Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Unplugging from the Commercial Software Grid: Open Source is not Three Guys in a Shed Anymore.

Since Wes called me Oklahoma’s “Open Source Yoda turned Wyoming Cowboy”in a recent post and has given me the opportunity to write while he is away I thought I would hit on one of my favorite topics for my final post, Open Source Software (OSS). Please let it be noted that Yoda probably has more hair than I do these days and I think that is what Wes may have been referring to. Anyway back on topic, I have a few things I always do when determining if OSS is an option for an organization. I have bundled this into a presentation called “Unplugging from the Commercial Software Grid: Why Free is Better Even if you have a Budget”  Interestingly this presentation is unusual in the world of technology presentations as it has become more relevant than it was when I gave the very first version of it 5 or so years ago.  The topics covered in this session are as follows:

  1. a basic set of criteria which I use to determine if OSS is even an option,
  2. a list of questions which you must answer before going the OSS route and
  3. the primary reasons for going the OSS route.

These three topic areas were developed originally because when we started moving our LMS from a commercial product to OSS (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.

I am not going to cover everything today, but I will briefly hit the following topics:

  1. How “Open Sourcers” view the concept of free software
  2. Why we began moving this route,
  3. The basic checklist(#1 above)
  4. Who do you call a 2am” AKA what is the support model for open source software.


The Open Source Concept of Free

There is a lot written on this topic, but I think the key to understanding open source is as follows:

Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech”, not as in “free beer”.

Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.


Why did we do this?

It was 8 or 9 years ago as the CTO of a small rural institution that I began implementing open source solutions. I had always been frustrated that many innovative technologies were out of the financial reach of my institution but the demands for services were continually increasing. I do call this the Dilbert Directive.

The typical scenario in which I discovered many wonderful solutions were out of reach financially usually went like this:

1) Go to conference and listen to engineer or other brilliant geek give a fabulous presentations about a given product (they almost always profess to never know anything about pricing)

2) Corner the sales person at the exhibit hall booth they tell you they need more info about your situation and they may or may not give you pricing info to start with

3) Bug them long enough and they finally say “Don’t hold me to this” or “This is only list pricing” or maybe even “Wow that is really small” when you talk to them about the size of your institution.

4) Extrapolate a ball park pricing base on years of chasing whatever the lastest “holy grail” of the that particular area of technology happens to be at a given time

5) Walk away… knowing your financial reality does not match up with what it would cost to successfully and sustainably deploy the technology discussed at a given meeting.

Experiencing this year after year was very frustrating and that in conjunction with Vendor Churn was very discouraging. Vendor Churn, which I and others define as: “Vendors changing processes which force upgrades and revisions in a pattern which you the user/customer have no control over.” This usually occurs when the flow of new sales dries up and the company finds a need to stimulate sales thus causing you to churn through an endless cycle of changes you may or may not want. These and other issues led me to continually long for alternative solutions.

The first alternative solution I encountered which really made an impact on the way I viewed software was my introduction to the Modular Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment…AKA Moodle in 2004. Prior to my introduction to Moodle, I had not encountered a group of technologists who had a passion for a particular technology product, who believed in what they were doing, and who had an agenda for the product which did not involve trying to sell me something. Prior to this time I had not experienced this pragmatic open source ideology. Gutek (2004) defines ideology as the shared beliefs and values of a group with a commonality which bestows upon its members a sense of “belonging, or identity, holds them together, and provides their agendas for action” (p. 142). In the early days of open source many participants felt an ideological pull to the open source movement according to Pfaffenberger (2001) who says the ideological passion for the movement from the beginning stems from a grave threat to the advancement of knowledge and human welfare created the free or open source software movement of the 1980s because the realization a for-profit industry was about to lock up indispensable public knowledge. Technologists drawn to open source are serious and to a degree idealistic; however, idealism generally does not get in the way of a pragmatic solution to a problem. Stallman (2002) says open source is not the same as free software. The difference between the two movements is in their values, their ways of looking at the world. For the open source movement, the issue of whether software should be open source is a practical question. An open source project is started to solve a real world need, not an ethical one. Stallman states, “Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement.” For the Open Source movement, non-free software is a suboptimal solution. For the Free Software movement, non-free software is a social problem and free software is the solution.

The Checklist

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”

The Good

• 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

The Bad

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

The Ugly

Not thinking you have a choice

The Biggest Hurdle: “Who do you call at 2:00am”

As a proponent of open source solutions I have more than once had to defend my position. the topic of open source when it came up. Sometimes the discourse revolves around the choosing of an open source solution which has a large user base in education or more specifically higher education. Most people are fearful of going where no one has gone before. A large user base is an important criteria in picking an open source solution. The themes which usually come up include the following “Buts”:

1) But don’t you get what you pay for?

2) But the security and stability issues?

3) But you need to careful because you don’t know if the open source project will be there tomorrow?

4) But what do you do when the creator of the open source project dies?

5) But we will need a developer?

6) But can it grow with us?

7) But can it do everything we need?

8) But who you gonna’ call at 2:00am?

I do have answers for each of these, but I am going to start with number 8 for this post. One of the biggest misconceptions about good open source models which meet my criteria is the perceived lack of commercial support. Sure you have large communities, open forums and plenty of really great people who will help you for free, but the commercial support issue is a huge hurdle for administrators, governing boards and your community of technology users. The concerns are in my view outdated, but certainly still prevalent. This loud and constant drumbeat to me similar to the the 1990’s Lamb Chop’s Play-Along, hosted by Shari Lewis Shari Lewis and its closing theme song “The Song That Doesn’t End”. At the end of each episode, the puppets and children would sing several verses of the song while Lewis would try in vain to stop them. They would eventually leave (on her urging), even while beginning a sixth verse (which eventually fades out). Then, Charlie Horse would return and try to get to sing the song- going again, but Shari successfully stops him by grabbing his mouth and persuading him to “go away.” I suppose my hope is not that those who doubt that support models are available in the open source world would go away but that they would develop a an objective eye for open source projects which do have a good support model. The bottom line is great support is possible in a good open source project you just need to make sure you are choosing a good open source project not just an open source project.

Here are some typical examples of why telling people that commercial support models in open source are available is  important:

Last week I was speaking with a 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 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.

I can provide more because it happens all the time, but as I mentioned earlier:

“This is the song that never ends, yes it goes on and on my friend. Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was, and they’ll continue singing it forever just because…This is the song that never ends, yes it goes on and on my friend. Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was, and they’ll continue singing it forever just because…This is the song that never ends, yes it goes on and on my friend. Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was, and they’ll continue singing it forever just because…This is the song that never ends, yes it goes on and on my friend. Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was, and they’ll continue singing it forever just because…”


Many people are simply not familiar with the Business Models which have arisen around many of these “free” products to support those wishing to have support In most of my speaking engagements I reference the support models for Moodle and / or Asterisk. However, the recently completed Campus Technology Summit allowed me to review what is happening in the world of supporting the Kuali Project. I love what is happening with this projects as I think as more quality support models are added in various projects it helps bring validity to the entire open source movement. . In the words of Liam Maxwell, the executive in-charge of United Kingdom’s Information Technology Department (Shukla, 2012)

”Open source software is not three guys in a shed anymore. There are a lot of misconceptions about open source but open source is the future model for delivering IT”.

Just to give you a taste here are a couple of examples of how support is offered in large open source communities.

Moodle Partners Certified Service Providers worldwide that can help you with your Moodle implementation.

They provide services such as hosting, customisation, support, training and even full management of a Moodle project. Partners contribute 10% of their earnings to support the development and maintenance of the Moodle project, so to help improve the Moodle software we ask that you always use certified Moodle Partners!

The Kuali Commercial Affiliates program provides an ecosystem of services for delivering Kuali software systems. While Kuali Foundation delivers open source systems, it does not provide planning, implementation, hosting, and support services. These services can be provided by vendors, who can build a business model around some or all of these types of services. There is value to Kuali, its adopters and KCA’s in having these services available from KCAs for a fee.


An interesting question came up a couple weeks ago while doing my “Unplugging from the Commercial Software Grid” presentation at the Mountain Moodle Moot, hosted by Carrol College in Helena MT.

Are the tools ready and available to open source the entire enterprise? I enthusiastically stated “… if the culture is right it is possible to open source the enterprise.” After a bit of discussion and interjection by Tim Hunt of the UK’s Open University we determined that we should more accurately state the “it is possible to open source the tools of the enterprise. Almost immediately a tweet went out saying as much…but I would like to retract that statement…sort of. After sleeping on this I would more accurately state that enough good open source tools are ready and available to allow some institutions to move much of their core activities to open source, free and related platforms. However, you must:

1) Determine if your institutional culture is right,

2) Confirm the open source project is a mature

3) Determine if it really serves the need of the enterprise

4) You must never chose for a reason outside of serving what is best for students no matter at which level of education you work.

I really want to get this statement right because there are many criticism of the open source world. 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 an fanatical core of zealots who will stop at nothing to push forth their software agenda. 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 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?

“This life is not practice and if you don’t feel that kind of passion all day long for what you are doing then you need to change because this life is too short to not to do so.”

Jim Stovall Author, The Ultimate Gift


About Kent

Kent Brooks is the IT Director at Casper College in Casper Wyoming.  You can find out more about his thoughts on educational technology, open source and disruptions in education caused by technology use at or follow him on Twitter @kentbrooks   He previously served as the Chief Technology Officer/ Dean of Distance Learning at Western Oklahoma State College in Altus Oklahoma  for 15 years. While at Western he led an effort to transform a struggling rural institution to a significant distance learning provider(24 online students in 1999 to over 5000 in 2010).  He was an instructor, department chair and computer coordinator at the University of New Mexico – Gallup Campus prior to coming to Altus.  While in New Mexico he was actively involved in the Los Alamos National Laboratory EDUNET program which sought to bring telecommunications technologies to the four corners area of the US.  Kent has been heavily involved in numerous teacher-training projects and efforts to bring networking and telecommunications technologies to rural areas.    His grant writing efforts have brought over $50 million dollars to equip rural schools, tribal complexes and museums across the US with distance learning technologies.  Kent’s work interests include the acquisition of technology and training resources for rural under served communities.  More specifically his work interest and focus is on the “open” or “free” software movement and its impact on delivery of technological services in education.

Background Reading

Shukla, Anuradha. “Why Governments Are Now Looking At Open Source Solutions.” Unixmen. Unixmen, 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 7 Apr. 2012. <>;.

Colleges of Distinction (2008) Retrieved November 26, 2008 from…

Pfaffenberger, Bryan, (2001, April) Why Open Content Matters, Linux Journal. Retrieved December 18, 2008 from

Stallman, Richard, (2007) Why “Free Software” is Better Than “Open Source” Free Software, Free Society retrieved December 19, 2008 from

Trow, Martin. (1997) “The Development of Information Te

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