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Magazine On-line [spring 2007]
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Around the Campus

Transy looks to the 'source' for software

Transylvania is turning to open source computer software for several of its needs, with an eye toward saving money while reaping potential benefits in flexibility, security, and stability.

Open source software, as opposed to name brand programs such as the familiar family of Microsoft products, is designed and written by volunteer programmers in many parts of the world. Its source code is easily available, and users may download, use, and modify the software free of charge. There are no annual licensing fees based on the number of users, which are normally charged by commercial software companies.

Lynn Aulick, director of academic computing, said the move to open source software is not a wholesale abandonment of name brand programs, but a very selective use of, and experimentation with, open source products to determine where they can serve Transylvania’s needs better than off-the-shelf programs.

“I believe we can strike a balance between open source and turn-key operations,” Aulick said. “I wouldn’t recommend, for example, replacing our Microsoft desktop operating system, but changing to open source for functions such as e-mail, user registration, and course management applications may be a smart move. That would allow us to direct those funds we’re not spending on commercial software to expanding our technology services.”

Jason Herndon ’90, with NetGain Technologies Inc., and Jason Whitaker ’97, IT specialist with IBM Global Services, are assisting Aulick, on both a paid and volunteer basis, with the implementation of open source software.

Whitaker cites the ability to modify open source programs for special user needs as one of their primary advantages over commercial versions. He mentioned a change he made to NetReg, which secures access to Transy’s residence halls and wireless network, as an example.

“When students have been gone from campus for the holidays, we want them to have to register their computers again when they return so that we can look for security problems,” Whitaker said. “Lynn uses a function I wrote that quickly clears out all the registrations, so when students register again, it’s like starting out fresh.”

Security of the campus network against viruses or worms is a constant concern, and Aulick says NetReg is a key weapon in this battle. NetReg runs another open source program, Nessus, that supports this effort.

“Nessus checks each machine for security holes, to see if all the Windows operating system patches are up-to-date,” Aulick said. “When we turned it on for the first time last fall, we found about 20 student computers that were more than a year behind on their patches.”

Using open source to run functions that are “under the covers,” as Whitaker puts it, lessens the need for user training. “I am a proponent of open source, first of all, for things dealing with server infrastructure,” he said. “You won’t find a Microsoft Money type of program in open source.”

Besides the flexibility advantages of open source software, the cost savings can be a factor. Licensing fees for name brand software can add up quickly. For example, Aulick said the University is charged approximately $10,000 a year for Blackboard, which professors use for chat rooms with students and to post items such as tests, lectures, and additional course materials. Microsoft Office costs about $13,000 annually and the Novell e-mail server $9,000.

As a possible substitute for Blackboard, Transylvania is experimenting this academic year with an open source replacement called Moodle.

“Four faculty members are running Moodle and Blackboard in parallel, to see if all the functions they like in Blackboard can also be found in Moodle,” Aulick said. “If they find these functions, we could then use Moodle as our course management system.”

The argument for using open source over commercial software is not an open-and-shut case, Aulick acknowledges. Commercial software is familiar to users, and there are possible consulting fees with open source programs to teach users how to use them. But the cost savings of open source, its potential greater stability, along with the ability to tweak it for Transy’s own purposes, make it very appealing.

Aulick is taking a systematic, step-by-step approach to introducing open source on the Transy campus.

“We see this as an ongoing project,” he said. “We are carving out things we know will work in a ‘stand alone’ situation in open source, without going to the Linux operating system, which would be needed for a widespread open source usage. As we develop open source and explore it more, then we’ll have more confidence to expand it. Open source is here to stay.”

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