Community Source Is Dead

As Phil noted in yesterday’s post, Kuali is moving to a for-profit model, and it looks like it is motivated more by sustainability pressures than by some grand affirmative vision for the organization. There has been a long-term debate in higher education about the value of “community source,” which is a particular governance and funding model for open source projects. This debate is arguably one of the reasons why Indiana University left the Sakai Foundation (as I will get into later in this post). At the moment, Kuali is easily the most high-profile and well-funded project that still identifies itself as Community Source. The fact that this project, led by the single most vocal proponent for the Community Source model, is moving to a different model strongly suggests that Community Source has failed.

It’s worth taking some time to talk about why it has failed, because the story has implications for a wide range of open-licensed educational projects. For example, it is very relevant to my recent post on business models for Open Educational Resources (OER).

What Is Community Source?

The term “Community Source” has a specific meaning and history within higher education. It was first (and possibly only) applied to a series of open source software projects funded by the Mellon Foundation, including Sakai, Kuali, Fedora, and DSpace (the latter two of which have merged). As originally conceived, Community Source was an approach that was intended to solve a perceived resource allocation problem in open source. As then-Mellon Foundation Associate Program Officer Chris Mackie put it,

For all that the OSS movement has produced some runaway successes, including projects like Perl, Linux, and Mozilla Firefox, there appear to be certain types of challenges that are difficult for OSS to tackle. Most notably, voluntaristic OSS projects struggle to launch products whose primary customers are institutions rather than individuals: financial or HR systems rather than Web servers or browsers; or uniform, manageable desktop environments rather than programming languages or operating systems. This limitation may trace to any of several factors: the number of programmers having the special expertise required to deliver an enterprise information system may be too small to sustain a community; the software may be inherently too unglamorous or uninteresting to attract volunteers; the benefits of the software may be too diffuse to encourage beneficiaries to collaborate to produce it; the software may be too complex for its development to be coordinated on a purely volunteer basis; the software may require the active, committed participation of specific firms or institutions having strong disincentives to participate in OSS; and so on. Any of these factors might be enough to prevent the successful formation of an OSS project, and there are many useful types of enterprise software—including much of the enterprise software needed by higher education institutions—to which several of them apply. In short, however well a standard OSS approach may work for many projects, there is little reason to believe that the same model can work for every conceivable software project.

This is not very different from the argument I made recently about OER:

In the early days of open source, projects were typically supported through individual volunteers or small collections of volunteers, which limited the kinds and size of open source software projects that could be created. This is also largely the state of OER today. Much of it is built by volunteers. Sometimes it is grant funded, but there typically is not grant money to maintain and update it. Under these circumstances, if the project is of the type that can be adequately well maintained through committed volunteer efforts, then it can survive and potentially thrive. If not, then it will languish and potentially die.

The Mellon Foundation’s answer to this problem was Community Source, again as described by Chris Mackie:

Under this new model, several institutions contract together to build software for a common need, with the intent of releasing that software as open source. The institutions form a virtual development organization consisting of employees seconded from each of the partners. This entity is governed cooperatively by the partners and managed as if it were an enterprise software development organization, with project and team leads, architects, developers, and usability specialists, and all the trappings of organizational life, including reporting relationships and formal incentive structures. During and after the initial construction phase, the consortial partners open the project and invite in anyone who cares to contribute; over time the project evolves into a more ordinary OSS project, albeit one in which institutions rather than individual volunteers usually continue to play a major role.

A good friend of mine who has been involved in Mellon-funded projects since the early days describes Community Source more succinctly as a consortium with a license. Consortial development is a longstanding and well understood method of getting things done in higher education. If I say to you, “Kuali is a consortium of universities trying to build an ERP system together,” you will probably have some fairly well-developed notions of what the pros and cons of that approach might be. The primary innovation of Community Source is that it adds an open source license to the product that the consortium develops, thus enabling another (outer) circle of schools to adopt and contribute to the project. But make no mistake: Community Source functions primarily like a traditional institutional consortium. This can be best encapsulated by what Community Source proponents refer to as the Golden Rule: “If you bring the gold then you make the rules.”[1]

Proponents of Community Source suggested even from the early days that Community Source is different from open source. Technically, that’s not true, since Community Source projects produce open source software. But it is fair to say that Community Source borrows the innovation of the open source license while maintaining traditional consortial governance and enterprise software management techniques. Indiana University CIO and Community Source proponent Brad Wheeler sometimes refers to Community Source as “the pub between the Cathedral and the Bazaar (a reference to Eric Raymond’s seminal essay on open source development).” More recently, Brad and University of Michigan’s Dean of Libraries James Hilton codified what they consider to be the contrasts between open source and Community Source in their essay “The Marketecture of Community,” and which Brad elaborates on in his piece “Speeding Up On Curves.” They represent different models of procuring software in a two-by-two matrix, where the dimensions are “authority” and “influence”:

Note that both of these dimensions are about the degree of control that the purchaser has in deciding what goes into the software. It is fundamentally a procurement perspective. However, procuring software and developing software are very different processes.

A Case Study in Failure and Success

The Sakai community and the projects under its umbrella provide an interesting historical example to see how Community Source has worked and where it has broken down. In its early days, Indiana University and the University of Michigan where primary contributors to Sakai and very much promoted the idea of Community Source. I remember a former colleague returning from a Sakai conference in the summer of 2005 commenting, “That was the strangest open source conference I have ever been to. I have never seen an open source project use the number of dollars they have raised as their primary measure of success.” The model was very heavily consortial in those days, and the development of the project reflected that model. Different schools built different modules, which were then integrated into a portal. As Conway’s Law predicts, this organizational decision led to a number of technical decisions. Modules developed by different schools were of differing quality and often integrated with each other poorly. The portal framework created serious usability problems like breaking the “back” button on the browser. Some of the architectural consequences of this approach took many years to remediate. Nevertheless, Sakai did achieve a small but significant minority of U.S. higher education market share, particularly at its peak a few years ago. Here’s a graph showing the growth of non-Blackboard LMSs in the US as of 2010, courtesy of data from the Campus Computing Project:

Meanwhile, around 2009, Cambridge University built the first prototype of what was then called “Sakai 3.” It was intended to be a ground-up rewrite of a next-generation system. Cambridge began developing it themselves as an experiment out of their Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies, but it was quickly seized upon by NYU and several other schools in the Sakai community as interesting and “the future.” A consortial model was spun up around it, and then spun up some more. Under pressure from Indiana University and University of Michigan, the project group created multiple layers of governance, the highest of which eventually required a $500K institutional commitment in order to participate. Numbers of feature requirements and deadlines proliferated, while project velocity slowed. The project hit technical hurdles, principally around scalability, that it was unable to resolve, particularly given ambitious deadlines for new functionality. In mid-2012, Indiana University and University of Michigan “paused investment” in the project. Shortly thereafter, they left the project altogether, taking with them monies that they had previously committed to invest under a Memorandum of Understanding. The project quickly collapsed after that, with several other major investors leaving. (Reread Phil’s post from yesterday with this in mind and you’ll see the implications for measuring Kuali’s financial health.)

Interestingly, the project didn’t die. Greatly diminished in resources but freed from governance and management constraints of the consortial approach, the remaining team not only finally re-architected the platform to solve the scalability problems but also have managed seven major releases since that implosion in 2012. The project, now called Apereo OAE, has returned to its roots as an academic (including learning) collaboration platform and is not trying to be a direct LMS replacement. It has even begun to pick up significant numbers of new adoptees—a subject that I will return to in a future post.

It’s hard to look at the trajectory of this project and not conclude that the Community Source model was a fairly direct and significant cause of its troubles. Part of the problem was the complex negotiations that come along with any consortium. But a bigger part, in my opinion, was the set of largely obsolete enterprise software management attitudes and techniques that come along as a not-so-hidden part of the Community Source philosophy. In practice, Community Source is essentially project management approach focused on maximizing the control and influence of the IT managers whose budgets are paying for the projects. But those people are often not the right people to make decisions about software development, and the waterfall processes that they often demand in order to exert that influence and control (particularly in a consortial setting) are antithetical to current best practices in software engineering. In my opinion, Community Source is dead primarily because the Gantt Chart is dead.

Not One Problem but Two

Community Source was originally developed to address one problem, which was the challenge of marshalling development resources for complex (and sometimes boring) software development projects that benefit higher education. It is important to understand that, in the 20 years since the Mellon Foundation began promoting the approach, a lot has changed in the world of software development. To begin with, there are many more open source frameworks and better tools for developing good software more quickly. As a result, the number of people needed for software products (including voluntaristic open source projects) has shrunk dramatically—in some cases by as much as an order of magnitude. Instructure is a great example of a software platform that reached first release with probably less than a tenth of the money that Sakai took to reach its first release. But also, we can reconsider that “voluntaristic” requirement in a variety of ways. I have seen a lot of skepticism about the notion of Kuali moving to a commercial model. Kent Brooks’ recent post is a good example. The funny thing about it, though, is that he waxes poetic about Moodle, which has a particularly rich network of for-profit companies upon which it depends for development, including Martin Dougiamas’ company at the center. In fact, in his graphic of his ideal world of all open source, almost every project listed has one or more commercial companies behind it without which it would either not exist or would be struggling to improve:

BigBlueButton is developed entirely by a commercial entity. The Apache web server gets roughly 80% of its contributions from commercial entities, many of which (like IBM) get direct financial benefit from the project. And Google Apps aren’t even open source. They’re just free. Some of these projects have strong methods for incorporating voluntaristic user contributions and taking community input on requirements, while others have weak ones. But across that spectrum of practices, community models, and sustainability models, they manage to deliver value. There is no one magic formula that is obviously superior to the others in all cases. This is not to say that shifting Kuali’s sustainability model to a commercial entity is inevitably a fine idea that will succeed in enabling the software to thrive while preserving the community’s values. It’s simply to say that moving to a commercially-driven sustainability model isn’t inherently bad or evil. The value (or lack thereof) will all depend on how the shift is done and what the Kuali-adopting schools see as their primary goals.

But there is also a second problem we must consider—one that we’ve learned to worry about in the last couple of decades of progress in the craft of software engineering (or possibly a lot earlier, if you want to go back as far as the publication of The Mythical Man Month). What is the best way to plan and execute software development projects in light of the high degree of uncertainty inherent in developing any software with non-trivial complexity and a non-trivial set of potential users? If Community Source failed primarily because consortia are hard to coordinate, then moving to corporate management should solve that problem. But if it failed primarily because it reproduces failed IT management practices, then moving to a more centralized decision-making model could exacerbate the problem. Shifting the main stakeholders in the project from consortium partners to company investors and board members does not require a change in this mindset. No matter who the CEO of the new entity is, I personally don’t see Kuali succeeding unless it can throw off its legacy of Community Source IT consortium mentality and the obsolete, 1990’s-era IT management practices that undergird it.

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  1. No, I did not make that up. See, for example, https://chronicle.com/article/Business-Software-Built-by/49147 []

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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