Is OpenACS Worth Your Time?

There's no getting around it: OpenACS is a complex beast. Although the software is generally excellent, it requires an experienced UNIX/web/database hacker to use and modify it. Even the installation procedure is long and complicated, and I can assure you from personal experience that it's often hard to understand where you have made a mistake. The documentation is improving, but there are many gaping holes and difficult-to-understand table structures that can be confusing.

As if that weren't enough, the code isn't completely finished in many places. Yes, the fact that OpenACS is open source does mean you can fix things yourselves. And the community is generally quite open and generous, giving help to those who are trying to get started with it. But it's frustrating to hear constantly that the packages you need are almost ready or that someone expects to finish with them at some point in the future. I'm not averse to helping improve open-source projects, especially when it benefits me (and my clients) directly, but many small annoyances can add up quickly.

Given these complaints, it might seem absurd to think that I endorse OpenACS at all. And indeed, it probably will take some time for the dust to settle and for all of the necessary improvements to be made. But there's no getting around the fact that OpenACS provides a much richer infrastructure for creating on-line communities than anything else I've seen. The included applications might not work completely, but they work pretty darned well overall, and provide most of the functionality that my clients need, right out of the box. Finally, a number of commercial consulting companies, several universities and one or two dozen independent consultants are working on improvements and extensions to OpenACS that promise to make it more robust and featurefull than it is today.

If you're creating an on-line community, and you're not afraid to get your hands dirty with Tcl and SQL code, then you should take a serious look at OpenACS. This month, we considered the overall structure of OpenACS and saw how to install its various elements. Next month, we'll look at how to install and manage the various packages that come with OpenACS, so that we can put together a custom community site that includes only those programs that we really need.



Reuven M. Lerner is a consultant specializing in web/database applications and open-source software. His book, Core Perl, was published in January 2002 by Prentice Hall. Reuven lives in Modi'in, Israel, with his wife and daughter.