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rSmart: A Focus on Kuali

A Q&A with Chris Coppola

Chris Coppola

rSmart, the Scottsdale, AZ-based technology solutions provider known for its implementation and support services for education market instances of the open source Sakai (collaboration and learning environment) and Kuali (administrative systems and software suite) platforms, announced on April 11 that Asahi Net International, a company operating in New York with roots in Japan, had acquired the Sakai division of its business.

rSmart CEO Chris Coppola, who has been a prominent, contributing member of both the Sakai and Kuali communities since their beginnings (in 2004 and 2005, respectively), will serve on Asahi Net International's board to assure continuity for rSmart Sakai customers. Coppola told CT that he will remain interested and active in the Sakai community while devoting the lion's share of his efforts to Kuali.

Mary Grush: Chris, I think the announcement of Asahi Net International's acquisition of rSmart's Sakai business was a big surprise to most people. rSmart has really sold its Sakai business! Please tell me a little about this acquisition!

Chris Coppola: This isn't a typical acquisition. It is quite normal, in the sense that Asahi Net International did acquire the Sakai part--the learning management part--of our company, and will operate it and lead it going forward. But Asahi Net has been close to rSmart for a couple of years now: In fact, in 2011 it became a significant investor in the company. So, Asahi Net has been involved with us, and with us in the Sakai community, for two years already.

When we decided to proceed, allowing Asahi Net to acquire our Sakai business, Asahi Net was a company that we knew well, and trusted. We understood that this company would be able to take what we had done with the Sakai community and move it forward in a way that's consistent with what we've been working on for almost 10 years now.

Grush: And Asahi Net is committed to the open source nature of Sakai?

Coppola: Absolutely. We wouldn't have come this far otherwise. All our solutions at rSmart have been rooted in open source--and Asahi Net has invested in that for two years. The acquisition is just a continuation of Asahi Net's commitment to the open source model.

Grush: I think it's correct to say that rSmart has been an important participant in the Sakai community, basically from its beginning. Now that the acquisition has been made, how will that change? Will you still participate and help guide Sakai?

Coppola: In the near term, for myself, that role will be a little smaller. I'll remain connected with Sakai as a director on Asahi Net International's board, certainly. But part of the reason for moving ahead with this acquisition in the first place, is to increase our engagement in other areas. There's a lot to be done in the administrative systems space in higher ed, and we're very much looking forward to concentrating our efforts on Kuali.

A huge part of what we are trying to do with this acquisition, and why rSmart and Asahi decided to do this, is so that we can increase our capabilities for helping each of these communities--both Sakai and Kuali--and enhance their respective parts of the market.

And a very interesting aspect of this acquisition is that it's not just the product, or the customers, being acquired--as often happens in an acquisition. Instead, it's the whole rSmart Sakai business--all the rSmart people who have been so dedicated to rSmart Sakai will continue to be engaged. They will be working for a different company, one that has a different name and a different CEO. But other than myself, basically all the same people who worked in the rSmart Sakai division will stay in their roles as part of the acquisition--in fact, working in their same offices here in Scottsdale. So, there will be considerable continuity, going forward.

Grush: Is there anything new that Asahi Net will bring to the table for Sakai?

Coppola: The parent company in Tokyo is the number one Internet service provider in Japan, delivering network access to the country for almost 30 years, and delivering cloud-based services to their customers, also for decades. Strategically, Asahi Net brings a great deal of education market experience that will help Sakai expand its global footprint.

And at a product level, the company does bring a range of capabilities that we're expecting our customers and the Sakai community in general will benefit from. Take for example, a couple of products that are complimentary to Sakai: One is an electronic student portfolio; and the other is an 'LMS-like' product--not an enterprise-level LMS system, rather, it's a very streamlined way to connect students and teachers in an academic setting. So the new company will definitely leverage its experience to enhance Sakai.

Grush: What will receive the benefit of your increased focus, as you begin, at rSmart, to concentrate more on Kuali?

Coppola: Actually the way we see it, under the new model, both Sakai and Kuali will experience greater focus, from Asahi Net and rSmart, respectively, while their customers and markets also benefit.

But the impact specifically for the Kuali community, is that the full focus of rSmart going forward will be on administrative systems in education, and on the Kuali community. You may remember that the Kuali community began with the development of the financial system (the Kuali Financial System), and in less than 8 years, its work has grown to include a whole suite of administrative software systems, encompassing financials, HR, student, libraries, research administration, an enterprise mobile platform, an enterprise business workflow platform, business continuity planning software--most of the major enterprise system areas on campus.

An important point is that the Kuali suite won't become an assortment of siloed, monolithic applications. Kuali will continue to be a coherent software suite, built on Kuali's middleware so these pieces can be integrated. The most exciting thing is, we will be moving the full Kuali software suite and administrative services platform forward. We'll be growing our solution set, making it increasingly easier for institutions of any size to implement Kuali by delivering it in the cloud and providing out-of-the-box capabilities like built-in reporting and best practices preconfiguration. The bottom line is that any institution pursuing a Kuali implementation will be able to see the major cost savings that our existing Kuali institutions already see today.

[Editor's note: For those not familiar with open source, both Sakai and Kuali are open source, or "community source" platforms, each with its own community and governing body. Broadly speaking, the open source model allows anyone to develop, implement, and support their own versions of the open sourced software, as rSmart has done with Sakai and with Kuali. The Asahi acquisition involves the Sakai portion of rSmart's business, not Apereo Inc., the Sakai community's parent organization.]

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