CORVALLIS - Oregon State University has formed an "Open Source Laboratory" - the first such facility at any public university in the nation - and is becoming an educational leader in this concept, in which computer software is developed and given for free to anyone who wishes to use it.
OSU's Open Source Lab has been instrumental just recently in the distribution of a new web browser, Mozilla Firefox 1.0, which offers an alternative to other web browsers and has gained international attention, not to mention about six million downloads in its first month.
But the popularity of that particular software is just a small part of the action in the open source computer community, which officials believe may change the face of the software industry and make sophisticated programs more easily and inexpensively available to many users.
At OSU, it's also saving the university substantial amounts of money and greatly expanding the educational opportunities open to students.
"Open source software is as much a philosophy as it is a technology business," said Scott Kveton, associate director of OSU's Open Source Laboratory. "It can be of enormous value to higher education and we expect many other universities may soon follow OSU's lead in this area. But at its best, this is about helping people and communities develop, participating in larger projects that benefit all."
Open source software, Kveton said, is not a fixed product that a user buys off a shelf from a company with proprietary ownership of the program. Rather, it's software in which the computer coding is made available. Other users can read it, improve it, adapt or customize it for their own needs, and share it. This collaborative process often yields software of high quality that evolves quickly, he said.
Private companies whose business is based on selling computer hardware often use open source software, and provide some of its biggest support and funding.
The Open Source Lab at OSU, begun last February, is a way to organize and increase the university's commitment to this software concept. More information about the lab can be found on the web at http://osuosl.org.
Software is already available at OSU that can perform many tasks, ranging from managing computer networks to student "help desks," automated web processes, web browsing, and productivity software such as word processing, spreadsheets or presentations.
"Developing software at the university is not our main thing, so it makes sense for us to share and help serve the needs of the higher education community as a whole," Kveton said. "In addition, this presents unique learning opportunities for students, and builds links of collaboration with like-minded institutions around the world."
There are very few other open source labs in the world, Kveton said. But the idea is catching on.
"We're involved in one project right now with a group of other universities, including the higher education systems in Indiana, Hawaii and elsewhere," Kveton said. "This is a $6 million project that will create a comprehensive suite of software to serve the financial systems needs of all Carnegie-class institutions."
One department at OSU is contributing a small portion of the funding for the project because it wants this software customized for the particular needs of OSU, Kveton said. But in the end one version of this expensive and sophisticated program will be available for free, to anyone.
The Open Source Lab not only organizes the development of new software, but also identifies other open source programs created elsewhere which may be useful to university faculty, staff or students.
The recent initiative with the Mozilla software is another major success story, Kveton said.
"This is a non-profit company that we've worked with for some time, and the new web browser called Firefox they've created is extraordinarily popular," Kveton said. "People are using it because it can be used on almost any computer and has the ability to help block pop-up ads, provide protection from fraud and other useful features. It's probably the biggest success story so far with open source software, and is really raising the awareness of this industry."
OSU's laboratory has the capacity to handle well over 250 million Internet "hits" a day - an infrastructure built in part with student assistance - and anyone who downloads Mozilla's new web browser first goes through the OSU computer to be routed to one of many local sites around the world, called "mirrors," where it can be downloaded for free.
Aside from helping others, OSU's innovative new lab also helps the university, officials say.
"The Open Source Lab is saving the university money at a time of decreasing state resources," said Curt Pederson, vice provost for information services. "It's already helped save the university thousands of dollars by coming up with new solutions to otherwise expensive problems."
Donations of bandwidth, equipment and other costs from organizations such as Mozilla and other open source users in the community have helped support the OSU Open Source Lab, and specific funding is sometimes provided by groups or agencies that need a specific type of software developed.
More than half of OSU's infrastructure now operates on open source tools, including e-mail, web servers, and domain name space management. It also will gain growing use on computer desktops, providing systems that are more secure, more resistant to viruses and can be customized to meet the university's needs, Kveton said.