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Business Officer Magazine

An Open Mind on Open Source

As hundreds of colleges and universities gear up to replace outdated administrative systems software, more are contemplating open source as an option. Yet many business officers remain uncertain about the possible risks and unaware of the potential benefits of this new phenomenon.

By Karla Hignite

As hundreds of colleges and universities gear up to replace outdated administrative systems software, more are contemplating open source as an option. Yet many business officers remain uncertain about the possible risks and unaware of the potential benefits of this new phenomenon.

The price tag for these new system implementations? A cumulative hundreds of millions of dollars expensed by colleges and universities this decade on vendor contracts for software licenses, development and upgrades, installation, support, and maintenance. At the same time, many colleges and universities are at least somewhat dissatisfied with current vendor software and systems support options. Some commercially available products originally developed for a corporate environment often aren’t a good fit for higher education and may require costly customization to address the unique and complex financial operations and accounting and reporting requirements of colleges and universities. Likewise, some institutions are overwhelmed by ever-escalating maintenance costs and are disappointed with vendor system training that sometimes lacks an understanding of the higher education community. It’s no wonder that a growing number of college and university chief business and information technology officers dream of systems over which they have control of ongoing enhancements and upgrades—as well as systems that are less vulnerable to vendors going out of business, being acquired, or dropping product lines in which an institution has invested millions of scarce campus dollars.

Enter the Era of Expanded Choice.

Open Source Defined

In basic terms, open source software refers to programs for which the licenses allow users to: 1) freely access, install, and run the software for any purpose; 2) modify the original software; 3) redistribute copies of the original or modified programs; and 4) share modifications with the community. This is in sharp contrast to use of commercially developed software for which a licensing fee is required and user modifications are not permitted, or when changes are made by the campus IT staff and they are not supported. In many respects, what the term open source evokes depends on which part of the “ERP elephant” you touch, says Kenneth C. Green, founder of the Campus Computing Project (, the most comprehensive continuing study of the role of IT in American colleges and universities. Green comments that for some in the campus and corporate communities, open source centers on freely accessible code. For others, it promises greater control over systems development and functionality as a result of freedom from vendor dominance and dependence. And for still others, open source encompasses a culture of collaboration from which the entire community of users benefits. And many, says Green, are drawn to open source believing it will save their campuses significant dollars in licensing fees now paid to various software providers.

In theory, within an open source environment, innovation and ongoing enhancements result from the network of programmers and users who collaborate to contribute code, fix bugs, and feed back to the community derivative products that address new needs. As it pertains to the higher education community, open source provides the potential for systems development in which the knowledge resides within the community and the infrastructure adheres to procedures that evolve into industry standards and tools targeted to the unique needs of colleges and universities.

Some members of the higher education community are seriously looking to open source as a viable option for institutional system needs. In fact, many colleges and universities are running open source software such as Linux programs or Apache Web-server software to support critical campus systems. Higher-education-specific open source projects under way include uPortal, used to build campuswide Web portals; OSPI, an open source portfolio initiative; and Shibboleth, which lets colleges control outside access to information posted on their Web sites. A growing number of institutions are watching with keen interest an initiative called the Sakai Project (, a two-year collaboration funded in part by the Mellon Foundation. Sakai charter members Indiana University, the University of Michigan, Stanford University, and MIT agreed to pool their collective development resources to create a next-generation course management system scheduled for initial public release last month.

IU entered this open source collaboration as an economic way to solve the problem of its aging homegrown course management system. “The choices we faced for replacement were full development costs or licensing of commercially available software. We didn’t like either option,” says Brad Wheeler, IU associate vice president for research and academic computing and dean of IT. Instead, IU sought likeminded partners who wanted to accomplish similar outcomes in the same time frame. “If we had developed our own solution, it would have been a much more modest project,” says Wheeler. “The value proposition of each institution putting in $1.1 million, and leveraging $5 million from others, is obvious and has allowed us to benefit from a more sophisticated solution than any single institution otherwise would have developed on its own.”

As Wheeler attests, technology standards have matured to the point where enough hardware and software compatibility exists among institutions to allow for the pooling of resources to develop software and share it. First and foremost, however, organizational readiness and trust are necessary antecedents of engaging in these kinds of collaborative agreements, believes Wheeler. Second, timing is everything. “We likely could not have initiated Sakai any earlier, because the necessary levels of organizational readiness were not present. We also could not have initiated the project much later, because each of the four institutions would have already sought solutions through the traditional means of build or buy,” he says.

While some open source advocates feel strongly that maximum efficiencies will result from open source systems designed by and for the higher education community, that open source excitement is matched by the cautious skepticism of others concerned about potential risks, the technical resources needed to implement and maintain systems, and the as yet largely untested experimental nature of open source application solutions.

NACUBO Fosters Dialogue on Open Source

In November of last year, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded NACUBO a $45,000 grant to explore the feasibility of an open source financial system for higher education. Using both the financial backing and the reputation of the foundation in support of significant research and investigative initiatives, we were able to engage the higher education community in a serious dialogue on this timely matter.

First, we assembled a team of higher education partners to form the Open Source Financial Initiative. The OSFI Project team was led by Barry Walsh, senior director of e-business services and managing director of operations for Indiana University, and John Robinson, president and founder of R*Smart, Inc.; as executive vice president and chief operating officer, I represented NACUBO. David Lambert, Georgetown University vice president for information services and chief information officer and current NACUBO board member, served as the project adviser. OSFI Project participants worked together for four months to assess several critical aspects of an open source financial system solution, including higher education market readiness for such an approach; the IT technical and system feasibility of an open source financial system; and the functional scalability, operational, and business requirements of such a system.

In its assessment of the market readiness for an open source application solution, the OSFI Project team undertook three principle activities: a national survey of NACUBO’s membership; a forum of higher education institutional leaders, consultants, and association professionals; and a review of the current literature dealing with open source initiatives in higher education to gain a sense of the major issues in open source in higher education.

NACUBO polled its entire membership in December, addressing a range of issues surrounding administrative systems generally and open source particularly. While the 257 respondents represented only approximately 8 percent of NACUBO’s 2,100 member institutions, some general observations from the results are worth reporting. For instance, while approximately 53 percent of the respondents have implemented a new administrative system in the past five years, 25 percent are likely to be implementing a new system in the next three years. This signals a significant market opportunity for an open source solution.

We also asked members to comment on their concerns about ERP-purchased solutions. Strikingly 83 percent marked expense of vendor maintenance agreements and 74 percent noted customization requirements as concerns. At the same time, nearly three quarters, or 73 percent, of respondents believe that an integrated (ERP) solution is key to their institution’s strategy, though 46 percent see open source as a viable option to consider.

As for perceived potential benefits of open source approaches, characteristics receiving more than 50 percent “yes” responses included: lower cost of ownership (55 percent), software designed by and for the industry (58 percent), freedom to modify the code (58 percent), and open standards and interoperability with other application systems (61 percent). These data are suggestive that business officers can see the value of what might seem to be “technical” systems advantages but in fact are core characteristics of any open source solution in the market.

Project members believe the data suggest that we have a large learning curve before us on open source. The business officer community knows what it wants, sees the concerns around vended software, but needs to learn quite a bit more about open source before we could consider it a market ready for such application solutions. Interestingly, 51 percent “strongly agree” that they are “interested in learning more about open source solutions,” and 48 percent of the NACUBO respondents believe this is an area in which the association should provide leadership and represent the membership in the dialogue.

The hallmark of the higher education community is a remarkable ability to consider new industry approaches, to come together in a spirit of shared inquiry, and to contemplate innovative and different approaches like open source within a broad discussion of the potential benefits, risks, and rewards. Initial discussions of the OSFI Project team with dozens of campus administrators, our national survey activities, and the meetings and conversations with financial accounting professionals, industry consultants, software engineers, commercial vendors, and other open source project initiative participants have advanced our understanding of the opportunities before us. These discussions have likewise formally engaged the higher education community in a genuine discussion that will most certainly continue of the potential benefits of an open source approach to this application system area.

Author Bio Mark Olson is executive vice president and chief operating officer of NACUBO.

Costs and Concerns

For starters, it’s a myth that open source means free, say critics and cheerleaders alike. While the software itself may have no strings attached, associated activities still bear a significant cost burden. “Even with the purchase of a typical commercial application, for most institutions, the software licensing fees paid to a vendor represent only about 20 percent of the total cost of system implementation,” says Wheeler. The other 80 percent pays for the ongoing maintenance, training, help desk support, and so forth.

Even open source proponents admit that, in some cases, open source solutions could be more expensive than commercially developed solutions once the costs associated with configuration, training, and support are factored in. “In the end, it may be that open source won’t reduce your overall costs but will instead shift those costs,” says Green. “You won’t pay a license fee, but you may incur higher or additional support costs. You may save money on upfront development costs but perhaps spend more internally ensuring system compatibility with other mission-critical systems.”

Concerns about open source go beyond the bottom line. Among the critical questions surrounding the development of higher-education-specific open source software are these:

  • Can one application system solution address the business requirements of the full range of institutions of significantly differing complexity, type, and size? In other words, is functionality scalable and transferable from the largest research institutions to the smallest community colleges?
  • Who will provide in-house staff training and ongoing maintenance and support? Will assistance be widely available at minimal cost from other users? Will support services emerge from commercial sources?
  • Will the program integrate with other campus systems software?

That final question characterizes a longstanding debate—a debate heightened by the prospect of open source solutions—of whether to buy an integrated application suite or take a best-of-breed approach. For instance, will institutions be willing to adopt and able to implement a best-of-breed open source solution when they are required to mix and match the solution with other systems that originate from vendors or that are developed in-house? Systems integration understandably remains high on the agenda of many higher education institutions seeking to maximize the value of their existing investments in technology and to ensure that all departments communicate consistent data while operating seamlessly in their specialist roles. Questions concerning the interoperability of systems, components of systems, and standards and protocols will continue to pose central issues in open source discussions.

The fact remains, however, that hundreds of colleges and universities throughout the country are in the midst of major decision making with regard to replacing outdated administrative systems. According to John Robinson, president and founder of R*Smart, Inc., open source may well be an alternative worth considering for those institutions that are holding off on new systems implementations for the very reason that they aren’t happy with current offerings. Robinson believes that open source options will mature during the next year or two to the point that everyone will have a better understanding of the benefits.

Open Source Renamed

While it’s not exactly an unresolved issue, there does exist some dissatisfaction with the term open source. Brad Wheeler, Indiana University’s associate vice president for research and academic computing and dean of IT, prefers community source wherever the principles of open code and open licensing are firmly managed by a particular community to deliver products tailored to the needs of that community, as is the case with the Sakai Project and other higher-education-specific initiatives.

Wendell Brase, vice chancellor of administration and business services at University of California, Irvine, also takes issue with the term and thinks open source will be called something else once it matures—perhaps consortia-led software development. To him, open source implies too much of a laissez-faire approach. In what he’s seen with projects like uPortal and Sakai, a definite leadership component is present. Says Brase, “There is a set of common interests and common well-defined objectives for which the leadership community has gone to the mat to get funding and where decisions embody the agreed-upon ideas of consortia leaders about what is good and most effective.”

Affirmative Ambivalence

According to Green, there are likely more agnostics than either advocates or atheists within the current open source milieu. “Many college and university business officers don’t know enough about what open source may offer or entail and therefore are uncertain as to whether it represents the smartest choice for their institutions at this stage,” says Green. The result is what Green calls “ambivalent affirmation” about open source within the higher education community. “To the degree that people understand open source, they generally think it could prove to be a useful alternative. But the reality is that most colleges and universities can’t afford to test a new venture because if they fail, they can’t write it off and they cannot recover the lost time and lost money.” As such, says Green, while there currently may exist great interest in exploring open source initiatives, that interest remains largely uncommitted, in part because of unknown risk factors.

Such is the case for Frostburg State University. While Roger Bruszewski believes that open source initiatives are important for the industry to explore because of the cost and control leverage they may provide colleges and universities in the future, he also is aware that with 5,500 students, Frostburg doesn’t have the margin of financial error to be on the leading edge of a new phenomenon such as open source. Until three years ago when the university entered an agreement with PeopleSoft, it had been operating the same financial, human resources, and student administrative systems it had implemented in 1983. “We’ve spent a lot of time changing from our old ERP system to a new ERP with totally different operating systems,” says Bruszewski, Frostburg’s vice president for administration and finance. “At the same time, we’ve undergone major expanses to our network and e-mail systems and are now exploring a student portal. We’ve been so overwhelmed by ERP and network security issues that for us, discussions about open source have largely been on the back burner.”

On the periphery is how Craig Becker characterizes Seton Hall University’s open source involvement. “We support in principle the open source movement and have looked at uPortal and considered open source learning management systems, but in each case we have selected a commercial product,” says Becker, assistant vice president for finance. “In our analysis, the commercial products seem to provide us more functionality at the outset for less upfront investment.” Like Bruszewski, Becker suggests that if Seton Hall were a larger university with more institutional dollars it would probably be closer to the front lines on open source initiatives.

For Wendell Brase, vice chancellor of administration and business services at University of California, Irvine, the best way to explore the potential of open source is to get involved in a project. UC Irvine is a participant in the uPortal project and is active on the sidelines watching the progress of the Sakai Project. While the university is facing new systems implementations in the not-too-distant future, the institution has squeezed more life out of its legacy systems than it originally thought possible, says Brase. “We’ve been resourceful using Web-based designs to make user interfaces work better and using middleware in ways that bridge the gap.” That’s given the university a little more time to consider open source software as an option, though Brase doesn’t anticipate a full-scale leap into open source anytime soon.

One difficulty Brase sees for the business officer is that open source initiatives don’t allow a traditional cost-benefit model for deciding at the early stages about whether to become involved. “In many cases, the product benefits aren’t that clear at the outset. You need a certain amount of faith that the product’s potential will develop as you go.”

The Question of Support

Some institutions may also need convincing that if peer institutions build it, support will emerge. One reason many colleges and universities may remain leery of open source initiatives is because they don’t see a reliable network of readymade support akin to the kind on which they have come to rely through their vendor relationships, says Green. Likewise, when one college or university leads a development effort, it is usually prepared to implement and maintain the resulting application—but for itself, not necessarily for another institution. Green comments that ongoing support will be a critical element to the success of any collaborative open source solution and is an issue that open source communities must address.

That’s why the Sakai Project decided upfront to create two paths that address the ongoing support of its product, says Wheeler. The Sakai Educational Partners’ Program is a self-sustaining, for-fee partnership among higher education institutions to address “the other 80 percent” of what is required for a successful, sustainable system. While an institution does not have to be a SEPP member to use the free Sakai software, those who pay an annual SEPP membership fee can share in technical training, a knowledge base, and rich interactions with other SEPP institutions, says Wheeler. Likewise, commercial open source support providers can participate as Sakai Commercial Affiliates to ensure their readiness to provide for-fee support for Sakai software.

From Seton Hall Chief Information Officer Stephen Landry’s perspective, the open source products that seem to succeed take off because: 1) they fill a need, 2) they have significant start-up funding, and 3) commercial support has developed in association with the product. “It’s not clear to me that these initiatives are sustainable unless commercial vendors are involved,” says Landry. “Especially for smaller and mid-size colleges and universities, unless there is an entity to provide support, updates, and maintenance, many institutions will remain on the sidelines for the simple reason that they lack the internal resources to implement and maintain an open source solution on their own.”

That raises the question about the niche played by vendors in an open source world. Robinson sees the full array of support services as a key role to be filled by commercial vendors that thoroughly understand the solution and have made a commitment to support it. Among the findings of the NACUBO survey on administrative systems and open source, 75 percent of respondents do believe commercial partners have a valuable role in supporting open source solutions via delivery activities, implementation support, and training.

Wheeler suggests that within an open source environment, more vendors may shift focus to delivering services and support rather than developing software, though for a number of colleges and universities, commercially developed systems have worked well in the past and will continue to fill a need within higher education. “Open source really offers a new third way—from build or buy to build or buy or borrow,” says Wheeler. “Some will choose open source, but some will prefer commercially vended software. What is inescapable for commercial vendors is the pricing pressure that open source will place on the market.”

Some like Landry are optimistic that open source will provide opportunities not only for greater choice of products but also for new suppliers to emerge, thereby increasing competition and improving service.

At least in theory, because of the nature of an open source community, commercial partners will be encouraged to participate as community members within higher education endeavors. And this should attract partners who understand the needs and desires of the higher education community. For Richard Katz, that’s a critical requirement. Katz, vice president of EDUCAUSE, cautions against any possibility for the higher education community to dismiss the value of what commercial organizations provide—the set of operations and capabilities brought to bear to invent, create, package, ship, price, market, and support a product. “A lot of what goes into being a successful software business is outside the core competencies and mission of colleges and universities,” says Katz. He believes the success of open source as a viable option hinges on how well the interests of colleges and universities and those of commercial vendors blend.

Loose Ends

Questions about how the work of open source projects is accomplished, and by whom, and how decisions about coding and functionality are made go beyond the initial core group of programmers to the extended community of users and second-tier partners that emerge to support the product and its derivatives, says Green. Voting rights, governance issues, and licensing language spell out the nature and intent of a particular product. Some issues in particular, such as licensing arrangements, require considerable attention going forward.

For instance, whereas the code for most original open source products can be examined and modified by software developers according to their specific needs, a range of restrictions may apply to derivative works of the original, says Wheeler. “If you take the software and write new modules, some licenses may require you to pay royalties or may impose other terms if you sell those derivative works, as in the case of a vendor that wishes to customize a product and repackage it to sell to others,” he points out. This is known as an open/closed license. “An open/open license means the software is largely unrestricted in terms of what you do with either the original work or derivative products.”

According to Wheeler, the Sakai Project chose an open/open license because project participants believe that for its own and other open source projects to succeed, a healthy ecosystem of higher education and commercial support organizations must exist. “When restrictions apply as in an open/closed model, they may taint the incentive for commercial involvement, including the bundling of support, installation, and customization services provided to smaller institutions that may have very modest IT staff resources,” says Wheeler.

Among other licensing arrangements is one known as copyleft, a play on words on copyright, that imposes the rule that all modified and extended versions of an open source product must also carry the same open source license and restrictions, says Wheeler.

In Katz’s view, the potential currently exists for every open source product to generate its own open source license. The problem: “No software stands alone anymore. It has to integrate at all levels including a legal level,” says Katz. “Let’s say my license allows you to change code, but yours says you can’t. When we then go to integrate the two, we will need an entire legal department to decipher the integration issues.” While it’s not realistic to have only one type of license agreement, it’s unimaginable to think of having 30, argues Katz. “Can the open source community settle on two or three variations?” That’s an important matter to flesh out going forward, he says.


The following resources provide additional insights and perspectives on open source issues and initiatives.

Green, Kenneth C. “The Penguins Are Coming.” Syllabus Magazine, February 1, 2004;

Kirkpatrick, David. “How the Open-Source World Plans to Smack Down Microsoft, and Oracle, and...” Fortune, February 23, 2004. The full article is available online to Fortune subscribers at,15114,588422,00.html.

Olsen, Florence. “Sharing the Code: More Colleges and Universities See Open-Source Software as an Alternative to Commercial Products.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 1, 2003. The full article is available online to The Chronicle of Higher Education subscribers at

Raymond, Eric S. The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary. O’Reilly & Associates, 2001. ISBN: 0596001088.

Stunden, Annie. “The Muscles, Aches, and Pains of Open Source.” EDUCAUSE Review, Vol. 38, No. 6 (November/December 2003);

Surman, Mark and Jason Diceman. “Choosing Open Source: A Guide for Civil Society Organizations.” The Commons Group, January 6, 2004;

Wheeler, Bradley. “Aligning IT Strategy to Open Source, Partnering, and Web Services.” EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, 2003;

Risks Down the Road

According to Wheeler, one key challenge for any institution in its assessment of system needs is to consider which of the three paths—build, buy, or borrow—best helps the institution achieve sustainable economics to pay for the system year in and year out while also allowing the institution the ability to innovate and evolve.

Other key issues: Business officers must pay attention to lifecycle costs and sustainability concerns, warns Katz. “Once an open source product goes live, what ongoing business assurance is there that software is continually enhanced and remains secure? Business officers have to balance an enthusiasm to innovate—a good thing—with adult concerns about real risks and who to call when something breaks.”

While open source has many obvious associated technology risks, it also presents very real institutional business risks, contends Mark Olson, NACUBO executive vice president and chief operating officer. “Will open source be around in 10 years? What are the real costs? What are the costs to an institution for not getting involved—especially if it means millions of dollars spent with a commercial vendor that an institution would not have to spend, or millions spent converting to an open source environment later on?”

While Olson believes that more business officers are paying attention to open source software development, there remains a fairly steep learning curve for many. “While much remains unanswered at these early stages, business officers must keep an open mind about open source and at the very least become educated about its potential benefits and risks.”

Right now, the stakes may be highest for those in need of systems replacement, says Robinson. The next several years are important ones as institutions must decide where to allocate current and future systems resources. Especially for smaller colleges, once conversions are made to commercial products, it may be years before they would be willing to change, regardless of the potential cost of maintenance and upgrades, says Robinson.

One thing is clear: A comprehensive conversation is required among chief business and financial officers, chief information technology officers, and other senior leadership to explore the potential of open source options for their institutions as well as to establish an open source strategy, says Olson. In addition to NACUBO’s efforts to facilitate an open source dialogue within the business officer community, Olson represented NACUBO at a recent gathering of campus IT practitioners convened by EDUCAUSE to discuss open source issues and initiatives.

Taking an Open Source Stance

“No matter an institution’s stance on open source, tactical IT actions absent a cohesive strategy are unlikely to be effective,” says Wheeler. “The first important point to understand about open source decision making is that open source is a third option that demands a reevaluation of your institution’s entire IT strategy and deliberate choices about its involvement in open source initiatives.” For instance, says Wheeler, institutions can choose to embrace open source, to lead in its early efforts, or to lag and let an open source project prove itself first. Regardless, all actions should flow from a set of harmonious choices that form the institution’s IT strategy, he says.

“Second, choices cannot be made in ignorance. Understanding and attention are required from senior leadership, since senior leadership must make the hard choices that may carry tradeoffs for their institutions,” Wheeler continues. “Third, an institution’s strategy must be communicated throughout the organization.” With so many development projects going on at any given time, all institutional entities should understand the institution’s primary stance and direction on open source involvement, including how long to wait for a particular open source initiative to prove itself before engaging in the solution, says Wheeler. “And finally, institutions must internalize the fact that successful institutional partnering for software development is still in its infancy and is a competency that must be developed.” While other examples of successful collaboration exist, such as libraries of different institutions pooling their resources, institutions don’t natively know how to coordinate and work well together, he suggests.

No one can deny that the Internet has already ushered in a whole new environment for how information is developed, accessed, and exchanged, says Robinson. The trend going forward is also toward the unbundling of software, believes Katz. “For colleges and universities, software will become much more modular and institutions will be able to acquire highly specialized programs that can be plugged into larger campus systems and portals.” In such an environment, Katz sees software development evolving into a smaller cottage industry rather than remaining largely in the grasp of several large companies. “Because development will be standards-based and everyone will be using the same tool kits to develop code and portal specs, more software will be developed in more places by more people to provide a much richer environment of available solutions that fit the specific needs of individual institutions,” says Katz.

For the interim, institutions must as always make the best decisions based on available options. At day’s end, any system solution has to present a sustainable economic proposition, says Robinson. Second, it has to work. And third, it has to fit with the institution’s other core systems. Robinson believes that on all three counts, open source is destined to succeed within higher education, in part because open source systems are written to be interoperable and because project participants are higher education colleagues who share similar needs and concerns.

For Katz, the most exciting aspects of the open source movement are the emergence of disciplined standards and the prospect of universities learning to work together for the greater good. “Whether the outputs of a collaborative software development effort are free is of little concern to me. We all learned that lifecycle costs are far more important to understand and plan for than one-time capital costs. The real questions for open source software solutions are the same questions we should be addressing in all enterprise software investments: Will the solution provide the functionality that I need? Will it be bulletproof? Will it provide protection 24/7 at a reasonable price? And will it put my institution on a progress path that is consistent with our long-term hopes and dreams?”

To the extent that those questions are answered favorably, open software will likely assume an important position alongside commercial software in a manner that expands the options and choices available within the higher education community.

Author Bio Karla Hignite is a writer and editor based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.