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Open Source Myth Busters

The reality behind seven commonly held beliefs about open source and what direction they’ll take your institution
University Business, December 2012

The Myth: If you use open source, you’re on your own.

The Reality: At Indiana State University, where open source is used for mobile application development, administrators recently launched an app with the help of Modo Labs, which offers mobile solutions and support services based on the Kurogo open source mobile platform. The project has gone so well, officials are looking at open source for development of a content management system, as well as creation of “sandboxes” for students who want to develop their own apps.
Santhana Naidu, web services director at ISU, notes that his first experience with open source was 10 years ago, when he was using the Linux open source platform. Then, if he had an issue with the code, he’d have to post a question on online support forums and read through opinions culled from around the world. “That was the experience of many people using open source back then,” he says. “Unfortunately, there’s a belief that it’s still that way. But these days, there are so many companies, like Modo, that provide comprehensive support.”

In the last decade, firms such as Modo, rSmart, and Red Hat have popped up to provide services around open source platforms, and their offerings range widely. Some can simply be on call if an application is acting buggy, but others can guide an institution through every phase of software development, from planning to execution to maintenance.

“The team here had concerns initially because we’re not a very big team,” says Naidu. “But Modo took care of the hardcore programming and provided support, and we didn’t feel at any point like we’d be stuck surfing the online support forums.”

The misperception that open source isn’t ready for the big time tends to persist throughout higher education, and in the enterprise sphere, as well. That might be in part because hugely popular open source systems like Linux were developed and refined by a community of software enthusiasts. For example, Linux was created by a computer science student at the University of Helsinki (Finland) as part of his thesis. That led many to see open source applications and systems as hobbyist endeavors that weren’t well suited to mission-critical applications.

But over the past decade, adoption and development have propelled open source onto campuses, both in higher education and in business. Research firm Gartner predicted that 99 percent of Global 2000 enterprises would include open source in their software portfolios by 2016. That’s a big leap from 2010, when 75 percent included open source.

The Myth: Open source gurus are tough to find—and they eat up IT budgets.

The Reality: Perhaps in the early days of open source, finding the appropriate level of support meant competing with other universities to nab those highly skilled strategists who specialized in the platform. But the popularity of open source has created a rich ecosystem of contractors and service vendors that
allows for an “a la carte” selection of developers, consultants, and support personnel, according to Clay Fenlason, director of educational technology at Georgia Institute of Technology.

“We have a pretty broad set of choices and we can knit them together in ad hoc ways,” he says. “We have to give a little more thought to each project, because we’re cobbling together the skills of three or four outside people, but it creates much more efficiency for us in the long run.”
Because of his use of contractors on open source projects, Fenlason has shifted how he hires for the institute. Instead of bringing on highly technical staff members, he focuses instead on hiring those with deep project management experience.

Another advantage to the wide array of open source specialists: Fenlason can easily see the code they’ve written or the projects they’ve completed in the past. He regularly evaluates contractors by talking to their other clients, as well. “You get a broad and deep set of information about the person you’re hiring for a project. You know their level of success and experience because everything is in the open,” he notes.

The Myth: Open source costs nothing, but it’s also expensive.

The Reality: “Everybody wants to be hyperbolic on this one,” says John Lewis, chief software architect at Unicon, an IT consulting services provider that specializes in open source for the education market. “They either say open source is free and so it saves you so much money, or they say open source experts end up costing you more and there are tons of hidden costs. Neither is true.”

Lewis notes that open source is “free,” but clarifies that the term is similar to free speech, not to free lunch. Although many open source platforms and tools are available without cost, when people talk about open source being “free,” they mean unrestricted and without constraint. Users can make changes to the code and have complete control over what they’ve developed.

Compare open source as “free” to free speech, not free lunch. Although many open source platforms and tools are available without cost, when people talk about open source being free, they mean unrestricted and without constraint.

To use another analogy, Lewis says open source projects are akin to getting a free puppy. The dog may not have a price tag initially, but someone would have to pay for its care and feeding. “What you have to look at is total cost of ownership. You benefit from the fact that there are no licensing fees, but you also need to examine the costs of consuming services,” he says.

College and university administrators should try out open source on a small pilot project, to get a sense of what type of support they need, and what might work in the future, Lewis adds.

The Myth: Open source is highly insecure, and also bulletproof.

The Reality: Much like the cost issue, security is another area where people tend to believe very different myths, Lewis notes.

Some think that open source is insecure because hackers can get a code’s blueprint and use it against whoever utilized a certain platform for development. Others think that because so many strong developers are going through the code, then it’s some of the most secure code available.

“In fact, both and neither is true,” he says. “You can’t make a blanket statement about ‘open source’ in this way. You have to look at projects and do your due diligence. If there are great developers working on it and securing it, then you’re going to have a higher level of security.”

Andrew Yu, CEO of Modo Labs, believes that open source has an edge when it comes to security because the level of transparency allows for more thorough software testing. That’s also what’s reduced the amount of bugs and flaws in open source platforms and applications over the past couple years. “The open source community makes a huge effort to address bugs and security concerns,” he says. “If done correctly and applied correctly, open source becomes more secure.”

The Myth: Open source is ideal for every institutional project.

The Reality: If an open source platform gives a university or college the chance to tweak code, gather skilled consultants, and avoid licensing fees, then it makes sense to use open source for every technology project on campus, right? Well, not so fast.

“We use open source where it makes sense,” says Jim Bottum, CIO at Clemson University (S.C.). “If there’s a commercial application that does what we need, then we don’t try to build our own instead. There are definitely areas of operation where the commercial sector has the advantage.”

Bottum notes that at Clemson, departments that rely on commercial applications are payroll and human resources. But systems that have a number of applications rolled together—such as student services—can benefit from open source because they can be optimized for the university’s particular needs.
“The attraction of open source is its flexibility, and we use it to create a system that better meets our needs,” he says. “But for universities that have to deal with legacy systems, or that have commercial applications already in place, I can see where they might gravitate away from open source.”

‘If you use open source, you don’t have to follow one vendor’s trajectory, you can work together to create your own path.’ —Michael Bourque, Boston College

Cole Clark, global vice president of education and research at Oracle, notes that there are several higher education institutions that turn to open source when there are already mature commercial applications with robust systems. He feels that some schools believe big commercial vendors can’t be trusted, which then becomes a myth of its own.

“There are certain mission-critical applications that have taken years to develop,” he says. “An open source application that’s newer and relies on the power of community might not have had the time to catch up with that level of development.” 

The Myth: Open source makes your institution into a technology island.

The Reality: Because of the high level of customization that can occur, each open source project has unique attributes. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be shared, in the spirit of cooperation.

Michael Bourque, vice president for ITS at Boston College, notes that his school is a member of the Kuali Foundation, which provides open source software for higher education. Other members include Brown University, MIT, Lehigh University (Pa.), Cornell University (N.Y.), Colorado State University, and many others.
Kuali's systems range from business continuity planning to infrastructure software, financial systems, and research administration. Bourque appreciates that the group allows Boston College to have “a seat at the table for expressing an opinion” about what these applications should include.

“It feels like we’re crafting a vision together for what schools really need,” Bourque says. “If you use open source, you don’t have to follow one vendor’s trajectory. You can work together to create your own path.”

Boston College recently created a customized student system they’re supporting in-house. That experience will allow them to share insight with the Kuali community, says Bourque, about what it was like to move into open source. As they develop more systems over the next couple years, they’ll turn to other Kuali members as development issues crop up, he expects.
“We can help each other, because we understand the nuances of how systems run within a higher education environment,” Bourque says. “That feels like going from being alone in what we’re doing, to having a supportive community.”

The Myth: Commercial software and open source don’t play well together.

The Reality: Although many people might talk about open source as an alternative to commercial software, there are actually numerous examples of how commercial developers use open source in their products. Major vendors, including Oracle and IBM, have utilized open source for the types of benefits that wider collaboration can bring, and large companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook leverage open source to run their operations.

“There’s a tremendous benefit to the collective intellect that gets captured in the open source process,” says Oracle’s Clark. “Using open source makes our products better; we’ve seen significant leaps forward in development because of it.”

Clark advises that college and university administrators examine their current technology mix to see where open source would make sense, and where commercial software might be more of a fit instead. Just because the two approaches are different in terms of licensing and support doesn’t mean they can’t work together in a technology strategy.

“Open source solutions have gained a foothold for a reason,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean you have to rip out all your commercial software and try to recreate it with open source. Every institution has very specific needs, and some projects require more customization than others. It’s up to you to create a mix that makes sense in terms of long-term cost, efficiency, and support.”