Apr 28 2008

JA-SIG Success

UPortal development lights the way for collaborative community-source movement.

Seven years ago, a small Internet project started with a big idea: to begin a collaboration that would produce a cost-effective, common portal that universities could tailor to their needs, while avoiding the advertising commitments required by commercial partners such as Yahoo! and other portal products.

Today uPortal, the flagship product of the Java Architectures Special Interest Group (JA-SIG), has become the most widely used portal in higher education. How this collaboration started, why it has been successful, and where it will go from here is a story with significant implications for the future of technology on college and university campuses and shows the value of continuing collaboration among higher education IT operations. The portal’s development marked an important milestone in what is known as the community-source movement, aimed at lessening costs and improving the function of technology for broad constituencies of higher-education users.

In 2000, Yahoo! was the quintessential portal, a customizable browser application that created a doorway to news and entertainment on the Net. As a community hub, the Yahoo! portal and others like it were also seen by marketers as a perfect vehicle for advertising. It wasn’t long before companies developed commercial portal applications and began licensing them to colleges and universities, among their other clients.

The early portal products often carried steep licensing fees and annual maintenance costs of $50,000 or more — an expensive option for colleges and universities with tight IT budgets — or required advertising support. Campus IT departments saw risks in contracting with companies that had not yet worked through basic issues of data ownership, user authentication and business continuity, while university administrators bridled at opening up an avenue for advertisers to students.

In the meantime, a handful of administrative IT leaders with a shared vision had begun collaborating in a fairly new technology that showed great promise for becoming a programming standard for the Internet era: the Java programming language.

JA-SIG Is Born

This group — including Carl Jacobsen, director of IT and management information services at the University of Delaware; David Koehler, director of Information Systems at Cornell University; and Bernie Gleason, former associate vice president for Information Technology at Boston College — with support from Sun Microsystems, began to host semiannual conferences explaining Java best practices and the intercampus sharing of tips, techniques and code. From those meetings and collaborative efforts, JA-SIG, then known as the Java in Administration Special Interest Group, was born.

When the university portal phenomenon came to everyone’s attention, it seemed like a natural for JA-SIG to explore the possibility that higher education could build one themselves, share it freely with anyone who cared to download it, base the technology on open standards to avoid proprietary vendor lock-in, and control their own software destiny. All could be done without intrusive advertising. The decision to proceed along these lines marked a significant step for the community-source movement in higher education, which, in its many variations, had begun to establish new models for software management among colleges and universities.

JA-SIG began collaborating with a small software development and services company, Interactive Business Solutions (IBS), which already had a Java portal framework in development.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that funds information technology research, agreed to support the collaboration on the condition that the portal would become a self-sustaining, community-supported project with no ongoing funding from Mellon.

The three-year (2001–2003) Mellon grant resulted in uPortal versions 1 and 2. Mellon eventually made additional funds available so that uPortal could support the emerging “portlet” standard for sharing portal content.

Adoption of uPortal by higher education took off dramatically. By the time of the uPortal 2.5 release, hundreds of institutions — about half in the United States and half in Canada and Europe — had uPortal in production or in a phase leading up to full implementation.

The JA-SIG community, led by schools such as Rutgers University, Yale University and the University of Wisconsin, formed a core of developers that continues to develop the application to meet evolving needs. A recent release, for example, introduced Ajax (asynchronous Javascript and XML) drag-and-drop features that give uPortal a contemporary Web 2.0 look and feel. Upcoming developments make usability improvements that yield easier customization of themes and styles.

A Little Help From JA-SIG Friends

A healthy ecosystem of institutions and JA-SIG affiliated vendors began to coalesce around uPortal at the same time. Unicon, a software-services company that had acquired IBS, became a major contributor to uPortal, which in turn became the foundation of a new services-based business plan for the company. A few other commercial software firms have also used uPortal as a base for portal platforms aimed at higher education users. ESUP-portail, a French consortium of more than 80 universities, has also made uPortal the cornerstone of an offering that includes development frameworks and portal-based applications.

The portal is now in its fifth year of production. Recognition of uPortal by EDUCAUSE as a 2007 Catalyst Award winner reinforces the reality that higher education is capable of being an active participant in its own technology future. Open source is still in its early stages as a model for enterprise software development, but as we build on the success of projects like uPortal, that future looks very bright indeed.