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Community Source Initiative Brings Customer Enhancements to Banner

SunGard Higher Education (HE), maker of the Banner suite of enterprise resource planning software for higher education, is combining the benefits of open source with the security of a vendor-backed solution. SunGard launched its Community Source Initiative (CSI) in April 2010 to enable its customers to contribute their Banner customizations and enhancements for integration into future product releases. CSI currently involves 130 institutions and two consortia, which represent another 68 institutions, from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the Middle East. Since CSI was launched, 56 institutions have submitted customizations and enhancements to CSI, and 14 of them have been incorporated into Banner.

Most higher education institutions need to make customizations and enhancements to Banner baseline, the core application delivered by SunGard, to make it conform to their specific processes and needs. "Some of us who have been long-term Banner customers have been tweaking or adjusting baseline or building add-ons to to make it work better for our environment," said Virginia Lee, director of business process and integration at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, who is also a founding member and at-large director of CSI. "Some of it has to do with business processes being different, or it could be a different country and we have different requirements, and so each individual institution has developed little workarounds, enhancements, or added functionality."

Each time SunGard releases a new version of Banner baseline, its customers have to reintegrate their customizations to the new version, a process that requires time and effort. The Community Source Initiative gives those institutions the opportunity to integrate their changes directly into Banner baseline itself, so they no longer need to support upgrades on their own, and so other institutions can benefit from their work.

"There are a lot of developments that are the same across a number of institutions, or institutions with fewer resources may not have been able to develop on their own but would gladly make use of somebody else's code. So CSI provides a forum for those institutions to be able to share," said Lee.

The Community Source Initiative is managed by volunteers from participating institutions, not SunGard employees. Kay Rhodes, associate vice chancellor and CIO at Texas Tech University System, has been involved with CSI since its inception and currently sits on its board of directors as the representative for public constituency. "SunGard is there to help with the administrative side and support it, but they are not leading it," said Rhodes. "SunGard Higher Education constituents have rallied to the cause, have supported it, and have a good group of volunteers, but it's not a SunGard effort. It's a community effort."

Institutions can submit their own enhancements, ideas for development, or customizations they have commissioned from SunGard. "Your submission is then reviewed by a committee of volunteers," said Rhodes. "It'll go through a demonstration of the functionality of the enhancement, and it'll go through a technical review. When all the reviews have been done, if the committees believe the enhancement would benefit a large number of institutions and would be a benefit in baseline, then it moves on to be implemented into the Banner baseline system. Typically there will have to be some changes to the code to make it compliant with SunGard standards, as well as international needs and accessibility needs. Once it's accepted into community source, it's between the institution and SunGard to roll it out into baseline."

Not all submissions make it through the review process. "We've submitted a number of our developments," said Lee. "They were rejected on the basis that they were too customized to our institution and the amount of work required to take out the customization would be greater than the value of looking at others who may have done something similar but more generic." In cases where developments are rejected for incorporation into baseline, there is still a way to contribute them to community source. The CSI area of The Commons, SunGard HE's online forum, has a code repository, where development teams can submit their code for other institutions to look at and adopt for their own use.

Involvement in CSI requires a lot of effort from both the vendor and the community. "There is a level of commitment that you have to make because community source does take time," said Rhodes. "Even if you're not involved in the committees, and you submit code to community source, you have to have time to work with SunGard to go through the process of getting it into Banner baseline if it's approved."

Despite the considerable effort required, Lee and Rhodes both said they enthusiastically support the community support approach. "We all benefit from the vast minds and wisdom out there across higher education," said Rhodes. "For the Banner customers, everyone has special needs, and everyone is looking to meet those needs, so to come together as a group and meet them jointly is a benefit for everyone."

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at leilameyer@gmail.com.

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