What Is Openness, Anyway?

This is the first article in a new column for EQ. When EDUCAUSE asked me if this was something I'd be willing to pull together, I said "Sure! Just one question — what does openness mean?"

So what do you do when you need a definition of something? Look it up on the world's most open encyclopedia, Wikipedia, of course. Much to my surprise, Wikipedia actually does have a brief entry for openness. The definition gets even more specific when you follow the link to Wiktionary. There, definitions 3 and 4 get to the heart of what openness in IT is:

3. (Computing) degree of accessibility to view, use, and modify computer code in a shared environment with legal rights generally held in common and preventing proprietary restrictions on the right of others to continue viewing, using, modifying and sharing that code.

4. (Systems) the degree to which a system operates with distinct boundaries across which exchange occurs capable of inducing change in the system while maintaining the boundaries themselves.

That sounds a bit like it was written by a lawyer and doesn't define the spectrum of openness as I'd hoped. Then my job of defining openness got a lot easier when, in the January/February 2009 issue of EDUCAUSE Review, EDUCAUSE defined openness for me. EDUCAUSE defines the range of openness to include:

  • Open standards and interoperability
  • Open and community source software development
  • Open access to research data
  • Open scholarly communications
  • Open access to, and open derivative use of, content

Now that simplifies things. With that as at least the initial range of topics this column will pursue, I then reached out to a friend to help take a crack at further defining the first two bullets.

Jonathan Markow is the Executive Director of Jasig. Started in 1999 as a multi-institutional consortium to collaborate on the then-new Java programming language, Jasig (originally JA-SIG, Java in Administration Special Interest Group) has grown into an important source of open software for higher education, as well as an effective organization for governing open, collaborative, shared technology development projects.

I asked Jonathan what openness means to Jasig. Not surprisingly, his answers related to the openness of the source code and the standards that code is based on. And that was an important distinction — for Jasig, open-source code that is not based on open standards isn't open.

Jonathan says the advantages of open source are numerous. Chief among them is "the myriad of smart people who can access the code and improve upon it." Moreover, "the quality of the software improves through the collaborative approach to development, refinement, and use."

He cautions about misconceptions and potential drawbacks to open source that can make the user experience less than it should be. A common misconception, he states, is that open-source code is somehow more vulnerable to hackers than commercial code. To counter this, he again points to the high level of review that open source code receives, typically from multiple points of view, resulting in it being, if anything, more secure than commercial code.

The biggest drawback Jonathan sees to organizations adopting open source is the potential for disconnects between expectations and reality, in particular with regard to the true "costs" of implementing open source. He warns that open source is never truly free of cost because, as with any kind of software implementation, it still needs time, effort, and potentially even equipment to make it work. "The ideal is to increase value while decreasing cost," he explains, but as far as projecting true dollar savings is concerned, this is an "open" question. "The history in higher education isn't there yet. The consensus appears that there will be savings, but it's impossible to quantify at this point. Both open source and vended software cost time and money to maintain going forward."

Jasig does much to foster the spirit of openness in higher education. A centralized server containing freely available software simplifies downloads. They maintain a wide variety of communication vehicles on different topics that seek to engage varied audiences, and various conferences and informal workshops bring together interesting mixes of developers, managers, and designers to collaborate on new initiatives.

Asked whether the current economic climate will impact open source in any way, Jonathan says he believes it will cause some organizations to give open source a closer look. The challenge for many institutions, he says, will be in figuring out "how open source exists within an institution's procurement process." He believes some organizations will struggle with how open source can fit in the traditional RFP process, and how to account for "free" software that will nonetheless cost money to implement.

"The possibility of lower cost is an enticement to look, but schools need to not jump to conclusions and they need to do their due diligence." He suggests, "Go into any software decision with eyes open, speak with peers, see what support is available, and monitor the Listservs." He also acknowledges that for some organizations this may not be the time for open source. "Risk-averse institutions may be more reticent than ever to trying something new."

When asked about the future trends for open source, Jonathan sees several areas stimulating lots of interest:

  • Social networking and other Web 2.0 technologies and trends
  • Continued interest in enterprise applications ("Will open ERP achieve widespread success, and will we see this as a place that incorporates social networking into what has traditionally been more business-back-office–focused functionality?")
  • Integration and the development of toolsets that will facilitate the implementation of SOA (service-oriented architecture)
  • Mobility, where he points out Google is already making headway
  • Identity management and federation, where he sees more room for more clearly defined standards and tools that will facilitate integration of the identity stack

In a nutshell, Jonathan states, "If you look at the areas of technology that are capturing the interest of CIOs, that's where you'll find development in open-source technology."

Always good to have friends who can help answer questions for you…

Future columns will address these and other aspects of openness and will include input from other experts and readers. I invite you to write me and tell me what you think openness is and what topics you would like to see this column cover.

Colin Currie (currie@princeton.edu) is Director of Administrative Information Services at Princeton University.