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It’s ‘Open’ Season

Open Source

From a financial standpoint, open source applications offer reduced total cost of ownership (TCO), but they offer even greater intrinsic value.

It's 'Open' Season HIGHER EDUCATION IS adopting open source applications-and not just in areas such as web servers. According to the 2005 Educause core data survey, 14.4 percent of surveyed BA (four-year liberal arts) institutions reported open source course management systems (CMS) in place. And across all the higher ed segments surveyed, open source software emerged as the web portal of choice for 12.5 percent of the respondents. (Survey respondents comprised 933 colleges and universities worldwide.)

Last year, Brad Wheeler, Indiana University CIO, stated in an industry publication, "Although there has been no mass exodus from commercial applications software…there is a growing base of adoption of open source applications among a broad array of institutions."

Financial considerations help drive that adoption, but not in the way that one might expect. Open source, particularly in its early days, had been associated with "freeware"-a line of thinking that emphasized lack of cost as the primary benefit. But "free" in the open source sense has more to do with the ability to possess and modify a program's source code as one desires. Indeed, large organizations adopting open source purchase support contracts and, naturally, running any software in an enterprise will involve operations and maintenance costs. That said, open source does provide a cost reduction opportunity.

"The primary cost savings benefit for open source software stems from its zero cost of licensing compared to proprietary, enterprise-class software, which has substantial licensing and maintenance fees for each and every year it is in use," says John Blakley, chief executive of Unicon, a company that provides consulting, training, and commercial support for the open source Sakai CMS. The total cost of ownership is most notable after the initial deployment phase, says Blakley. "In both open source and commercial software, you still have implementation, integration, training, and support costs during the first year," he explains. "But after the first year, TCO for open source software drops dramatically, while proprietary software costs remain fairly high and fixed for ongoing licensing and maintenance."

Unicon cites lower TCO as an advantage Georgia Tech will derive from its Sakai implementation. The school selected Unicon to help it migrate from the WebCT Learning Management System to Sakai. In Blakley's view, open source also contributes to TCO savings in that users "have control of their environment" and are no longer at the mercy of a commercial software vendor. "They upgrade Sakai when they want to upgrade Sakai, not when a commercial vendor wants them to," he says. If an institution wants to remain on the same version of Sakai for 15 years, it can do so, he adds. That brand of flexibility has been lacking in the education space; particularly in sectors where competition among commercial software vendors is minimal.

"For ERP applications, library systems, and CMS, for example, the pattern is clear," IU's Wheeler has stated in an industry journal. "After a period of intense early competition, there is considerable commercial consolidation-if not near monopolization-of each software category." According to Wheeler, the situation is "economically efficient" for higher ed software vendors, but leaves schools with few options when the values of software owners and users are at odds.

"Price increases, forced upgrades, and/or dropped support for current products are sometimes imposed by rational commercial interests pursuing their values," he wrote. Another plus for open source, or more specifically for Sakai, lies in the ability to add features and tools without incurring additional expenses, Blakley notes. An organization may, for example, start with Sakai's announcements tool, and then add its gradebook and syllabus tools.

What's more, the collaborative nature of open source development means schools like Georgia Tech can leverage the work of others, Blakley says. "Sakai is developed and enhanced by schools with missions similar to those of Georgia Tech," he explains, citing the contributions of Indiana University, the University of Michigan, and UC-Berkeley. "So, it's a good fit for what they need. The notion of fit is almost as big a value proposition as control."

In fact, Wheeler points to the ability to leverage the resources of others as open source's greatest appeal. "For example, in the past, when Cornell University [NY] spent $500,000 for some system, the investment provided no advantage to San Joaquin Delta College [CA]," Wheeler has observed. "The open source model changes all of this: It provides a real tool to solve the ‘do more with less' challenge facing higher ed. To put it bluntly, all of us in open source are mutually using other people's money to get and sustain the systems we need." Besides Sakai, other open source efforts include the Kuali Financial System, the Moodle CMS, and uPortal.

TCO is, without doubt, an attractive lure to open source, but what Wheeler describes as "shared value creation" may have value beyond measure, and may be a model that more universities and colleges will determine to adopt.

-John Moore has been writing about IT in education, government, and healthcare for 20 years.

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