August 2011

One of the greatest and simplest tools for learning more and growing is doing more.”

John Roger

Abstract

The Oregon State University Open Source Lab (OSUOSL) is the home of growing, high-impact open source communities. Its world-class hosting services enable the Linux operating system, Apache web server, the Drupal content management system, and over 50 other leading open source software projects to collaborate with contributors and distribute software to millions of users globally. Through custom software development, vendor partnerships, and industry events such as the Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON), the lab's staff and students encourage open source adoption in education, government, health care, and other sectors. In addition, the lab creates real-world educational opportunities for its students by providing high-value development and hosting services for open source communities. In this article, we describe the benefits of the OSUOSL to open source projects and to students of Oregon State University.

Introduction

As open source projects grow and evolve, their needs for a stable home often outgrow the services provided by free-of-charge “canned hosting” sites such as SourceForge, Google Code, and GitHub. New needs can include dedicated systems administration support for items such as regular security upgrades or mailing list management. Further, code repositories and documentation sites, such as wikis, experience a much greater load as the user and developer bases for a project increase, leading projects to require more bandwidth and an infrastructure that does not crumble under increased user load. While most of these problems can be solved using commercial services, many open source projects lack the funding required to make use of said services or to hire dedicated staff for infrastructure creation and maintenance. Even in cases where funds are available, many open source communities may require that their “home” be trusted and fortified against the slings and arrows of the market; a company may change its terms of service at will to be in conflict with the goals and governance of the project or funding sources may suddenly become unavailable.

Enter the Oregon State University Open Source Lab (OSUOSL). The OSUOSL provides open source projects and communities with services from custom software development to hosting, including virtualization, DNS management, network monitoring, database management, backups, FTP mirroring, mail relaying and hosting of physical servers in our data centre. As a trusted, reliable, and neutral third-party with a demonstrated record of support for the open source community, the OSUOSL provides deeply needed services in an environment where projects know that their interests are understood and their needs will be met by fellow open source community members – people who share their goals, values, and enthusiasm for open source development methodologies and collaborative community practices.

The mission of the OSUOSL is to accelerate the growth of high-impact open source software projects worldwide through professional hosting services, custom development, and industry expertise provided by the staff and students of Oregon State University (OSU). Through custom software development, vendor partnerships, and industry events, the lab's staff and students encourage open source adoption in education, government, health care, and other sectors. The lab is also providing an invaluable educational opportunity for OSU students, who have a chance to learn more about open source software development, capabilities, and applications through part-time jobs or internships.

In this article, we describe the services offered by the OSUOSL and illustrate how they create opportunities for students to: i) enhance their educational experience at university, particularly in subjects related to open source software and its development; ii) gain valuable real-world work experience and enhance their professional identities, iii) contribute to the greater good of their communities, and iv) find employment during and after their time in university.

History of the OSUOSL

In 2004, IT administrators at OSU were searching for a way to cut costs while ensuring that needed services remained available. By deploying the open source search product Nutch, the systems administration team was able to cut spending on these services from $125,000 USD per year in licensing costs to only $10,000 USD per year, the latter figure being the increased staff time resulting from the need to train and have additional support resources for Nutch as an off-the-shelf solution. In light of this initial success and faced with a budget crisis, the university performed further investigations into potential costs savings from open source.

Soon after, the university’s primary operating system was switched to Gentoo Linux. During this switch-over, the university also decided to maintain an open source mirror site, which became the catalyst for an increasing number of relationships with open source projects. The success of the mirror and the relationships that grew from it ultimately encouraged the development of hosting capacity at OSU for many of these projects.

The OSUOSL was founded in 2004 as a way for OSU to give back for the benefits it received from using free/libre open source software (F/LOSS).

From the beginning, the OSUOSL grew organically and opportunistically. Growth was driven by word of mouth and one project was added at a time, such that the lab could increase its capacity in step with the increasing needs of the projects it hosted. As the lab’s experience and reputation grew, further opportunities to offer additional benefits to projects, communities, and students became apparent.

The OSUOSL is now home to over 50 leading open source software projects, including the Linux operating system, the Apache web server, and the Drupal content management system, which together represent millions of users and contributors around the world. The OSUOSL also offers development services to many open source projects and government organizations that are looking to implement or extend open source software to meet their needs.

The OSUOSL is part of Information Services Department at Oregon State University. Its staff members are all OSU employees, and its student employees are all students within the Oregon University System. The OSUOSL receive many benefits from being a part of the university, including office space, data centre space, infrastructure, and a close tie to students who are interested in working with open source. However, the OSUOSL receives very little direct funding from the university, which is why the lab relies on a combination of external donations, support contracts from those residents of the lab who can afford to pay for services, and research grant funding for its operations. Largely, the OSUOSL is supported by generous donations from corporate sponsors such as Google, Facebook, and IBM, with Google by far being the lab’s greatest benefactor since its inception. Additional work in the area of research and development in partnership with the academic world will be required to make the OSUOSL fully sustainable over the long term.

The OSUOSL’s Advisory Council, composed of leaders in industry, open source, and non-profit management, provides strategic guidance to the lab. The open source players include Chris DiBona, head of open source at Google, Dries Buytaert, founder of the Drupal project, Justin Erenkrantz, former President of the Apache Software Foundation, Greg Kroah-Hartman, Linux kernel maintainer, Jason McKerr, Vice President of Development for Puppet Labs, and Allison Randall, the lead developer and architect of the Parrot project. On the non-profit knowledge side, the OSUOSL is fortunate to count among its advisors Marie Deatherage, Director of Communications for the Meyer Memorial Trust, a foundation that serves a wide variety of public interests in the state of Oregon.

OSUOSL Services

The OSUOSL develops technology and tools to expand and manage growing open source software projects. The OSUOSL offers a full range of hosting and development services, including requirements analysis, design, coding, and testing. All of these services are offered by the OSUOSL staff, which includes students.

The OSUOSL provides hosting for projects and communities involved with open source software development. If organizations have a server to host, need to purchase a server, or maybe even just need a portion of a server, the OSUOSL can help. Typically the lab refers to the Open Source Initiative’s (OSI) definition of open source, found at opensource.org. If a project follows an open development model and is freely available under an OSI-approved license, it may qualify for hosting. Specific hosting series are listed below:

  • virtualization

  • DNS management

  • Nagios monitoring

  • graph monitoring

  • database management

  • backups

  • FTP mirroring

  • mail relaying

  • shared website hosting

  • project co-location hosting

  • PowerPC development

OSUOSL development staff and student employees also provide full software development services including requirements analysis, design, coding, and testing. The lab’s development solutions have served many open source projects in addition to educational and government organizations that are looking to implement or extend open source software to meet their needs.

The alternatives are largely commercial vendors. In most cases, F/LOSS communities appreciate that the OSUOSL is a neutral player dedicated to helping the community rather than a commercial entity. In reference to stability, the support extends beyond just server uptime, for example. The lab has dedicated staff to help projects grow and flourish whether or not they are able to pay for the service now or in the future. People know that, if something is hosted at the OSUOSL, it has a good, permanent home, regardless of future ability to pay or changes to commercial services that may be in conflict with project goals and governance.

OSUOSL Initiatives

In addition to its hosting and development services, the OSUOSL runs several initiatives to share its accumulated knowledge, support open source communities, and raise awareness about open source software:

  1. GOSCON. The OSUOSL’s Public Sector program was formed in 2005 to educate and share information amongst governmental organizations and other public sector institutions. One of the program’s main initiatives, the Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON) is produced and hosted by the OSUOSL as part of its mission to educate and build community. GOSCON has helped fuel the adoption of open source technology in the public sector by attracting information technology leaders worldwide to its annual event. Ongoing conference content includes lessons learned in the development and integration of open source solutions into agency environments, exposure to projects and existing software applications and services, and opportunities to establish and foster relationships for collaboration around shared interests. Industry luminaries and pioneers from public and private sectors gather, present, and network in a non-commercial setting.

  2. Beaver BarCamp. One of the OSUOSL’s most engaging and localized events is Beaver BarCamp, an annual “unconference” – a business conference that veers from the norm – that gives students, faculty, and members of the wider community a chance to connect and learn from one another. Beaver BarCamp follows a timetable, but participants determine the presentation topics. The technical topics vary, from open hardware to multi-touch device programming to geolocation services. The BarCamps are relaxed conferences for people to share knowledge following the open source view. They give students opportunities to network with technologists and meet potential industry mentors.

  3. Open Source Education Lab. The Open Source Education Lab (OSEL) is an organization built for students to get them involved with F/LOSS development. Experience outside the classroom is important, and this group helps students learn new skills through peer-to-peer teaching. Faculty and students support newcomers and help them find projects that will develop their abilities to meet the requirements of the professional world. The OSUOSL’s proposed OSEL charter would focus on establishing a student-run consulting group providing expertise and best practices in open source software.

  4. Supercell Testing and Ganeti Web Manager. Businesses and groups that lack access appropriate hardware or sufficient funds to outsource software testing can turn to Supercell, an OSUOSL cluster funded by Facebook’s Open Source Team. Project developers can use Supercell to manually test patches and packages on particular operating systems or distributions using a large cluster of virtual machines running concurrently. Supercell provides temporary space for developers to test new features in their code base on their website. Short-term virtual machines are provided; Supercell is not intended for production services such as web or mail.

    Cluster management is controlled with Google’s Ganeti software built on top of a kernel-based virtual machine. To give users access to their clusters, the OSUOSL offers Ganeti Web Manager, a homegrown project developed by the lab’s full-time and student employees that gives administrators and clients access to their Ganeti clusters. It includes a permissions and quota system that allows administrators to grant access to both clusters and virtual machines. It also includes user groups for structuring access to organizations.

  5. OSU Linux Users Group. This group is run by students from the OSUOSL; students within OSU's School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science are actively encouraged to attend. The meetings provide an opportunity for students to learn about open source and the OSUOSL in a peer mentorship framework.

Value to Students

While non-profit organizations and community-based projects benefit from the services offered by the OSUOSL, the benefits to the students at OSU are substantial and represent the primary motivation for the university’s support in expanding the lab. Students are involved with every service the OSUOSL currently offers, allowing them to realize the following benefits:

  1. Enhance their educational experience at university, particularly in subjects related to open source software and its development. Lessons learned at the OSUOSL better prepare students for their classroom assignments and better prepare them for their future careers in industry. This preparation is not just in the form of technical learning; students get the opportunity to learn more about different approaches to collaboration and team work, community building, how non-profits work, and how fundraising, business development, and marketing are done in this context. Professors also frequently bring students to the OSUOSL for tours of the lab; through their professors, the students can learn about the data centre, servers, and other hardware, along with the various open source software projects. They also learn what it is like to work in the lab.

  2. Gain valuable real-world work experience and enhance their professional identities. Working on open source projects not only gives our students a great opportunity to use, understand, and contribute to new technologies, but also puts their work out in the open where it can be seen an appreciated by users, developers, and potential employers. Since the students’ work is open source, their contributions are visible to future employers as a means to evaluate their technical and social aptitude.

  3. Contribute to the greater good of their communities. The OSUOSL is a strong supporter of the Humanitarian Open Source community, hosting such projects as the Sahana Software Foundation, a disaster preparedness and response software system, and OpenMRS, an open source medical records system designed to meet the needs of small clinics in the developing world that are providing care to those with HIV and AIDS. For further information about Humanitarian Open Source, including these two projects hosted by the OSUOSL, see the December 2010 issue of the OSBR.

  4. Find employment during and after their time in university. Working at the OSUOSL is a great job for students. Beyond the opportunity to get great experience and make a name for oneself while still in college, it is paid work with a flexible schedule that is specifically tailored to the needs of students. Several incoming students in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science have noted that they came to OSU because of the lab and the university's interest in open source.

The lab employs an average of eight part-time students every term. Student employee work hours are restricted by the university to 20 hours per week during the fall, winter, and spring terms, but about half of the students work full time over the summer.

Helping students develop skills for the workplace after college is one of the OSUOSL’s primary goals. The lab exists as a mechanism to help transform a student’s future for the better. The lab has seen many of its former student employees become successful professionals and entrepreneurs, including the following:

  1. Alex Polvi founded Cloudkick, a cloud-computing management company. After 11 months, Polvi sold the San Francisco startup to Rackspace.

  2. Eric Searcy is now a systems administrator for the Linux Foundation.

  3. Ben Kero is now a systems administrator at Mozilla.

  4. Narayan Newton is a partner and CTO of Tag 1 Consulting, a Drupal consulting business in Portland, Oregon.

Most alumni continue working on open source software – in some cases on the very projects to which they contributed during their time at the lab. Alumni also maintain personal and professional connections to the lab, often directly through their subsequent employment with projects hosted at the lab. Alumni also play a role in promoting the lab and answering questions from visitors and project personnel. Some alumni have also stepped in to volunteer with lab work during periods of peak activity. As one of our OSUOSL slogans says: “It’s about community.”

Conclusion

The OSUOSL is an organization for the people. Its staff members immerse themselves in the open community and this in turn fuels their belief in open source software development and business venture. For students, the OSUOSL is a challenge-rich environment in which they can improve their skills, learn new ones, and sprout into industry as professionals. Projects have a stable home at the OSUOSL, one where passion helps drive improvement and longevity and where project developers can feel at ease. OSU also generates significant international attention and goodwill from the OSUOSL’s activity, both in its relationship to academia and in the public sector.

The lab has experienced tremendous growth over the years since its birth, and it continues to grow. This growth is desirable; all of the progression is to benefit every aspect of the technical world in which the lab resides.

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