As a rule, the University of Helsinki favours open technologies and open-source solutions. In practice, our choices are also steered by other principles and aspects concerning usability, maintenance and cost. Despite all its benefits, open source is not always synonymous with high-quality software engineering. In this blog entry, we discuss the open source policy and the open-source software adopted at the University, as well as considerations related to open source from the organisation’s perspective.
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Text: Hannu Toivonen, Teo Kirkinen and Minna Harjuniemi (compiled by Juuso Ala-Kyyny)
The academic community has long been talking about open research, related to both articles and data. Open source is part of open research, but it also plays a broader role in the services and tools used daily at the University.
The use of open source in information systems, software and development work is a topical question at the University of Helsinki.
In this article, we describe the open source policy and the open-source software adopted at the University, as well as considerations related to open source from the organisation’s perspective.
Open source as the ground rule at the University of Helsinki
The University of Helsinki’s policy is to conduct open development and opt for open technologies and open-source solutions (see Enterprise architecture principles, item 2 and Technology architecture principles, item 3 – in Finnish). There are many reasons for using open-source software:
”Open and commonly available technologies and open-source solutions should be favoured to ensure a life cycle approach, a harmonised technology architecture, improved maintainability, as well as the independence of individual suppliers and their technology architectures.” (Technology architecture principles, item 3)
In practice, choices are also steered by other, sometimes conflicting, principles. These aspects will be discussed later in this article.
Sometimes we are asked whether the University recommends a specific open-source licence for use in our own software development. The answer is yes. We primarily recommend the MIT licence.
Open-source systems and applications at the University of Helsinki
What open-source systems are in use at the University of Helsinki? We do not have a complete list of them, nor could we easily compile one. What we can say is that the server platforms and system software we use are mainly open source, except when an application calls for a Microsoft platform. We employ numerous open-source systems in infrastructure, as well as in telecommunication networks and management, information security, data logging and system monitoring. Our main login system (login.helsinki.fi), integration service (ESB) and API management tool are also based on open source technology. Of our larger systems, helsinki.fi, Flamma (intranet) and the future identity management system, mail forwarding and mailing lists, as well as search service indexing are fundamentally open-source products. Open-source infrastructure layers, used especially to support research, are found in storage services (including Ceph and Lustre).
A concise glossary of IT terms, including examples
In terms of infrastructure, open-source solutions have seemed a natural option, since they typically enhance management and are predictable. Should problems arise, we can dig down to the code to solve them. Closed-source infrastructure systems (such as MS or Oracle) have also worked fine to date, but in some cases, we are dependent on what the supplier happens to deem fit.
The R suite for statistical computing is probably one of the most commonly used open-source applications. In contrast, LibreOffice has not managed to grab market share from the corresponding Microsoft product family. The Opencast video solution, used as the back-end system for our Unitube video service, is another widely adopted open-source application. The IT Center’s own software production team has developed a customer interface for it (Unitube Uploader). A pilot project comparing three commercial video services was carried out a couple years ago, and based on the results, our choice still fell on Unitube/Opencast. Our limited developer resources sometimes make it challenging to implement the good development ideas received from University users. However, many of the proposed functions can be found in commercial services.
Choices based on various criteria
Various perspectives related to openness, availability, practical maintenance and costs must be carefully considered when choosing solutions. What users ultimately care about is the service rather than the application used to provide it. The criteria for competitive tendering often determine whether the object of procurement is a system or a service.
For example, when procuring services, we must determine whether they are available as cloud services, in which case a commercial operator is necessarily involved. It is impossible to do everything on our own; instead, we must decide how and where we target the University community’s own expertise. As regards cloud services and SaaS (Software as a Service), the openness of interfaces is a key consideration, but quality and cost also influence the choice of application.
What users ultimately care about is the service rather than the application used to provide it. The criteria for competitive tendering often determine whether the object of procurement is a system or a service.
Ecosystems such as Microsoft, SAP or Salesforce always require a degree of commitment, which is something to weigh up. It makes sense to opt for open-source applications if the University contributes to their development, even on a small scale. A good example of this is Moodle, an open-source virtual learning environment that has been used in the University’s core duties for over a decade. Over the years, there has been talk about replacing Moodle with a more modern commercial learning environment. However, the alternatives are usually not as versatile as Moodle and do not support the integrated tools developed in the academic environment (such as TestMyCode or Stack). Access to the Moodle code also helps us assess the level of risk involved in the deployment of extensions and updates.
The use of open-source applications for service provision calls for an analysis of the product’s level of development and an assessment of its expected life cycle. This naturally applies to commercial applications as well.
Open-source vs commercial software
The lack of transparency of proprietary software is of concern to many well-informed users, especially regarding data protection. Zoom, Teams and Skype are topical examples of this. Open-source alternatives already exist for many applications used by the University community, including Jitsi as an alternative for Zoom and Teams, Firefox and Chromium instead of Google Chrome, and Nextcloud as an alternative for OneDrive. Various closed-source applications used in studies, such as Slack, Telegram and WhatsApp, could also be replaced with open-source alternatives, which the University itself could provide – at least in theory.
Both Zoom and Teams, for example, run over a comprehensive infrastructure. Without adequate resources, it is impossible to operate everything yourself. It also makes no sense to reinvent products and services that are readily available. Commonly used in remote teaching and meetings, Zoom and Teams are such massive applications and call for such a large infrastructure that commercial solutions are the only viable option at the moment.
Without adequate resources, it is impossible to operate everything yourself. It also makes no sense to reinvent products and services that are readily available.
The University of Helsinki has developed research data services that run on Nextcloud, because it found that the open-source software suite offered an excellent platform for its service needs (read more about Datacloud). However, it is unlikely that the University could, with its current resources, develop a service like OneDrive for tens of thousands of users. The number of supported web browsers is largely determined by the needs of different applications. Firefox is an open-source browser in use at the University of Helsinki.
The University has obtained support for some of its open-source products to ensure that the supplier provides certain functionality as well as assistance in the case of problems. These include the Red Hat Linux distribution – in addition to the free Centos and Debian distributions – and the OpenShift container platform. According to estimates, the sum paid for such services saves at least the same volume of the University’s own work while ensuring that outside help is available for severe problems. The products are also associated with commercial operations, which ensures their continuity.
The use of open source is increasing, and the University of Helsinki also participates in many open-source projects in its development work. Despite all its benefits, open source is not necessarily synonymous with high-quality software engineering. At its best, it can produce outstanding systems that are both safe and cost-effective. But in the worst case, the developer community withers away and users are forced to migrate to another product. Now and then, it is a lack of brainpower and hands rather than money that becomes the issue: an easily deployed closed-source solution is sometimes the best alternative.
To end on a visionary note: It would be great if the API-first design approach took off at the University of Helsinki and useful software interfaces were available to those interested in development. It may take years for this to become reality, but it is a goal we should purposefully work towards.
Hannu Toivonen (TUHAT, ORCID) is professor of computer science at the University of Helsinki. Toivonen teaches and conducts research in artificial intelligence and data science. He is also the vice-dean for academic affairs at the Faculty of Science in the term 2018–2021.
Teo Kirkinen works as an IT manager at the IT Center. He heads the IT Solutions unit. Kirkinen’s duties include teaching-related IT services, video communication, online services and service development.
Minna Harjuniemi works as an IT manager at the IT Center.