As colleges and universities have put into placE large-scale content management systems (CMS) in recent years to take care of indexing and serving up their vast amounts of files, they have been making use of commercial products new and old to create these systems. Many of them have gone that route despite the availability of open-source alternatives, opting for safety over open-source promises of freedom.
But wasn't open-source technology supposed to be the savior of software budgets and vendor-stressed information technology (IT) departments? Its promise has been to give users the ability to get into the source code and make changes as they see necessary, without having to rely on a large, impersonal software company (or a small software company that may not be in business tomorrow) to make timely updates to the software.
True, open-source technology has been much talked about in recent years, but its uptake has still been slow.
In "The State of Open Source Software," a March 2006 report from the Alliance for Higher Education Competitiveness (A-HEC, a technology research organization serving the university and college market), A-HEC founder Rob Abel wrote that two-thirds of chief information officers at institutions of higher education have considered or are actively considering using open-source technology. Furthermore, about 25 percent of all institutions are engaged in implementing higher ed-specific open-source applications.
But that doesn't mean open source is a tidal wave. In fact, its popularity may be broad, but it's not deep. A significant switchover to open source from commercial software would have to take place for its "also-ran" status to change. "Despite much enthusiasm for open source, there are no signs that a large shift is occurring at this time," Abel writes.
Open source has been widely popular in Europe for years, with Spanish schools, French government agencies, and German municipalities adopting it enthusiastically. Governments there have pushed open source both out of national pride (choosing it over U.S.-based commercial software vendors) and as a way to keep costs down.
In many cases, they adopted e-government initiatives far earlier than U.S. agencies and municipalities, and they have kept up the momentum. A 2005 survey by the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology about open-source use in Europe found, for example, that 98 percent of local Spanish authorities used open-source applications.
Open source is also widely popular in U.S. higher education, but IHE technology professionals are choosy about where they use it. They tend to employ it in smaller bits of programming (or in the tools programmers use to create and modify their programs) rather than in large, complex, mission-critical programs, say tech leaders.
Whatever the current status of open source's adoption, it's unlikely to disappear from the modern campus. "In the university environment, you're never going to outlaw open source," says Jeff Ernst, vice president of marketing at FatWire Software, a maker of a commercial CMS product. "You're always going to have the kids who are going to be enamored with getting into the source and doing whatever they want." Ernst says his customers tell him they have open-source elements throughout their systems, especially on "renegade" sites run by students or small departments, but not on mission-critical websites such as those used for recruitment.
Open-source CMS products do exist, such as PostNuke and Mambo Server, as do communities of users who are supporters of open-source CMS, such as the aptly named OpenSourceCMS website. But users are not necessarily convinced the products can do the job.
"I would be delighted to use open-source technologies anywhere we can," says Larry Bouthillier, director of educational technologies and multimedia development at Harvard Business School. "When you go up to a high[-level], total application such as content management, the thing I haven't yet seen is open source that fits the criteria we have."
When HBS staff needed to catalog their rapidly expanding library of video content, which had outgrown the abilities of earlier solutions, they used ClearStory Active Media, a commercial product. The application indexes the videos and supporting files (such as Microsoft Word documents or PDF files) so they can be served up easily to faculty and students searching for the right files.
HBS's case is a good example of a CMS that has evolved over the years. In late 1995, the institution started streaming video on campus. "We've always had lots of video in the curriculum-interviews with protagonists, documentaries, etc.," says Bouthillier. "But it required scheduled viewing, and students and faculty would all have to go someplace to view it." Over the years, IT staff wrote common gateway interface scripts to help users find videos on the system. They also added capabilities to:
Scan the videos and provide snippets of text and snapshots of video scenes to prospective viewers;
Automatically detect the bandwidth capacity of viewers to deliver to them the video at the top quality their system is able to handle; and
Include podcasting and RSS feeds for users with the ability to access them.
The system is now about 50 percent commercial product, and 50 percent home-grown, according to Bouthillier. HBS also recently implemented a Wiki solution, to which users across campus can add information.
Open-source options that used the script language PHP (see glossary, p. 66) simply didn't work well with the rest of the business school's system. So officials chose Confluence Wiki software from Atlassian Software Systems. "We looked at all the open-source stuff and at the commercial stuff, and we ended up going with the commercial product because it was the one that would allow us to integrate into the rest of our system," says Bouthillier.
Even open-source advocates such as Virgil Wong, head of web services for Weill Medical College at Cornell University, have shied away from using it on content management systems.
When the college was looking for a CMS solution in 2005, administrators considered both open-source and commercial products before choosing Element115 running on the FatWire Content Server. "As an academic institution, we see open-source technologies as much more of an academic challenge," says Wong. "Our sense was that with open-source technologies, building project plans is extremely difficult, predominantly because of the uncertainty of open-source products. The tools we looked at had very little support. Ultimately, no one is accountable for maintaining the security of your content management system. You're at the mercy of any rescuers who might arrive."
That's not a risk he wanted to run with his system, which has about 184,000 unique visitors each month. In the year-long process of internal meetings and consultations to refine the requirements of the system and evaluate the possible solutions, Wong also wasn't able to find open-source help that would let him assemble a project plan.
Support "can be a challenge if you run into software problems, depending on who developed the code," says Deb Wells, manager of web development at Bowling Green State University (Ohio). "If you purchase a particular software package from a vendor, you get support."
BGSU leaders began looking at CMS in 2002, when the systems were starting to become affordable enough for universities to consider, notes Wells. The goal was to move from having every website looking different and following different style rules to a more unified look and feel that would also simplify content creation by non-technical users.
They selected Rhythmyx content management solution from Percussion Software. Rhythmyx not only provides a way for non-technical users to create web content without having to learn HTML or Adobe's DreamWeaver web-creation software, but it also provides support.
"We don't have enough staff to support [all of the departments], so this product is great," says Toby Singer, executive director of IT at BGSU. Bouthillier is contrarian on open source and support. "For the most part, buying a commercial product because you want support is often disappointing," he says, adding that there are exceptions among the vendors.
The far-reaching nature of CMS is a big part of the reason for caution among campus tech leaders about adopting open source. If an isolated component of a department's website goes bad, or if the student newspaper posts the wrong editorial cartoon one day, the damage or embarrassment isn't too great. But modern CMS setups are typically campuswide, aggregating content from every department and serving it up to faculty, students, administrators, alumni, prospective students, and others.
Venkatesh Korla, former director of software engineering at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, had to address two seemingly contradictory needs a couple years ago when looking for a CMS solution for that institution. He was looking for something that was broad like any enterprise-level CMS solution to aggregate information from disparate content creators and provide it to disparate users inside and outside of the hospital; he also needed a solution that was specific to health care organizations, however.
Those requirements led to his team creating the foundation for Element115, a spinoff of RUMC for which Korla now serves as president. Element115, the technology used by Wong at Cornell, incorporated typical requirements of health care organizations that make up, by his estimate, 80 percent of the CMS solution, which is then customized as needed for the remaining 20 percent. Health care institutions have their own taxonomy and semantics that need to be considered when serving up information in different ways, depending on whether the user accessing the information is a doctor at the hospital or a prospective patient researching his or her illness.
"The biggest challenge they have in an academic institution is to come to an agreement of what content they want and how they want it to work together," says Korla. "It is surprising that these academic institutions, which have so much content like a publishing house, don't have the [content management technology] like a publishing house."