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Community Source Software: The Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning? Notes from a panel.

Community Source Software: The Beginning of the End, or the End of the Beginning? Notes from a panel at the EDUCAUSE Enterprise Information and Technology Conference, Chicago, IL, May 2008
Laura McCain Patterson, Associate VP, Information Systems, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Richard Spencer, Acting CIO and AVP IT, The University of British Columbia
Brad Wheeler, VP for IT, CIO, and Professor, Indiana University
Moderator: Andrea Di Maio, VP Distinguished Analyst, Gartner, Inc.

Community source is designed to coordinate the work of different user IT organizations sharing the same purpose and requirements. An alternative to commercial applications and custom development, it gives users control and shares risk across peer organizations. Although several such public sector communities exist and yield great promises, many struggle with achieving critical mass and a viable business model. This panel compares and contrasts community source with more traditional software sourcing options and explores critical sustainability success factors.

A podcast is available at

Introduction by Di Maio
Collaborators share the same purpose - not about open source -
How is it positioned? Open source or proprietary? Is it user driven or vendor driven?

There are 4 models
Vendor - closed source - vendor driven
Vendor collaboration but open source - but still mostly vendor driven
Users without
Community sources - can be open source or closed source - entirely open or gated -limits can be established for how it can be used.

Open source and community source overlap but are different
Some is not vertical but the higher you go the more vertical and the more specificity
Is this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?

It's fair to recognize there have been a number of successful stories. But also a number of communities - state driven issue - are you a part of the public sector or is it a fad

Di Maio asked the panelists to tell us why we should look at this as the end of beginning.

Wheeler - 4 yrs ago and before there was renewed attention to Sakai and Kuali. They were going to build financial system and some people thought it incredulous that you'd do that for financial system. They thought it was okay for dabbling in T&L but thought that in reality, financial systems are much more straightforward. Many questions have now been answered and they know how to do things. And, they now are improving it regularly. There were 415 at the Kuali conference a few weeks ago. They are at the beginning of the next set of the questions - what comes next?

Patterson: Why the beginning of the end - - so systems were built and collaboration occurred but she asked "why would you do that?" Higher education's business is to teach and do research not to build financial systems. She asked "Why would we spend precious resources to do this when someone else already have the systems and can do it better?" She believes that higher education should move things to outside providers when possible - like email, like phones, etc. Higher education should stick to teaching and research.

Other questions to consider include "What else do we get by being engaged together?"
"Is what we are building actually readily available?" Higher education has had IT collaborative projects for at least 40 years - including IBM time share systems.

Spencer: There is not a readily available product that will do the things we want to do. Whether you buy or build you will invest those precious resources. He discussed two missions - funding and research - where there are not good commercial products. Higher education feels it needs to do things differently and building things ourselves makes sense up to a point. However, a single institution can't actually build them by alone - so a new community source movement is very appropriate. Many felt this was the way to go. Community source answers this need and UBC is very happy with the results.

Di Maio asked the panelists to give him 3 good reasons to use community source

1) (Wheeler) Higher education does not operate in an efficient marketplace where products will be improved to meet our needs - - We are a marketplace that is monopolized over and over again. We are hell to sell to - our decision cycles are laborious, needs are esoteric, etc., so, it makes sense that they will deal with monopolists. They create virtual monopolies by tiering the institutional customer.
2) (Wheeler) For state universities (privates are different) - higher education can buy labor at privileged prices - so all we need is a modicum of competence to produce the things we need in a very efficient process. Community source is the path between functional user and the developer - we need to be efficient - no metered model because we are using it differently.
3) (Spencer) There is an element of uncertainty with the future path and cost of software products and higher education has a need to feel in control. We have systems that functional relatively well, we are beginning to see new functionality in PeopleSoft implementation but when they went from version 7 to 8, UBC lost control of the process and the cost went up if you delayed implementation. UBC even thought about staying with the out-dated software. Perpetual license now for a product is no longer supported. With community source we are better prepared to handle upgrades (or not) than in dealing with the commercial companies.

Patterson: The uncertainty of vendors drives us crazy. The idea of control is very appealing

Wheeler says that we don't know how to negotiate and be business like in the way we operate and that's exactly the reason not to go with community source. The way universities work is not effective and we must be more business like in our own operations. She quoted Groucho Marx, "I refuse to join a club that has me for a member." Business models must change because the environment has changed. We are not for-profit but we must be more businesslike - the risk of using community source is that we won't be businesslike.

Wheeler: Higher education should not want to use Google's business model because we are not Google, we are higher education - and we don't want shadow systems which is what we get when we use vendor provided business software. We need to use the tools that we need and we have to shape up our own business processes. ERP were sold on head count but with honest accounting head counts go up not go down. The number of consultant hours and staff hours has gone up significantly with vendor software purchases.

There are merits on both sides - sustainability - we want to rely on the community more than the vendor. What are the risks that the communities will go away and you may still have the source code but you may not have the expertise to continue its support?

Di Maio asked about mitigating the risk of big systems.

Wheeler: There are risks in big systems whether you buy from a vendor or not. So we should look at the different profiles. Modern corporations may be relatively young - universities have been along for a long, long time. If Wheeler is going to trust one or the other, he'll trust the university. He feels that Cornell, Indiana, and others will be in the business for years to come. If the particular entity fell apart we could still collaborate or otherwise figure out how to continue. He believes the risks are quite reasonable in the community source model and you have control. Community source is most suited to the areas where we have unique needs.

Patterson: Higher education can do the same with PeopleSoft. Every modification they make in PeopleSoft (not core) can be shared. When Oracle acquired PeopleSoft they started these conversations.

Di Maio asked: What's the impact if fundamental people in the project (community or vendor) decide to leave?

Wheeler: MIT's Coeus in is Boston which is not the best market for the work so it's contracted out to India. It's unhelpful to think of it as one or the other but rather we should think about it as a blended model.

In at least one case a vendor had written a modification that was shared back to the community.

Wheeler: Community source projects don't have to do things on someone else's schedule because the licensing is different.

Patterson: Commercial vendors are moving in this direction too

What's missing?

Spencer: Within the banking industry, at least one bank writes their own customer interfaces so they are customized to their own target. We know better than others do what we need in higher education and we need the control to do this ourselves, though in some other cases this may not be important. They had a business process redesign for hiring faculty and professional staff but couldn't implement it. Even now, 3 yrs late, they are struggling to find software to support it as PeopleSoft does not. They want to position themselves differently from the commercial world and from other institutions. At some point it is very unlikely that a vendor can meet your needs.

Di Maio asked about the development of their own processes and best practices.

Community source is a replacement for "I can do it myself" but in time a vendor may develop their own intellectual process around a community source product.

Spencer: describing the Kuali student project kickoff, said they surveyed vendors and they believed this would open up markets for them. They expect there will be a lot of vendor products in play. It's a business model that many are interested in and they'll go from selling software to integrating pieces. No project has a future beyond 7-8 yrs. Exponential growth and change is in the big picture for us all as we move forward. No one can predict what will happen 10-12 years down the road. If the options change, and vendors have what we need, we'll change and look to vendors for support and products that meet our needs. Right now we think we know what we need better than they do.

Di Maio asked where community source is appropriate.

Patterson: Research Administration has needs outside of universities and it's a major business- so this is a ripe opportunity.

Patterson asks: The PeopleSoft student system wasn't developed by PeopleSoft. It was by 8 universities and "campus solutions" who worked at universities so they started down the path to build it. When PeopleSoft wanted the modules they went to campus solutions. Campus solutions had a pretty complex solution because they were appealing to a variety of institutional AA, DR EXT, public, private etc. So, when you are looking at community source - how do you avoid building another very complex product?

Spencer and Wheeler: Kuali is built to be configurable. The institution should budget as much for implementation as they do for development. Over time you might see bundles that are tailored to AAs or DR EXTs etc. There is complexity reduction so the smallest of the core is shared and the bundles are configurable.

Wheeler: Discussing sustainability - we need enough (critical mass - not necessarily a gazillion) to get the work done - but, he said, they'd be better off at whatever point than they would be going alone. The number of FTE you need is actually not that large. The contributions of the many institutions make it sustainable.

Question: Many have sat out from the ERP packages because of the horror stories. What can you say to us about this?

Patterson: it's an advantage to go with vendor software if you need it now - if you have 5-6 yrs then you can wait and see.

Wheeler: Modules are being built, but you won't see it "next year." They may start subbing modules that are better as they go.

Wheeler: Maintaining legacy systems may prove to be wise. First we built it, then we bought, and now we want to build it together. Those maintaining legacy systems can probably just skip the middle step.

Local staff is compressible but writing a check is not. Commitment can get reduced with in-house staff since they keep being given more to do. It's like prepaying into a health club and then you don't use it.

Wheeler: You don't "buy" it so you have to teach your purchasing department how to fund it.

Patterson: Improved business is not about the technology but about the processes. She can contract with a vendor and if they don't come through she can hold the check. But if she's in a community source and they don't deliver then she can't hold the check.

Wheeler does not accept that this is the question. He used to have fewer people in the past than he has now to support vendor software.

Zero disruptive upgrades are needed - home grown financial system has been upgraded 47 times but did not require disruption but twice.

Wheeler: We've decided together how things would be done and there has been tremendous knowledge sharing.

A podcast is available at

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