Open source runs MIT’s disparate IT systems

Tom Coveney, network analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says open source applications make it easy to run the institute's complex computing environment. Galen Gruman reports

The IT staff at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have to be prepared to work with just about anything. The institute’s computing employees manage a delicate balancing act, promoting core IT standards for security and networking while still giving each of the institute’s departments the freedom to choose their own technology platforms and applications.

Often, the departments choose open source technology. Patrick Jaillet, who heads MIT’s civil and environmental engineering department, says the flexibility that comes when IT staff, skilled researchers and savvy students can modify the software to their needs is the main reason for this. “We don’t want people to stifle their ingenuity. Open source is a big plus,” he says.

Open source technology is helping MIT’s distributed IT resources group manage the departments’ far-flung technologies while maintaining basic order and service across the campus. “You can easily do new functions based on what the [users’] new needs are,” says network analyst Tom Coveney.

Access to the open source software’s raw data structures and code also makes it easy to integrate applications and develop new ones, Coveney says. For example, MIT is developing a common identity management system that integrates the various portals and servers in use across the campus. Open source development tools and access to source code make that possible. Likewise, MIT uses the Asterisk open source telephony system — connected to a database and web portal — to make campus shuttle schedules available via both the web and interactive voice prompts.

Coveney spends most of his time supporting departments’ intranets and web servers, ensuring they perform well and remain secure. He also helps the departments take better advantage of their portals and servers. Most departments choose open source portal tools, he says. For example, several use the Metadot portal development and management platform.

Some departments run Metadot on Linux, some on Windows, and some on Mac OS X, but that diversity doesn’t hinder Coveney’s ability to manage them all. “I’m able to switch platforms and use the same software,” he says. Coveney can also tie platform-specific technologies into Metadot, for example, using the FileMaker database system as the database engine for one department’s intranet portal for scheduling. This means he can support users’ individual requirements while, at the same time, working across a common base.

Flexibility in support options is another benefit. “We’re not tied to any specific vendor for the maintenance,” Coveney says. He recalls that when one department’s proprietary portal vendor went out of business, it took a year to redo the system. That wouldn’t have been an issue for an open source portal because IT could have relied on the user community for interim support, he says. Also, it’s easier to migrate from one open source portal to another because they tend to all use the LAMP stack, and access to the underlying code makes redeployment easier than working with a black-box commercial system.

Ultimately, open source brings MIT the transparency and control needed to manage a diverse IT environment. Although commercial organisations typically keep a tighter rein on their technology toolbox’s contents than academia does, Coveney says heterogeneity is a fact of life almost everywhere and he counts on open source to manage that diversity more easily.

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