These three topic areas were developed originally because when we started moving our LMS from a commercial product to OSS in 2004-2005 (Moodle was our/my first enterprise OSS venture) there was a lot of skepticism (to say the least). Yep, I used to get hammered for suggesting such moves. In fact it was probably uglier than skepticism, and some of our work may have been written off as the work of a fool. At any rate I didn’t always encounter enthusiasm in those days for suggesting such a route. People were and probably still are conditioned to the “You get what you pay for” which may or may not be true. Open source does break some of those rules.
At this weeks 2013 AACC meeting in San Francisco. I was visiting with a friend of mine who happens to be the president of a rural community college in the south. We were discussing the current state of their ERP and how they and a couple of other institutions are looking at ways to consolidate not only ERP systems but business processes in order to achieve some sort of leverage for technology support. I did suggest they look at the Kuali solution and he had some hesitation about trying to convince a group of leaders who don’t really understand ERP/Admin software anyway. Oh my I feel his pain. He is right this is a tough one.
Moodle the open source seems to have overcome this to a degree, but not everyone (even in the open source world) understands that Moodle was not bought by Blackboard, but rather Moodlerooms, a Moodle service provider. Moodle Rooms bought clients and services who use Moodle, NOT Moodle! The code is still open and available.
Several months ago I was speaking with another college president (NOT MINE) who mentioned there not being a critical mass of institutions using the open source ERP Kuali and thus the support for such projects is minimal at best. When I began reading the list ofKuali Members, recent Kuali deployments by Southern Caland the West Virgina, and the birthplace of Kuali, Indiana University. I also mentioned there are Kuali Commercial Affiliates such as Vivantech (who we are using for a few projects as well) which supported the Southern Cal example and which does provide commercial support options, he (the college president) ultimately said he had no idea that existed.
The week prior was a comment from a faculty member in an email about the open source e-Portfolio system Mahara.
“What that means(this being an open source product) is the consistent technical support for both our institutional needs and student usage needs may not be adequately met. I am not confident this tool will be sufficient for our needs of our dept. However, it may be sufficient as a means to assess general education requirements for our institution.”
Not too long before that I also heard it recently from one of our vendors, a highly qualified reseller of commercial hardware and software products. It went something like this, “You have to wonder about long term support” referring to my comment in our conversation about the potential for the open source ERP system Kuali because of the uncertainty caused by the Sungard+Datatel AKA Ellucian merger.
The Kent Brooks Checklist for Evaluating Open Source Projects also affectionately known to me as “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly of Open Source”
- Demonstrates a significant user base
- Numerous coders posting regular updates
- Backed by venture capitalists VCs, a major company, or foundation
- Uses one of the standard open source licenses (assuming that the conditions of the license do not preclude your intended use of the software).
- Business Models have arisen around this “free” product to support those wishing to have commercial support
A project with one coder who last posted an update three years ago, that has no stated users, and whose license consists of “use this as you wish” is not a good bet
Not thinking you have a choice
Leading the way is the criticism that any given open source project is filled with arrogant prima donnas and that the open source world is perceived from the outside as a fanatical core of zealots who will stop at nothing to push forth their software agenda. I am not sure this really makes sense, but there are those types of critics out there. Now, this is the strange thing to me. Zealots could be defined as those who are zealous or passionate about something. In my experience those who accomplish a lot are those who are most passionate about what they are doing. In the open/community source world projects are generally started to meet a need and good projects grow because of the passion of the community. Now if you combine passion or zeal with this objective to meet a need shouldn’t that be a real winner?
Commercial Support of Open Source: Who do you call at 2:00am?
Once upon a time, a company called Redhat The story of Sam Houston State University’s deployment of the Asterisk phone system in is a great lesson for those who believe open source has a bright future of the higher education enterprise.
In 2006 Sam Houston made headlines as they moved 6,000 students, faculty and staff off of Cisco CallManager IP PBXs and a legacy Nortel Meridian PBX over to Linux servers running Asterisk,
“We thought that it will be more cost-effective in the long run to go with an open source solution, because of the massive amounts of licensing fees required to keep the Cisco CallManager network up and running,” says Aaron Daniel, who at the time was an analyst for SHSU.
A multitude of magazines and tech blogs noted this transition but in 2009 SHSU made the announcement that they were moving back to a Cisco Solution.
One of the most important questions ever asked about open source for the enterprise was asked by Patrick Masson of UMass Online during his presentation at the Austin Texas MoodleMoot a few years ago. He asked “Who do you call at 2:00am? “
What a relevant powerful question for those who believe in open source and one that functional users, administrators, and sometimes even gear heads want answered when the discussion of open source deployment comes up. This is certainly one key area in strong community and open source projects that is still misunderstood. So is how support for those projects provided and how does it compare?
It appears to me that in quality open source projects you have twice as many options as you do in a proprietary vendor provided solution. In a proprietary environment you also have a different kind of redundant option….pay and pay again.
However, in well-designed communities such as Kuali you have both the project community and commercial providers as options. When I first got engaged in the Moodle community my institution was still running WebCT as the learning management system. There were multiple times we submitted questions to the WebCT technical support group for which we were paying a support agreement and to the Moodle community forums for our Moodle environment in similar timeframe. I can’t think of a single time we received answers to our questions from our paid support faster than we received answers from the community supporting Moodle. This is when I began to sit up and pay attention. Free support was faster…interesting.
This brings me to strategic risk. Is going forward with a two-headed support monster Consisting of an engaged enthuiastic community of members whose jobs are on the line in combination with a healthy Eco system of commercial affiliates a better strategic risk than relying on very expensive support contracts from understaffed proprietary support teams and knowledge free call centers? Each of my favorite open source projects has a solid but different support model.
Kuali Commercial Affiliates with Kuali,
Moodle partners with Moodle,
Digium Switchvox with certified resellers with Asterisk
Here are a couple of examples of how support is offered in large open or community source communities.
Moodle Partners are certified service providers worldwide which help with Moodle implementations. They provide services such as hosting, customization, support, training and even full management of a Moodle project. Partners contribute 10% of their earnings to the Moodle foundation to support the development and maintenance of the Moodle project
The Kuali Commercial Affiliates (KCA) program provides an ecosystem of services for delivering Kuali software systems. While the Kuali Foundation delivers open source systems, it does not provide planning, implementation, hosting, SaaS in the cloud, and support services. These services can be provided by vendors such as Vivantech, who have built a business model around some or all of these types of services.
The Asterisk open source phone system has a commercial model which is still a little different. Digium is the business built around a commercial deployment of Asterisk. They license a series of commercial resellers who support and implement this particular system.
As solid business models are built around open/community source software projects such as Kuali and Moodle these projects may become more legitimate in the eyes of college and university decision makers. Multiple large and successful open source projects for higher education which provide a sound answer to the question “Who do we call at 2:00 am?” helps bring validity to the entire open/ community source movement.