The JISC Advisory Service on Free and Open Source Software

by Sebastian Rahtz on 29 October 2003


The JISC Advisory Service on Free and Open Source Software Sebastian Rahtz October 29th 2003


  • Why an advisory service?
  • How was it created and funded?
  • What have we learnt so far?
  • What advice do we have?
  • What is the global picture?
  • What next for OSS Watch?

What is the remit of OSS Watch?

To give assistance to the community and advise JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) on:

  • What to do with the results of publicly-funded software projects
  • To determine the exposure of the UK academic community to any problems with open source
  • To provide information to institutions considering putting open source into their information strategies

An open source advisory service for UK institutions

OSS Watch:

  • funded by JISC for two years from 1st July 2003
  • part of JISC’s Information Environment
  • working in partnership with other JISC services, eg UKOLN, CETIS and the Mirror Service
  • serving FE and HE equally (not just research universities)
  • run by Oxford University Computing Services with 2 x 50% and 1 x 25% staff (total £70,000 a year)
  • visible at

Creating OSS Watch

The Open Source service is a small pilot exercise:

  • Call for proposals issued in March 2003
  • Service had to start on July 1st 2003, for 2-3 years
  • Budget of £70,000 a year allocated
  • Open for competitive bidding by any educational institution
  • Service awarded on the basis of 8-page document and interview
  • Five groups made it to interview stage

Why is OSS Watch at OUCS?

  • Oxford is a world-class university in teaching and research
  • The services is located in a Research Technologies Service of the central computing services
  • We have successful track record in the management of JISC-funded services
  • We are co-located with the Oxford e-Science Centre (Grid science) and the Humbul (cataloguing humanities information services)
  • Oxford has academic expertise in open source (sociologically and legally) in the Oxford Internet Institute
  • We do open source

Our governance

We are supervised by a JISC minder, and an Advisory Committee with representatives from

  • JISC
  • UK universities
  • UK Further Education colleges
  • The UK Government (The Office of the e-Envoy)
  • Academic research
  • The commercial sector, including software vendors


With other JISC services in general, and:

  • Bodington VLE project: how to be an open source project
  • Subject Portals Project: how to be an open source project
  • JISC Share Alike: non-software-licences
  • Advisory and Support Services Liason Team: talking to FE
  • Oxford Internet Institute: research in open source history etc
  • TheOpenCD: delivering a demonstrator open source CD for Windows

What OSS Watch does

  • Offer a neutral and practical web site
  • Run at least two open meetings a year
  • Run two focus groups year, and write analyses
  • Engage in understanding institutional processes
  • Advise IT managers, project developers, and users
  • Give advice on open source at any UK/FE forum — and make all its material available under the GNU Free Documentation License

What OSS Watch does not do

  • Try to persuade people to adopt open source
  • Run a software repository
  • Help people with their Open Office problems
  • Compete with freshmeat or slashdot
  • Provide definitive legal advice
  • Be a forum for hairy sandal-wearing geeks

OSS Watch’s first few months

  • a web site framework (
  • a logo

  • an online survey of users
  • presentations at meetings
  • preparation for scoping study
  • preparation for first OSS Watch conference


Who’s working on OSS Watch?

  • Sebastian Rahtz (Management, 0.25%)
  • Randy Metcalfe (Communications, 0.5%)
  • Rowan Wilson (Development and Legal issues, 0.5%)
  • David Tannenbaum (Scoping survey, September/October)
  • Mike Fraser (Software survey)

First survey

Taken by over 100 people visiting the web site over the summer and autumn. It tried to establish:

  • Who was visiting us
  • What they did now about F/OSS
  • What areas they were looking for help with
  • What they expected OSS Watch to do

Institutional type

Institutional roles

Involvement with F/OSS

OSS Watch focuses

What services are wanted?

Comments from visitors

  • There seems to be a fear among many FE colleges that OSS might be hard to support without access to expensive skill-sets. IT Support skills in things like Linux must be made more mainstream before adoption increases.
  • Warts and all case studies of institutes that have deployed open source software. News from people with actual experience is the best judge of a tools sucsess or otherwise.
  • I am particularly interested in reviews and comparisons of products.
  • To suggest packages suitable for a large FE college’s everyday needs, (services, desktop OS, office, graphics, media authoring and players, CMS etc.)

More comments

  • Interface with mainstream software, particularly Microsoft Office
  • Look into tools relating to the creation and searching of XML data.
  • As an Open Source Software house, we are interested in dispelling some of the misconceptions around OSS
  • Please don’t permit OSS to become synonymous with Linux. We deploy OpenBSD … our interest in Linux itself is zero.
  • FE in our region have little or no UNIX type skills to develop the potential of open source software. Some instructional guides / training courses in open source operation systems would be a good starting point with FE.

Scoping Study

A more detailed study of HE and FE institutions in order to help establish the needs of the stakeholder community. Looking at:

  • needs of key stakeholders
  • deployment of F/OSS at HE/FE institutions
  • software development using F/OSS paradigms
  • end-users view of F/OSS applications
  • HE/FE goals for deploying, investigating and developing F/OSS
  • interest in the longer-term HE/FE participation in the F/OSS community

Survey questions

  • Personal information (role, interests, etc)
  • Institutional information (size, budget, etc)
  • Place of F/OSS in organisation’s IT strategy
  • Level of skill in F/OSS
  • Degree of deployment of F/OSS
  • Types of deployment
  • Specific software used
  • Plans for deployment
  • Software development plans/practices
  • Concerns about F/OSS

Drinking our own Kool Aid

We decided early on at OSS Watch to actually do free/open source, so we

  • Write our documents in XML against the Text Encoding Initiative DTD
  • Author using Emacs, Open Office etc
  • Deliver them on the web using Apache and the AxKit XML delivery system
  • Prepare printed material using TeX
  • Deliver presentations using Linux
  • Store data in Postgres databases
  • License documents using the GNU Free Documentation License

Is OUCS@Oxford typical?

We depend on open source:

  • Operating systems: mail server runs under Linux
  • Networking: Apache web servers and numerous network systems (DNS, Exim, LDAP etc)
  • Software development: the majority of web cgi applications developed at OUCS are in Perl
  • Our internal helpdesk system is web-based, open-source, and written in Perl
  • The open VLE system (Bodington) is our flagship project for 2003/2004
  • The e-Science GRID depends on open standards and software
  • We are working on a portal system using uPortal You will recognize some of these.

Is anyone in the world on the ball?

Some high-profile cases are

  • Munich, Germany, where the city council has mandated Linux
  • The UK government guidelines promote open source
  • The EU have produced guidelines on open source
  • India in general, and Kerala in particular, use open source in schools
  • The Nordic countries have an advisory service for consumers and small businesses
  • The Brazilian government has endorsed open source

EU Open Source Migration Guidelines;parent=news;documentID=1647

The IDA Open Source Migration Guidelines provide practical and detailed recommendations on how to migrate to Open Source Software (OSS)-based office applications, calendaring, e-mail and other standard applications.

They have been developed with guidance from public sector IT experts from Denmark, Finland, Italy, Germany, Malta, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey. The relevance and readability of the Migration Guidelines were validated with the help of the regional authorities of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany.

  • Who owns the IPR? To what extent do universities control the lives of their employees?
  • Which basic licence decision?

    • GPL: control the future
    • Apache: give it to a neutral third party
    • MIT: let a thousand flowers bloom
  • Who is the best person to protect rights? No, not let’s not discuss SCO vs IBM, or patents on software

Licence Q and A

Are you authorised?
Check whether you own the copyright. If you don’t, you cannot add an OSS licence
Do you care what happens to your work?
If you just want to make sure your stuff remains freely available for ever, choose an MIT-type licence
Are derivatives to be free as well?
Insist on the GPL
Do you simply want to make your program free?
(As in beer). Don’t feel you have to choose an open source licence

Motives for adopting open source

  • Worry about Microsoft in particular, and the big software vendors in general, for restrictive and monopolistic practices
  • A need to get specialist software written
  • Saving money in schools
  • Promoting open standards
  • Protecting institutional investment
  • Wanting quality, control and security
  • Providing apprentice training for programmers But which of these will stand the test of time?

Open standards meets free/open source?

Which is better?

  • Commercial software which uses an XML data format and can be accessed using web service protocolsor

  • An free/open source program which uses its own binary data format, its own interface, and its own programming language Open data and open communication between different components of your IT system gives you better interchangeability of components.

Open source meets Agile software development

Not all open source is created equal

Consider the difference between:
Seriously free software, rigidly controlled by the GPL
An independent foundation which can accept your IPR
Available under GPL, but also marketed by a successful commercial company
Open Office
Owned by Sun, and licensed by them to us
Developed by a consortium of universities, commercial companies, and charitable donations
Commissioned by a university consortium from a commercial company, with charity money

…and the point of that was?

  • some F/OSS projects are created by insomniac chain-smoking Russian students; some F/OSS programmers keep guns
  • some other F/OSS programmers work for IBM; some other F/OSS programmers do it as an apprenticeship
  • we may spend as much commissioning an OSS product as buying it
  • you can make a good living selling services based on open source software

What shall we do in UK HE/FE?

  • decide on our motives: free, open, or economic
  • work out whether we need to legislate and/or band together
  • find out whether mixed economies will work
  • start writing our own software
  • or stop writing our own software

What do we need to find out?

Our HE/FE institutions have common problems. We need data, and test cases. Do we know:

  • what the cost of open source to the community is
  • how to write an IT policy which supports open source
  • where IPR, patents, copyright etc are going
  • whether positive discrimination can work
  • how to protect work done with public money
  • what the ideal licensing model is

OSS Watch Conference

The first OSS Watch conference will be held on 11 December at the University of Oxford. Three themes:

  • Deployment: what does it mean to have F/OSS in an institutional IT strategy? Can we learn lessons from other places?
  • Development: what is happening in UK/HE with F/OSS? what does it mean to be an open source project?
  • What can OSS Watch do to help?

Upcoming projects for OSS Watch

  • Develop standard talks for user groups
  • Catalogue UK open source projects
  • Talk to successful projects and ask them how they did it
  • Write guidelines for publicly-funded software projects
  • Work with The Open CD: hand out desktop software and study takeup
  • Focus groups
  • Liaising with e-Government initiatives

Further reading (Free Software Foundation) (Open Source) (OSS Watch)> (Open CD) (EU-sponsored guidelines) (a tale of education and OSS) (e-GIF) (Center of Open Source & Government) (Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar