Here Comes a Google for Coders

For most people, open source is a synonym for free software. But for programmers, open source is about sharing code, building on the work of others and not having to reinvent the wheel — at least, that’s the ideal. In practice, code reuse remains very low, because it’s often too hard for programmers to find relevant bits of code for their applications.

A new search engine for programmers promises to alleviate that problem by making it easier to find and share code. That in turn could increase programmers’ productivity and give a fresh boost to the open-source movement.

Krugle, which launches officially next month, indexes programming code and documentation from open-source repositories like SourceForge and includes corporate sites for programmers like the Sun Developer Network. The index will cover around 100 million pages of what company founder Ken Krugler terms the “technical web” — high-quality technical pages for professional programmers. (By contrast, Google’s index covers about 11 billion pages.)

“This winds up being a window on all the open-source code in the world,” said Krugler, who estimates the Krugle index will contain between 3 and 5 terabytes of code by the time the engine launches in March.

The new service joins other source-code search engines like Koders and Codefetch, but Krugle intends to differentiate itself by allowing developers to annotate code and documentation, create bookmarks and save collections of search results in a tabbed workspace. Saved workspaces have unique URLs, so developers can send an entire collection of annotated code to a co-worker just by e-mailing a link.

Krugle also contains intelligence to help it parse code and to differentiate programming languages, so a PHP developer could search for a website-registration system written in PHP simply by typing “PHP registration system.”

Greg Olson, a co-founder of early open-source success story Sendmail and a consultant with the Olliance Group said Krugle will make it easier to reuse program components — something that the open-source movement has long promised, but never effectively delivered on. (Olson advised Krugle on the startup’s open-source usage.)

“It’s so cumbersome now to use tools like Google to search for code that the majority of programmers just write their own code,” said Olson — even if they know that an open-source component is probably available that would meet their needs. “If you can’t find the pieces, it’s too frustrating to try to reuse components. But if you can reuse components, you can get a factor-of-10 improvement in productivity.”

Simon Phipps, the chief open-source officer for Sun Microsystems, said Krugle could be useful as a learning tool, but the many different licenses that apply to open-source code are a potential stumbling block. In addition to the widely used Gnu Public License, Mozilla Foundation projects have their own licensing terms — and copyright holders may retain some rights even in otherwise publicly available open-source code, said Phipps.

“Let’s say you turn up a bit of code that’s licensed under the GPL … if you use it, that means your whole project needs to be licensed under the GPL. I hope that people are aware of these issues, because the licensing situation could get pretty hairy.”

Krugle will make money from advertising on its free, public search engine. The company is also planning to create an enterprise edition, due in 2007, to facilitate code-sharing within companies.

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Here Comes a Google for Coders