Photo: Brad Wheeler, Indiana University CIO; courtesy of Indiana University 

If progress in open source is measured by moving "up the software stack" from operating systems and development tools to mission-critical applications, it appears that higher-education institutions are leading the way. 

The culture of higher education is attuned to the philosophy of open source, said Brad Wheeler, CIO of Indiana University in Bloomington. "Ford and Chrysler can't really sit down together and design a resource management system, but Cornell and Indiana universities can pool resources. It fits with the values of the academy - a collaborative culture."

Wheeler has been involved in two ambitious application development efforts. He sits on the board of the Sakai Foundation, which oversees the Sakai open source online learning environment. In just three years, the foundation has grown to 120 members worldwide.

Based in part on Sakai's success, Indiana and five other universities have developed a modular finance platform geared specifically to the needs of higher-education officials.

The impetus for the Kuali Financial Systems grew out of dissatisfaction with commercial options as Indiana's homegrown financial system became obsolete, Wheeler said, adding that financial executives at Indiana University were fully behind the open source commitment.

"Corporate financial software is a square peg rammed into the round hole of higher education," he said. "It just doesn't fit. The $2 million in staff time we spent on Kuali is a pittance compared to what we would pay for a commercial system, and the difference is we'll end up with something we want."

Wheeler admits the project has its challenges. First, he was spending so much time last year talking to technology transfer executives and attorneys that he finally called a summit meeting on licensing and policy to hammer out a framework under which intellectual property would move from the universities to a foundation, which holds the copyright and creates the license under which the software will be redistributed. Schools can download, modify and redistribute the software without restriction. They are not obligated to share their changes to it.

With developers spread from Ithaca, N.Y., to Honolulu, the collaborative process can be difficult at times, he said. "But by going through this pain up front and participating in the functional design, you know the software so much better than you would otherwise," Wheeler added. "And your financial execs can put in their two cents, so their priorities are listened to."

Years ago, universities used to build their own applications; in the 1990s they started buying it all, Wheeler noted. Now they're moving to a model in which they can borrow it. "It's our default method of development now, and I think it makes sense for other public-sector organizations," he said. "You just need a mechanism for making it happen."