From mobile-specific to enterprise resource planning, these open source platforms could help streamline campus IT.


[Editor’s note: This article has been updated. Originally, rSmart OneCampus was listed as open source. This solution has been removed.]

Usually, the higher-ed industry has a reputation as being one of the slowest adopters of new technology. But when it comes to open source software (OSS), campus IT departments are ahead of other industry and consumer tech adoption curves, says Scott Wilson, service manager of OSS Watch at the University of Oxford.

“On the face of it, higher education has been relatively quick to realize the benefits, notes Wilson. “Over 50 percent of higher education institutions use open source, both on the server and on the desktop. And one of the great open source success stories in higher education is the Moodle Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).”

According to Gartner, by 2016 the vast majority of mainstream IT organizations will leverage nontrivial elements of open-source software (directly or indirectly) in mission-critical IT solutions.

Reasons for the high adoption rate of OSS in higher education, specifically—outside of the fact that the Open Source Movement itself grew in part out of U.S. academic institutions in the 1970s and 80s—include reducing overall operation costs, tailoring software for unique needs, and improving the quality of STEM education.

“OSS also provides faculty members the ability to dissect source code and prepare students for low-level software development,” explains Maurice Dawson, assistant professor of Information Services at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “OSS could enhance the STEM environment by infusing multiple applications that can be developed, analyzed, and used as part of the curriculum.”

However, Gartner also noted that most mainstream IT organizations “will fail to effectively manage these [OSS] assets in a manner that minimizes risk and maximizes ROI,” making it critical that OSS-interested IT departments start by evaluating OSS solutions currently used, and trusted by, other colleges and universities.

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These OSS solutions include [listed in alphabetical order]:

For learning management:

Sakai Project: A community-source software (CSS) project, Sakai is used for learning management in over 350 colleges and universities around the world. According to Dr. Stuart Lee, deputy CIO at the University of Oxford, “Sakai provides the flexibility we need to offer a LMS to support the teaching methodology at Oxford. We can include best-of-breed products from other sources too, to offer a cutting-edge platform for online learning.”

For mobile:

Kurogo: At Indiana State University, where open source is used for mobile app development, administrators 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 well, and 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. Other institutions currently using Kurogo include Harvard University, Brown University, University of Central Florida, Rochester Institute of Technology, and many others.

For multi-purpose platforms:

Kuali Foundation: Michael Bourque, vice president for ITS at Boston College, notes that his school is a member of the Kuali Foundation, which provides open source administrative software solutions for higher education. Leveraging an international community of educational institutions and organizations, Kuali aims to provide sustainable software that helps schools keep their money in their mission by significantly reducing administrative costs and promoting administrative best practices. Kuali is home to software systems for financial management, research administration, student services, human resources/payroll, library management, business continuity, and middleware/workflow. Other members include Brown University, MIT, Lehigh University (Pa.), Cornell University (N.Y.), Colorado State University, and many others. “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 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.

Modo Labs: Modo Labs was founded in 2010 by Andrew Yu and a team of mobile developers from MIT. This team created the original MIT Mobile Framework with the vision to enable college students to easily create rich mobile websites and native applications using data and content from university back-end systems and other data repositories. Now, hundreds of universities, as well as hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and financial institutions, use solutions from Modo Labs to deliver mobile websites and native apps for their students, employees, faculty, staff and alumni. “The team here had concerns initially because we’re not a very big team,” says Santhana Naidu, VP of Marketing and Communications, and former web services director, at Indiana State University. “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.” Andrew Yu, CEO of Modo Labs, is also a firm believer 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.”

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Red Hat: an enterprise open source solution, Red Hat helps Vanderbilt University, and many others, enable their IT infrastructure. For example, McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, uses Red Hat’s open software-defined storage solution to scale to petabytes, preserve existing IT infrastructure investment, and adapt for what the University says is seamless growth. “I showed Red Hat Storage Server to our operations people, who are ultimately the ones who will have to support it, and they were amazed at how intuitive and easy it was to use,” explained “Wayde Nie, lead architect for University Technology Services at McMaster University. “We have a heavily virtualized environment; and we wanted software-defined storage, network, and compute to work within that environment. If you export the raw storage that resides in the Red Hat Storage software-defined layer, then you get the flexibility to export it and replicate it however you require. That was absolutely key for us.” Red Hat Academy, a service of Red Hat, also provides institutions an open source education program that gives hands-on instruction, curriculum, and labs for those interested to become Linux proficient. “Red Hat Academy is, without a doubt, the most demanding and thorough Linux curriculum product on the market,” said Robert Guess, a computer science professor at Tidewater Community College.

Ubuntu: Created by the open-source community and Canonical, free-to-use Ubuntu is a Linux-based OSS platform that runs everywhere from the smartphone, tablet and PC to the server and the cloud. Oakland University, a state-supported college in Rochester, Mich., teaches some 18,000 students across its liberal arts, business administration, health sciences, engineering and computer science schools. Ubuntu helped the University to not only provide laptop-toting professors and students with the technology they needed in a uniform set-up to ease maintenance and support, but also preserve the computing muscle of its servers—and the applications they run—and trim the cost of acquiring and running them. “We replaced the proprietary Unix technology [and] pretty much eliminated every last bit of Sun-hardware and Solaris from the server room,” said Ken Simon, computer networking administrator for the University. “The ‘ordinary PC servers’ running Ubuntu cost a fraction of what the old hardware cost.”

Unicon: Unicon solutions are based on open-source and community source technologies that aim to increase productivity while keeping development costs low. Many of Unicon’s solutions are experiencing solid adoption and growth within the higher education community, it says, due to extensive experience in providing dependable, scalable solutions to higher education institutions, with domain expertise in education and open source. The company applies open source campus solutions for the enterprise in the areas of portals, student success and retention, learning management systems, identity and access management, online video, calendaring, email, and collaboration. Unicon can also build custom solutions. Hundreds of institutions use Unicon, including California Community Colleges, Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University, Duke University, Princeton University, Stanford University, and many more.

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