Open Source Making the Grade in Higher Education


Open source and higher education have a long and storied history. After all, BSD Unix originally came from the University of California at Berkeley, and Linux itself was created while Linus Torvalds was a student at the University of Helsinki.

Yet new research from Gartner indicates that open source is taking hold in universities in more areas than ever before, a fact supported by a string of wins from commercial open source vendor GroundWork.

This week, the systems monitoring software company boasted in a release that it signed 18 leading universities worldwide as customers.

“The big thing now is, in how many areas different areas will there be open source?” Gartner analyst Jan-Martin Lowendahl told

“It is obvious that in shared global community needs, open source is really taking off,” he said.

Growth in open source adoption by higher education comes as university IT infrastructures are coming to resemble commercial enterprises, with similar requirements and increasingly complex demands.

“We’re seeing an evolution in how people are using open source tools in university environments,” David Dennis, senior director of product marketing at GroundWork, told “Some of the challenges are becoming commensurate with what you see in commercial environments.”

Head of the class

One of the open source standouts for Lowendahl is the Moodle eLearning software that has become popular at universities around the world, especially in Europe. The software’s development community claims more than 400,000 registered users and upwards of 44,000 production deployments in 193 countries.

In spite of its wide use, Moodle, a tool for creating and managing course material online, still has yet to catch up to proprietary software in official deployments.

“With Moodle, we see that a lot of institutions are doing pilots or testing it out, but when we compare that to what the designated standard is for a campus and what they use for delivery, there is a discrepancy,” Lowendahl said. “With eLearning, we still see that [open source] hasn’t got the same traction as commercial software.”

Still, Lowendahl said that with Moodle and Sakai, another eLearning platform, the tipping point toward broader adoption may be near. Both sport functionality comparable to closed-source offerings, and Moodle also offers commercial support.

Yet with open source solutions’ higher profile, demands are also increasing on their vendors. In the systems monitoring space, GroundWork’s Dennis said universities have been using open source tools to manage their environments before, but their needs are now far more complex.

“Probably three or four years ago, point solutions using an individual open source tool were probably good enough,” he said. “They are now being asked to combine their point solutions into a unified whole and also take into account other, non-open source stuff.”

Part of the problem is that as open source moves beyond the pet project phase at major universities, its vendors may find difficulties competing for share based on cost savings. Part of the problem is many universities find measuring TCO difficult, lacking complete data on costs for support and resources for their IT platforms.

“Decisions are still principled rather than practical; it’s more about believing in open source and having it as a strategy than just looking at the total cost of ownership,” Lowendahl said. “The advice we give is that they have to have an overall strategy for this kind of implementation of software.”

One open source vendor that seems to be winning the total cost of ownership argument is GroundWork, perhaps due in part to its approach to the higher-educational market.

The company makes its Monitor application available in a freely downloadable community edition. It also offers commercially supported enterprise versions, which is where GroundWork makes its money.

In many cases, students or existing staff get the system up and running using GroundWork’s free edition. Often, users then realize they want features that aren’t available in the open source version, or that they have additional support needs.

“They may decide, ‘It’s great that we have this guy that can manage the system, but he may graduate or he may not be available 24/7, so we need an airbag plan,'” Dennis said.

Though the trends indicate universities are adopting open source across a broad range of needs, that same development that isn’t necessarily taking place across the entire educational landscape.

For instance, Dennis said he’s not seeing open source gaining similar ground in the kindergarten-to-12th grade area.

“From what we can tell, that’s like the [small to midsized business] space, where Windows is still king,” he said. “Open source is not there.”

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