February 4, 2000
NC State has long been a technology and science leader for North Carolina. In keeping with that tradition, the university’s Information Technology Division has adopted open source as a strategic philosophy for academic computing.
Open source is an increasingly popular computing strategy that makes source code – the code that runs computer software – part of the public domain rather than the property of a specific company. Experts believe that approach promotes increased software reliability and quality by encouraging independent review and rapid improvement of the source code.
The move toward the use of open source in a wide variety of software applications represents a major shift in information technology – similar to the widespread adoption of open Internet Protocol standards over the last decade, or IBM’s creation of the personal computer from "off-the-shelf" components before that, said Dr. Tom Miller, associate dean of the College of Engineering and a member of the university’s Information Technology Advisory Committee.
"I see open source as the next evolution at the software level of what happened over the past 15 years with the PC as an open hardware standard," Miller said. "It’s a good bet that it will continue to grow and mature, first in operating systems, then in applications far beyond what we see now."
Open source shows up in the news most often in stories about the Linux operating system. But Sam Averitt, NC State vice provost for information technology, explains that Linux has little to do with the university’s new open source focus.
"There’s a lot of confusion that open source is Linux, and that’s simply not correct. Linux is an open source operating system, but it’s not a synonym for open source -- it’s simply one example," Averitt said. "It is important to understand open source is a thing unto itself."
Averitt said a wide variety of open source computer applications and platforms will be available – and will evolve – in the next few years. Many NC State faculty and staff members will want to be able to use those tools, he said.
"Part or our mandate is to be prepared and to understand how the world is changing; when people make choices, we need to be ready to support those choices," he said. "If we do not consciously choose options that anticipate development in information technology, we will end up with limited options."
That means that the university’s Information Technology Division (ITD) will use and make open source options available when it makes sense to do so. "You need to prepare to take maximum benefit of the technology, and that’s what we plan to do," Averitt said.
That’s not to say that ITD will tell colleges, departments and units across campus to buy open source computer software and hardware. Those offices will continue to be able to purchase the tools they need, Averitt said, and ITD will continue to support them. "We’re not here to force people to make choices," he said. "We believe in technological diversity, and we’re not going to put people into situations that are an impediment to getting their work done."
Miller explained that adopting an open-source strategy is more than simply preparing for the future.
"With the role that NC State has in North Carolina, it’s incumbent on us to help shape the future when it comes to technology," he said. "By taking this strategy now, we position the university to be leader and not a follower. That’s very much in keeping with the chancellor’s declaration that we are North Carolina’s science and technology university, and that information technology is one of our four main research thrusts at NC State."
Already, many faculty members at NC State are working in the open source realm, developing applications and researching development of nonproprietary code.
The commercial world is also jumping on board, Averitt said, as large and small companies alike announce new open source ventures, aiming to make money by offering support and service to open source users. "You gain a sense of that this is something that’s moving into the mainstream, not just a marginal activity," he said. "There are many people saying this is in their interest as consumers and as businesses. The evidence is that in the future, it will be a very viable option on a number of fronts."
Miller compared the development of open source to the world of academic research, where research findings are critiqued by one’s peers after being published. With open source, users obtain licenses allowing them to modify the code; if they make changes that add value, those modifications become part of the open source domain, available to everyone.
"What it ensures is the robustness and the security of the source code," Miller said. "Most software users don’t care about the source code, but it’s important that others do. It would not benefit me personally to read the latest articles on cancer research in the medical literature. However, it’s certainly to every health-care consumer’s benefit that the peers within that research community review, critique and correct each other’s work. Open source has the potential to benefit the software consumer in much the same way."
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