same time have access to a group of engineers who are working with the same hardware and software platform, because most vendor sites include a mailing list or web-based forum for support. Depending on the enlightenment of the hardware vendor and the dedication of its Linux-using customer base, the site may also contain technical articles or technical support offered directly by the company. The trend among hardware vendors is to ensure that the changes to the Linux kernel that are required for it to run on a board make it into the mainline Linux kernel project. Due to the coordination efforts involved in the main kernel release process, processor and board vendors are always a little unsynchronized with the main kernel release, but not to the extent they were a few years back.
Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a communication protocol that lets you communicate quickly by sending short messages either through a public channel or privately. IRC messages hosted by a server and channels can be thought of as existing on that server. Some projects or companies maintain their own IRC services. Client software required to use IRC is part of a standard Linux distribution. Windows users can download one of several IRC clients for that platform. This communication medium has some rules to make it useful and easy for those who participate. Like using a mailing list, you should be courteous and respectful to the people participating:
• Keep it short: The purpose of IRC is to exchange short messages, maybe a line or so. The act of being verbose is called flooding and is frowned on.
• Don’t send status messages: Some IRC clients let you change your user name or send out messages after a span of inactivity. In a channel frequented by many people, this is nothing but noise and makes it hard for others participating to see the real discussion of the channel.
• Don’t use Caps Lock: As in e-mail, it’s the same as shouting.
• Don’t ask somebody to solve your problem: Also as on a mailing list, you can ask questions to get help, but the people in the channel have no obligation to help you or solve your problem. Just like any other online community, lots of people are willing to help you if you’re willing to help yourself.
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