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Education IT chiefs debate open source

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

By , Network World
October 30, 2008 02:05 PM ET

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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.

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