I’m a Believer—In Open Source

from Educators' eZine

I had a great job working for a great company, with great people, great pay and great benefits. The company won several awards for the best place to work for several years in a row. But I walked away from it.

My job title was Enterprise Architect for a company that produced ERP—Enterprise Resource Planning—software for colleges and universities in North America. I looked at new computer capabilities that were going to hit the public in three to five years and made sure that we would be able to handle any new changes or demands in technology or social networking.

I was having a great time. I had all the toys and tools that I needed, including top of the line laptops, tablet PC's, Blackberry's, thumb drives, wireless internet cards, servers, test networks, VoIP telephones and all the gadgets I could think of. On top of that, I was on a first name basis with all of the executives since part of my job was to brief them on the future of computing on college campuses. It was pure geek heaven.

When I first started that job, I often heard faint rumblings from the programming staff about FLOSS, or Free / Libre Open Source Software. Being always diligent and happy to learn about new technologies, I would take a look. And every time I would download software, I would be disappointed with the capabilities or the interface and dismiss it.

But about three years ago, things started to change. In January 2004, IBM decided to wade into the open source area with the release of their development platform, Eclipse, along with the creation of the Eclipse Foundation in order to allow a vendor-neutral and an open, transparent community. It was quickly followed by an announcement from Google, highlighting their new Email with 1 GB of free storage—more than 100 times more storage than any other free mail service was offering. RedHat, one of the first businesses based on the open source model, started making money. In October of 2004, Mark Shuttleworth, the young internet multimillionaire who bought a ride on a Russian space trip, decided to put some of his time, money and energy into building a Linux-based operating system to help children get the technology they needed for free. At the end of the year, OpenOffice was declared the best all-around office suite by PC Pro Labs, beating out Microsoft Office 2003.

Companies were starting to prove that a business model based on open source, with revenue coming from services and support, was viable. Big money and big players such as Google and IBM were jumping into the fray. Projects were starting up that had large communities supporting and improving the products and applications. The FLOSS movement was starting to be credible for me. It was something to start paying attention to.

In addition, open source software made sense from an economic standpoint. One lesson that I always learned in business was that each dollar in sales translated into just ten cents in profits, but a dollar saved translated into a dollar to the bottom line. Most colleges and universities are usually strapped for cash and funding. Anyone who has graduated from a college knows the alumni association regularly begs for money, and the economics of open source software was starting to make real sense.

In 2006, Mark Shuttleworth's Linux distribution, Ubuntu, won one of the year's top 100 products from PC Magazine, the first operating system to win since the introduction of Apple's OS X. They would repeat that recognition in 2007, becoming the only operating system to on the top 100 products of the year two years in a row from PC Magazine.

However, the company that I was working for was reticent about pushing toward open source software. It wasn't that they felt it wasn't good, they just felt that it was a strange way to make money. It definitely was different from how they had worked in the past—the business model is different with open source.

About that time, I had the pleasure of talking with Mike Huffman, CIO for Indiana Department of Education. Mike told me the story of how he came to love open source software. A new superintendent had started in Indiana and asked Mike to go out and find how technology was working at schools. He spent the next year out surveying the schools. Another few months passed, and the superintendent asked why she hadn't seen a write-up of his findings. The truth was that the CIO was embarrassed about his findings. He found that four students per PC translated into approximately 45 minutes per week per student. Computer time was an exercise in typing. Some students without access to computers would write their assignments out in long hand, then use their computer time to type in their homework. He realized that the only student - PC ratio that made any sense was 1 - 1.

It quickly became obvious to him that the only way that the state of Indiana could afford the additional computers was to lower the Total Cost of Ownership for each PC. Open source operating systems and applications were the only way to accomplish that, so Mike started a few pilot programs. At first, students, administrators and teachers were wary. But they quickly understood the reason for the switch, and the students liked having more computer time. After each successful roll-out, other schools would see the benefits and would request open source for their schools. Indiana is now using open source for all of its schools.

Mike Huffman is passionate about getting computers to the children in his schools. He feels that we owe these students the tools, and allowing any child to go an additional year without great computer and Internet access was inexcusable, especially when it cost no more than the original 4 students to 1 PC standard.

I was impressed with his passion and it rubbed off on me. Perhaps education really is in my genetic makeup. My mother owns a Montessori school, my ancestors were some of the earliest presidents at Erskine College in South Carolina, many others were educators and, although my father had always wanted to retire and teach, an early death from cancer foiled that dream.

I've never been one to take chances, but everything pointed me toward open source. It was a way to pay honor to my parents and ancestors and a way to make a difference in education. I walked away from a great job, but I truly believe I've walked into a greater job. If only one more student gets enough computer time to make a difference in his future, I'll be more successful than I ever hoped. And, speaking of hoping, I'm hoping this story gets your school district into looking at open source.

For further information, see:

K-12 Open Minds Conference

Indiana Access: Open Source Programs 2007

InAccess: Affordable Classroom Computers for Every Secondary Student

An Argument for Open Source Software in Education

Finally, go to the Indiana Dept. of Education and type "Open Source" into the search box at the upper right.

Email:Matt Burkhardt