Bluenog ICE on Open Source Software, Commercial Support, and Higher Education

by Ostatic Staff - May. 19, 2009

I recently got the opportunity to speak with the crew at Bluenog. Bluenog provides tailored integrated collaborative environments (ICE), content management portals and business intelligence solutions built on open source core technologies, offering a hybrid of open source and commercial features and support services.

With online collaboration becoming standard operating procedure, and the still delicate state of the economy, Bluenog, like other companies supplying and supporting open source software, has seen a heightened interest in its services. In particular, Bluenog has seen a growth in open source adoption (and commercial support services) in the higher education market.

Bluenog currently has three prominent clients in academia -- Wellesley, Columbia and NYU. I had a chance to ask the team at Bluenog about the challenges, special considerations, and the road ahead for open source companies in the higher education sector.

OStatic: There have been strong indicators that open source adoption is growing in a number of different areas -- but almost counter-intuitively, higher education has been one area that's a bit slower to take it on. How much of an increase in the adoption of (or inquiries about) Bluenog and related open source technologies have you seen recently? Has the increased interest been steadily climbing, or have there been pockets of rapid growth alternating with holding patterns?

Bluenog: That's an interesting observation. Higher Education has historically been slow to adopt certain trends, so this shouldn't be that much of a surprise. From Bluenog's perspective, there are different ways to look at Higher Education. One is the students themselves, who use open source in large quantities for projects and their own social and personal use. The second is the internal IT staff within a college or university. They have requirements to get functionality out to students, faculty, parents and other constituents and they can't rely on a transient work force (e.g. the students) for continuity. This second audience typically requires more out-of-the-box functionality and they have very little full-time staff for the care and feeding of these projects and the support that is critically important to them. Since they are the only people in Higher Education that will typically pay for anything, it's no surprise that they (a) generally stick with the systems that they already have in place much longer than other industries, and (b) have to consider new acquisitions not just from a feature perspective, but also support, training, expertise, etc.

What we have seen at Bluenog is a growing interest in commercial open source -- products that come with professional support, regular product updates, training and an ability to integrate with existing infrastructures. Interest in this continues to increase because of the attractiveness of the price point relative to the features you get, not because the products are open source.

OStatic: How do you approach educational institutions looking for a new collaborative platform/CMS solution? Even in those situations where bids are made for contracts, how much of a role does marketing and word-of-mouth from colleagues and peers play? What are the challenges (and advantages) in approaching these situations (e.g. less name recognition or capital, but stronger product features, less negative baggage that's sometimes associated with name recognition)?

Bluenog: Working with the Higher Education sector requires a multi-pronged approach. There is a deep collaborative effect in Higher Education -- institutions talk with one another, compare approaches and share best practices around certain products. As we continue to make progress in this sector, new people are reaching out to us because they've heard about us from their peers. At the same time, we also employ traditional marketing efforts such as seminars, webinars and advertisements in targeted trade outlets. We've found that many Higher Education institutions putting out RFPs look to industry analysts for advice on what vendors to consider, so it's important to maintain a high profile in the analyst community as well.

We haven't found the challenges or advantages of working in Higher Education to be that different from other markets. Though the collaborative effect does seem to be stronger, it doesn't make that big a difference to our sales pipeline. Somebody looking for a collaborative platform already has plenty of issues to work out -- it's rare that they would choose to go with us solely because somebody else used us -- although we wouldn't complain if they did!!

OStatic: Are there any particular areas in higher education that seem to be taking to open source more enthusiastically/at a higher rate than others? If so, why do you think that is?

Bluenog: We haven't seen a particular area that is systemically adopting open source more than others but we do see a common thread in focusing more on solutions that are backed by a commercial company than purely open source technologies. Whether it is open source or not, there needs to be a "real" company providing industrial strength services and support to impact the decision. Other than that, the Higher Education sector seems to be more focused on features and functionality than on the delivery mechanism or development approach of the software itself. One area of concentrated focus that we do see is in Content Management. Traditionally, each department has had "control" of their own content and they have managed their own websites. This can prove to be highly inefficient and can result in similar content being displayed (sometimes incorrectly) in several different places on an institution's website. One of the hot features right now seems to be delegated administration -- this gives internal IT staff the ability to "centralize" the content and presentation, while allowing individual stakeholders to create and modify the content and customize the presentation -- giving IT and the individual departments exactly what they both want.

In this particular case, we are finding that open source is not the primary purchasing driver. If the business requirement can be solved by a specific product, people will buy it, regardless of whether it is open source or commercial. We also see this trend with regard to Business Intelligence -- Higher Education firms navigating BI challenges suffer from the same problems with silos that are created by Content Management. Different departments use localized tools to do basic reporting, but there are limited centralized reporting capabilities because of the entitlement issues. A solution that provides delegated administration of the creation and distribution of reports that can also disseminate them seamlessly through a secure presentation interface will be looked upon quite favorably. This is where open source can become a very big plus. Higher Education institutions need to keep customization costs as low as possible. The less friction, the better. Open source can provide additional capabilities for customization that don't exist with proprietary products.

OStatic: Bluenog has a number of different software applications (CMS, research intranet/extranet, BI, etc.) that have different applications and uses in different academic settings. If an institution wants to get the best sort of "hands on" feel for how these products will work for them -- after viewing the demos, what would you suggest they start to test/experiment with locally to see if these applications are right for them?

Bluenog: One of the biggest strengths of Bluenog ICE is its adaptability to different solutions and applications. Customer requirements are all different. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, we encourage our customers to get their hands on the product and start looking at how exactly it will fit into their specific environment. Beyond the product demos, we typically encourage customers to download the product and evaluate it. We provide a free download of Bluenog ICE on our website. The download includes what we call our "Foundation Application" -- a fully functional demo that leverages most of the features of Bluenog ICE. It also comes with the source code, so users can customize it any way they wish -- they can add their own skins and content and generate reports. This allows them to see exactly how it will work in their specific environment. The other piece of this is the integration -- most Higher Education institutions are excited about Bluenog ICE because of its seamless integration with legacy components -- such as ERP, Calendaring, eLearning and other systems. This isn't trivial work, though. Our Bluenog Solutions Group has the expertise and background to show our prospective customers how to get the most out of their legacy systems and how to expose the right information in the right way. Information architecture is such a critical component of a successful project rollout that regardless of the product that is chosen having these capabilities up front is crucially important.

OStatic: When organizations choose support packages and services, is there a process or checklist you can offer them to help them find the services that will work best for them and make the most out of their new platforms? Do you find that one service in particular (such as training or in-depth consulting) is requested more often/in situations that you wouldn't have thought would be so conducive to the service?

Bluenog: The most important thing is to offer support and services that are familiar to our customers. As previously mentioned, the Higher Education sector is quite comfortable with standard support options -- this could include 9x5 and 24x7 support. The latter is sometimes not as important though, as Higher Education institutions don't want to "have" to pay for something if they aren't going to need it. As you can imagine, education is very important to this sector, so offering standard and customized training is critical to them. They tend to not want to have long-term consultants on site. They often prefer that their staff be trained to do the "day-to-day" work, so any consulting that is done tends to be focused on mentoring. Higher Education institutions also like to get these services directly from Bluenog as opposed to from our partners. This is one area that's typically different from the other markets we serve -- where partners play a much more active role in training and implementation.

OStatic: And the obligatory: What's next on the agenda? How do you plan to move forward, sustain growth, and spread the word?

Bluenog: We are very happy with the exposure we've gotten in the past 9 months but there are still many people who don't know who we are. We are always looking to get the word out and share our customer successes so people can see the true benefit of an Integrated Collaborative Environment. We have some great new features planned for the product, with a new release coming out at the end of June and another one hopefully by year's end. We also continue to innovate with our existing customers and we bring those innovations back into the product regularly. This focuses on adapters to additional legacy systems -- so we continue to grow that library. Also, due to the collaborative nature of our product development, we don't charge extra for any adapters -- they are all included in the base product. We're also focused on growing our partner ecosystem and working with SIs and ISVs to complement our own Bluenog Solutions Group and increase our ability to support customers all over the world.

I'd like to extend a big thank you to the team at Bluenog for taking the time to share their observations with OStatic readers. The open source technologies that Bluenog integrates into its software packages includes various Apache supported projects (such as Lucene), HippoCMS, and Eclipse BIRT. Demo videos and and source code for Bluenog's ICE and related products are available on the company's website.