Universities build open source enterprise applications

Ambitious Kuali project targets a suite of administrative tools

U.S. universities are collaborating on a suite of enterprise applications, tailored for the needs of higher education.

A group of U.S. universities is blazing a new path in open source software. They're building a set of enterprise applications — the big, important, mission-critical ones that have long been the exclusive domain of software companies such as Oracle, SAP and Microsoft.

The first application is the Kuali Financial System, a financial management application designed from the outset for the specific requirements of colleges and universities. It's available under a variant of the Apache 2.0 license. Strikingly, the first deployment is a small school in Nairobi, Kenya: Strathmore University, which estimated that it cut deployment costs by more than half compared with using a commercial product.

The software project is being overseen by the Kuali Foundation, a nonprofit group that brings together academic institutions, grant funding and a small but growing list of commercial partners, all committed to an open source software model for a suite of administrative applications. The name is an Indonesian word for "wok," a common but indispensable utensil in a Malay kitchen. The overall approach is similar to that of the Sakai Foundation, a higher education project focused on a learning management system.

Other Kuali projects are focusing on administering grant applications and awards (based on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Coeus software), a student information system and endowment management. The foundation creates a community around each project, with teams responsible for collaborative design and coding.

How Kuali uses open sourcing

The reality of 'zero leverage'

"The critical reason we're all doing this is the idea of controlling our own destiny," says John "Barry" Walsh, director of university information systems at Indiana University. "We're acutely aware that we're a quirky market," Walsh says. "We don't even want to pay wholesale [prices]. And when we buy your product, we're going to badger you to change every little thing."

Walsh is just as acutely aware that badgering doesn't do much good with big ERP software vendors. "Higher ed is one percent of Oracle's total global market," he says. "That is zero leverage."

Walsh's idea was to create an open source alternative, basing it on a homegrown, modular, client-server financial system that Indiana developed in the mid-90s, and was willing to contribute to open source. He mined his higher education contacts to find likeminded folks, including the National Association of College and University Business Officers and IBM. With a $2.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Kuali came into being.

The heart of the original Indiana financial system was a chart of accounts designed specifically for higher education, organized around a workflow engine and modular business processes, which could be changed easily as needed without affecting the rest of the application. The goal was to create a software application that would have "zero disruptive upgrades. You don't have to park the university for a year while you upgrade to version 9 or whatever," Walsh says.

A key change for Kuali was rewriting the code in Java and making use of Web services interfaces to decouple the various program modules and simplify integration.

The laborious tweak to the Apache license

One of the most laborious parts of this process was making a small change to the Apache license so universities with large and complex software patent portfolios could more easily contribute code to open source efforts such as Sakai and Kuali, according to Chris Coppola, president and CEO, rSmart Group, a software services company that specializes in open source support for higher education.

The change emerged from a higher education international licensing summit in late 2006. As Coppola explained in a blog entry, the Apache license grants broad patent rights to users of the "outbound" open source code. But some university contributors (the "inbound" code) with large and complex software patent portfolios couldn't agree to such a blanket license. The license modification in effect doesn't promise to adopters patent rights that the contributors can't give. It took almost a year of debate and negotiation for the Open Source Initiative to give its seal of approval, he says. The result is the Educational Community License 2.0, used by both Kuali and Sakai.

The open source license is already yielding unexpected results. "A lot [of development] has started happening around the edges of Kuali Financials with the infrastructure components: people are implementing them and adding to them," Coppola says.

This work has been organized into a new project, Kuali Rice, which is creating a suite of middleware programs (workflow, messaging, identity management), interfaces and Web services around a service bus. With the Rice components, developers can more easily build and link applications as collections of modular, interconnected services.

Early adopters

The initial release of Kuali Financial was in late 2006, with a more full-blooded release in November 2007. The adoption by Kenya's Swathmore University proved that Kuali could be scaled down to meet the needs of a very small institution, says John Robinson, chairman of rSmart Group, which worked closely with Swathmore. Release 3.0 is due out in December 2008 with modules for accounts receivable and capital assets, and a battery of enhancements.

For Colorado State University, which is phasing in Kuali Financials, it was just in time. CSU had started the long, complex process of updating its financial system, taking months to evaluate the needs of very diverse campuses and draft a request for proposals. But the RFP was shelved with the advent of Kuali. "Kuali offered functions and integration not available anywhere else," says Pat Burns, vice president for IT at the Fort Collins university.

CSU brought in the "Kuali appliance," a brainstorm by rSmart: the Kuali software is preloaded on a Linux server and comes with several days of rSmart consulting help. Schools plug in the server, load in their data, tailor the chart of accounts and give it a trial run, seeing what fits and what doesn't. If they decided to adopt Kuali, they've already been started on the actual deployment.

"It was simple to implement, to get started and to enter information," CSU's Burns says. "It didn't have a lot of cumbersome complexity." Kuali is driving a major CSU project to refine, simplify, redesign and automate CSU's business processes around financial management and in future administration of research funds and projects.

One key change has been a cultural one: the awareness and fostering of a community around open enterprise applications. "One question we've been getting from our people attending the [regular] Kuali meetings is 'why have not been doing this before as a community,'" Burns says. "It's really a cultural difference. And most people are seeing that difference as a positive thing."

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