C-Level View | Feature

Kuali 2.0: Reshaping the Landscape for Development and Adoption

A Q&A with Joel Dehlin, Chris Coppola, Derek Sharp, and Tony Potts

A stunning series of announcements has ushered Kuali into its second decade with big expectations for Kuali 2.0. In August, 2014, we learned of a new commercial company — the formation of KualiCo, led by CEO Joel Dehlin with investment from the Kuali Foundation, that would provide faster development of the entire Kuali suite as well as drive adoption. Then just yesterday, October 14, press releases heralded the news that KualiCo has acquired rSmart's SaaS business, complete with 15 rSmart staffers moving over, rSmart CEO Chris Coppola joining KualiCo as COO, and rSmart CTO Tony Potts moving into the CEO slot at rSmart to run that company's new concentration on its OneCampus product. If that weren't enough, Navigator Management Partners also acquired rSmart's Kuali consulting business, with 14 rSmart staff joining Navigator and Derek Sharp, Navigator's VP for Kuali Services overseeing the company's new addition.

Needless to say each of these announcements generated many questions throughout the Kuali community. Here, we've brought together Joel Dehlin, Chris Coppola, Derek Sharp, and Tony Potts to answer a few of them.

Mary Grush: I'd like to start by getting just a sense of the key strategies behind the more recent announcements relevant to Kuali. Joel and Chris, what will the acquisition of rSmart's SaaS business mean for KualiCo?

Joel Dehlin: KualiCo's purpose in the first place, is to increase speed of delivery, increase the quality of products, and especially, to create a full [Kuali] suite — instead of a group of individual products. The beauty of acquiring the rSmart [SaaS] business is that it lets us get off the ground, right now.

rSmart has some great customers for whom it's already hosting cloud offerings. This gives us a jumpstart so we don't have to worry about building up the 'cloud' part of the business. Instead, we can be concerned with filling in the holes in Student and HR as quickly as possible.

Also, I'm personally really excited to have Chris Coppola on the KualiCo team — he's going to be an amazing addition, along with 15 other people who are coming over with the rSmart acquisition.

Chris Coppola: One of the things I'm really excited about is the ability to increase our impact [with Kuali]. Many of us, and the higher education community in general, have been excited about Kuali since the day we announced it [about 10 years ago]. And, we've done some great things with Colorado State, and San Joaquin Delta College, and the University of Connecticut, and a lot — [more than 140] — of diverse institutions that are helping us prove that we can drive down the cost of administration. Now, we're going to be able to impact thousands of institutions, and do more.

Grush: And Derek, how does Navigator's acquisition of rSmart's Kuali consulting business affect the new landscape for Kuali?

Derek Sharp: Navigator has done some significant Kuali implementations — for example, at the University of Arizona, the University of Maryland-College Park, and Haverford College. In acquiring rSmart [Kuali consulting], though, we expand our portfolio to include expertise implementing SaaS-based solutions like rSmart's Cloud Express for Kuali Coeus, rSmart's research administration solution. This adds a different dimension, where our portfolio includes not just on-premise based [Kuali] implementations, but now SaaS [cloud] solutions that we will deliver in partnership with KualiCo. Fourteen rSmart staff will come to work at Navigator.

I think these are exciting times in the Kuali practice, [with the establishment of KualiCo and the acquisitions from rSmart]. And I think these were the best moves to make sure that Kuali has another 10-20 years of relevancy in the marketplace — we're happy to be a part of that.

Grush: Tony, how does all this change rSmart's focus?

Tony Potts: I personally have been involved with Kuali since before it was even called by that name, so I have a lot of interest in seeing it continue to succeed. But at rSmart, we are really excited about our OneCampus product and the ability to move quickly with a product that's built on a modern framework and is easy to implement at a really good price point.

Legacy portals have been in place for more than a decade, going back to a time when we really just needed a few links on a page. But, the paradigm has expanded into heavy applications that don't at all address what users now expect... for example, after interacting with Google and Amazon. It's time for institutions to present users with a different experience. OneCampus gives an institution the ability to create an app store-like experience that is tailored to the campus and gets users quickly and easily to whatever they want to do to engage with the campus, on any device, from wherever they are.

Grush: I'm thinking rSmart's long-held higher education focus — with Kuali or with Sakai — will transfer nicely into OneCampus development.

Potts: Absolutely. rSmart has always focused on higher education — for more than a decade — in different domains, from eLearning to all aspects of ERP. So, that experience will certainly play into how we make OneCampus connect with the whole ecosystem around online services for campuses.

Grush: I'm wondering about the nature of the Kuali community that's grown up over 10 years, and how that will be affected by these changes. Will it move from community source more towards professional open source?

Dehlin: The thing that personally excited me in this opportunity, was the engagement of the community in all of these efforts — the fact that these institutions are excited about software, and they're willing to give up their time and their money in order to make a difference. They're tired of being abused by typical vendors. So it's personally very important to me that we continue to engage the community in awesome and productive ways.

Clearly a change was needed. The user experience with some of these products isn't great; the speed of development is not as good as it could be. There isn't a complete suite, nor an immediate roadmap where we could see a complete suite happening. So that's why we created KualiCo.

But, to me, if we create KualiCo but don't continue to have engagement from the community, we've failed — community is what makes Kuali special.

The nature of the engagement will change, however. It will be more of a professional open source model, with, hopefully a very strong community.

Coppola: This is an opportunity to expand our engagement with a larger community. We've done a great job so far, and need to continue all the core ways that we engage with the leading institutions. We need to keep doing all of that.

And, we need to find new ways to engage with the broader higher education community. That's new for us. Kuali 1.0 didn't do that really well — Kuali 2.0 will.

Grush: Can you address the AGPL licensing?

Dehlin: The main mode of operation will be, that we'll run an AGPL tree. The source code that we use, we'll host for everybody. It will be one cloud solution, and it will be the same for everyone. We won't have one-off instances.

This allows for configuration, but the configuration is in the context of one piece of [cloud] software that we're giving to the whole world.

That same source code will be available for everyone, for free, forever, with no strings attached. Anyone can use it. The only difference you might notice in the license will be that it's a little more viral: Anyone who makes changes has to make those changes available under AGPL license.

If there's code that we write that's specific to supporting multi-tenancy, that code will not be available. Because that's our competitive offering; a strategic advantage that we don't want to give to anyone else — and it's not needed by the schools.

Grush: How will the community participate in development, going forward, now that we have KualiCo?

Dehlin: One of the problems with any community source project, is that when you don't have a strong, designated leader for the project, it's slower and more bureaucratic by definition. There's a little bit of that in the Kuali community. It's an amazing community but people are working in consort without a lot of direction from the top. The Kuali Foundation would not claim that it's their role to direct the development of software. KualiCo would be that leader. We'd offer support services and tools, communication tools and training. We'd make sure that the code that's checked in is high-quality code, and we'd give feedback to developers when the code is not high quality. So, I see us as more of a guardrail for the current community, to amplify their ability to contribute — not a replacement.

Coppola: I do believe those all those things are going to happen. We're not going to decrease the amount of community engagement, for all the reasons Joel said; we're going to increase it. Developers who've had a hard time engaging in the current model will, going forward, have new ways to engage and contribute. We're going to grow the number of contributors, not reduce it.

Grush: I wanted to ask about the KualiCo board member designated by the Kuali Foundation, who could block or veto any potential future IPO or acquisition of KualiCo — protecting the community's interests…

Dehlin: Certainly. The veto privileges of the board are structural and irrevocable. The board member you're referring to is called a "preferred director." That person is assigned by the Kuali Foundation and has specific veto privileges for the changing of the open source license, an IPO of the company, or the sale of the company.

Grush: Will functional designs going forward with Kuali 2.0 over the next 10 years be flexible enough to match the big changes many people expect, in higher education business practices?

Dehlin: Nirvana is when you have one piece of software, which is flexible in two ways:

(1) It's flexible enough such that your own developers can make changes very quickly. And as you look at most of the vendors out there, they do not have that kind of flexibility. If you look at the current ERP vendors, rapid changes that respond to customer needs are difficult because of the technology the companies have chosen. In the past 4 years, technology has emerged that allows that kind of flexibility — and most of these vendors do not have access to this because they started so long ago. So it's important to choose a technology stack and architecture very carefully to allow your own developers to be flexible. And that's what we will do, for example, with the Student system. We have that luxury.

(2) The second thing is, with that same piece of software, to develop in such a way, that customers can be flexible. If you think about it up front, you can have one set of software serve very different cases.

The problem has been, the Kuali community has been working very ad hoc — we work together, one school does one component, another school does another component… you kind of mash them together and they may work pretty well, but you haven't separated out the code that makes sense to separate out; you haven't architected the configurability that I just talked about, [to serve very different cases]. You may have solved the initial problem, but it's hard to change, and hard to adapt and configure for multiple schools.

That's what KualiCo helps fix — having a centralized authority that makes architectural decisions in the spirit of giving flexibility and configurability to the schools.

Grush: That seems to be another important aspect of KualiCo's strategy that you want the community to understand… maybe by questioning, first.

Dehlin: Yes… And so far, in the press, we've seen that the questions people are asking are awesome. I love hard questions, because you need to expose things to the light. Our hope is that people will start to look at this as an opportunity. First, they may see that our choice is community development, which is slow and not optimal, or, we have the traditional, expensive vendors… But then, they may see that there may be something in the middle. Maybe KualiCo is that thing in the middle, that gets the goodness, passion, and involvement of the community.

[Editor's note 10/16/2014: In consultation with Joel Dehlin, we made a slight modification in the third paragraph of his response to our question about AGPL licensing. This will clarify for readers that: "...Anyone who makes changes has to make those changes available under AGPL license."]

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