The latest issue of Enterprise Open Source Journal has a nice article by Edmon Begoli ("Strategies for Success With Open Source Projects") on selecting open source software. Edmon starts by explaining that, like with commercial software, you need to consider your requirements. After that, he suggests some additional steps that apply to examining open source.
- Understanding our own technology capabilities will help you determine what kind of support you need
Understand the organization behind the project. Edmon gives a nice categorization scheme of Institutional (e.g. Apache), Commercially Sponsored (e.g. MySQL), and Independent (such as community supported projects).
Understand what is going on with the project. Here is where you take advantage of the openness of open source. Look at the bug lists and mailing lists and examine the architectural vision of the project by reviewing a project roadmap. You can also get a good idea of architectural vision by reading the development list and learning the technical philosophy of the developers).
Another thing I like about the article is the perspective of managing risk. Identify the risk tolerance of your initiative (will lives be lost if there is a bug?) and understand the potential benefits of working with newer and open technologies that you can contribute to. The article also recommends contributing back enhancements.