Brussels / 31 January & 1 February 2015


Leihs, the leading free equipment booking system

It took us eight years to get it right. What we learned about being a FOSS project.

leihs is probably the most widely used free inventory management and equipment booking system. Started at the Zürich University of the Arts (ZHdK) in order to manage their own sizeable pool of equipment, it quickly became clear that other organizations have exactly the same problems. It now made sense to release leihs under the GPL. In this talk, Ramón talks about mistakes made, challenges and things learned in the last 8 years of managing a free software project from within a government organization.

leihs began as a small internal project, written when Ruby on Rails was still young and considered cutting-edge technology. Deployment was messy and unreliable, the code had to be changed significantly with every Rails upgrade and even Ruby itself had a few pretty bad bugs at the time. But we stuck with it and rewrote the core and most of the interface for version 2.0. This was the initial version of leihs released under the GPL. Later GitHub came along, and so leihs went there. With GitHub came some popularity, and the project really took off when we redesigned the user interface yet again, this time with real interaction designers.

The main takeaways from eight years of free software development:

  • If you choose a technology that's immature, things get very exciting. But be prepared to rewrite your code again and again as the foundation you built on shifts.
  • Don't add internationalization at a later time, do it from the start. One of my biggest regrets is not going with a complete German/English interface from the start.
  • Make sure your management understands what it means to do free software, and that you can't just do your own thing. Be part of your own community. Comment on bug reports, write change logs, have a project blog -- if you treat the community as if it isn't there, it will soon not be there anymore.
  • If you're doing something with a GUI and don't have interaction- or UX people, hire professionals to do it for you.

leihs has now been installed at some very important universities and colleges in and outside Switzerland. I want to encourage anyone who is paid with taxpayer money to develop free software and to politely urge their management into letting them do it. But I don't want to create the illusion that it will be easy.


Ramón Cahenzli