Education IT chiefs debate open source

When does it make sense? When is it plain dumb?


The concept of open source software seems so firmly entrenched in higher education that it comes as almost a shock to realize there's actually a debate over it.

The concept of open source software seems so firmly entrenched in higher education that it comes as almost a shock to realize there's actually a debate over it. But debate there was, civilized and trenchant, this week during the annual Educause conference on high technology in higher education in Orlando, Fla.

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"It's really tough to take [commercial software] systems built for a corporate world and stick them into an education world," said Bradley Wheeler, vice president for IT and CIO at Indiana University, adding that one recent book estimated education globally would spend $5.5 billion installing ERP, much of it in modifying commercial software to meet institutional needs. "We spend so much money trying too hard to fit those things in."

"I don't think there's any reason to believe that we will substantially match our business [with a community-source project] any better than a commercial system," countered Adrian Sannier, university technology officer and professor of computing studies at Arizona State University. "The CIOs of oil companies don't say 'our business is so different from everyone else's, [that] we have to write our own financial applications.' They're doing everything they can to get out of that business."

Colleges and universities have launched several high-profile "community source" projects to develop large-scale education applications. These include the Sakai learning-management system, and more recently, the Kuali project, which is creating such education-focused enterprise applications as financial accounting, and expanding to develop student information systems and even middleware to tie them all together.

Community-source uses the same basic licensing mechanism, rooted in the Apache project, as many other open source efforts. It adds a critical licensing change, however, to protect certain kinds of patents that might be held by software donors, and organizes code development along traditional, scheduled release dates.

Higher education takes open source very seriously. Two years ago, BlackBoard, a leading commercial learning-management system, announced it had been awarded a patent for some elements of its learning-management system and intended to enforce it. The news ignited a blaze of criticism, with institutions and organizations like Educause criticizing the vendor for claiming technology and ideas that had been developed through the work of the community.

Wheeler and Sannier had begun their debate a year earlier, when they met at a dinner hosted by Campus Technology, a publication and online news site. This week, even their styles of dress seemed designed to highlight their different viewpoints. Sannier sported a brimmed cap and a pullover, while Wheeler was almost formal in tie and jacket. "I'm Mac, he's PC," Sannier joked at one point. "I've got three Macs at home, baby -- three Macs," Wheeler countered.

Sannier is a popular speaker at such events: working without notes, expressive, at ease, quick-witted. Wheeler may have lacked his opponent's rhetorical polish and flourishes, but met his arguments head-on.

Commercial software development by multi-billion-dollar companies is a kind of virtuous spiral, Sannier argued: competing for business and customer satisfaction, leveraging what he called the new "industrial model" of efficient and fast software development to introduce a constant stream of innovations and ever more secure and efficient code. Community-source projects for such standard applications as financial accounting can't help but remain an inefficient, underfunded cottage industry, he said. "That's my philosophy," he added.

"It makes sense. Until you realize the fallacy of it," Wheeler replied, sparking a laugh from the audience. "By the time you pay the [commercial] license fees, you're in a monopoly situation with that vendor. And the values [of vendor and education customer] then diverge," he continued.

A small group of commercial vendors inevitably and effectively "monopolize" an institution's application when one product is installed, Wheeler argued. They then have wide power to raise prices and resist costly product changes because they have a "moral responsibility" to earn a profit for their shareholders and because it's too costly for institutions to change ERP vendors. When Indiana University's student population increased just over the number for one licensed product, the vendor forced a costly license upgrade.

"Brad, I can't help you with your skill, or lack of skill, in negotiating software contracts," Sannier said, almost apologetically -- drawing laugh from Wheeler and the audience. "There is nothing special about higher-education financials unless we make it so."

Institutions should forget open source attempts to replicate applications like financials, and instead concentrate on applications that are central to the core mission of the school, such as learning management and student information systems, Sannier insisted. "We've learned that by investing in [our] software design, you're paring down your installation and operational costs," Wheeler countered.

Those savings will be consumed by the consulting fees paid to deploy community-source enterprise applications, Sannier predicted. "The consultants who help you are like bartenders serving drunks."

Both men agreed about the importance of the rise of information services hosted by cloud-based providers. ASU was one of the first to work with Google to outsource student e-mail to Google's online Gmail service, and Indiana followed that lead. "But there are some areas where we should build it ourselves and own it, or own the data but contract it to a hosted service," Wheeler said.

"I found a lot of truth in both sides," said Brian Bennett, a Carnegie Mellon University IT staffperson, who's just taken the new title and full-time job of documentation and training coordinator for the community-source Kuali Student project.

Bennett agrees with Sannier that IT often is tempted to overemphasize its industry's special requirements. But he also agrees with Wheeler that software vendors can display predatory, monopolistic practices once entrenched as the vendor-of-choice. "With community-source [software], no one will pull the rug out from under you," he said.

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