Universities and colleges are increasingly trying to standardize and streamline their IT services in order to save money and provide a more reliable service. Sometimes, this is translated into concentrating on one or two software suppliers. This document explains why this may not be the best strategy, and suggests that open source solutions should be considered.
Choice and the exit strategy
A range of choices is almost always regarded as a way of achieving better results. The very presence of open source solutions within a shortlist of potential solutions can make other vendors more flexible in their pricing and licensing policies.
The main reason why we do not wish to concentrate all our spending and expertise on the software solutions of one or two software suppliers is that we are in danger of being locked in. This problem may manifest itself financially in: licence price increases which we are powerless to avoid; typically, suppliers will offer us a good choice for the first year, and increase prices in subsequent years. changes in licensing: an initial regime may provide free licences for staff at home, but a subsequent deal may charge for that service. non-perpetual licences, whereby we are obliged to repurchase the software each year. We always need to consider an exit strategy for any decision involving licensing. More importantly, perhaps, we run the risk of having data stored in proprietary systems (databases, version control systems, word-processing applications) which we are unable to access when we lose the right to use the software.
The use of open source products, which all have perpetual and transferrable licences, avoids the problems outlined above.
Standardize on data standards not software
It will be stated by many vendors that there is no lock in of data when using their software, because they follow standards. Where this is true it becomes unnecessary to standardise on one software supplier, because applications adopting the same standard become almost interchangeable. This, in theory, allows us to choose the best product for the job in hand, regardless of the supplier.
If a software vendor's product is not compatible with other software, this should be regarded as a serious problem. IT applications should be regarded as independent of the software package which implements the specification, wherever possible.
Many software companies use open standards, by which we mean ISO standards or recommendations from independent bodies like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) or the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). However, others promote ‘industry standards’ which are typically controlled by a single vendor. Some open source applications also use custom data formats, but there is little incentive for them not to use the open standards, and so most do. Even where a custom format is used users of the software have full access to the format specification and the code used to manipulate that format. Therefore it is much easier to migrate away from such software.
Whenever possible, it is best to provide users with a choice of products, and this can be achieved if the products adopt open standards.
Very few IT systems work out of the box when delivered and require no changes over the years of their use. It is almost certain that you will have to invest a great deal of staff time in tailoring and supporting any widely used application within your organisation. If this investment is made in a proprietary software system, the problem of lock in reappears. If you are dependent on a support contract, outsourcing to a single vendor, this will inevitably slow the pace of innovation at your institution and prevent speedy technical development in response to change. All institutions, even small ones, must retain control of the systems they depend on.
The major advantage of your IT staff working in an open source environment is that they can make changes in a public forum, where other developers may check their work, improve it, and increase the effectiveness of your local team. By working to open standards, they can acquire portable skills which can be used in any future project.
Some smaller institutions will not have any development staff at all, but this does not rule out the use of open source software. There are companies to which you can outsource the support; this is, in fact, the business model of a number of key open source applications. Using both external consultants and in-house employees is probably best if your strategy is not to depend entirely on in-house support.
Providing for all
Most commercial software comes with limitations on licences, which means that decisions always have to be made on who is allowed to use it. Typically, this means that students may not have copies at home of programs which they use in college laboratories. Using open source software, with unlimited and perpetual redistribution rights, allows students and staff to use the same software anywhere at any time. Distance learning students (perhaps in other countries) are not disadvantaged by the choice of possibly expensive software, and there are no administrative overheads of recording licensed use. It should be noted that auditing of licences by some vendors has become more common in recent years and this trend is likely to continue.
It is unlikely that a single set of software choices will make everyone (staff and students) happy, either technically or at the simple user-preference level. It is highly desirable to allow them to choose their working preferences. Interoperability and support issues can be minimized by relying on open standards, and by using the web to deliver services.
Related information from OSS Watch:
* JISC policy on open source software
* Top Tips for Selecting Open Source Software
* Business Readiness Rating
* Open Source Maturity Model
* Open Source for the Enterprise - Managing Risks, Reaping Rewards - review
* International Organization for Standardization (ISO)
* World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
* Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS)
* Policy on Open Source Software for JISC Projects and Services
* Open Source Software: Use within UK Government