Government agency learns a lesson in open source, an IT government agency for education, has turned to open source software to develop Web services for its flagship portal.

Owned by federal, state and territory IT ministers, develops and manages online services that provide information to aid teaching and research.

The Adelaide-based agency runs the Education Network Australia Web site, EdNA Online, a directory and database for Web-based education resources.

Formed in 1996, EdNA Online consists of 18,000 evaluated resources, with 350,000 (linked) indexed resources, and receives about 4.5 million hits per month, said CEO Gerry White.

EdNA Online’s main services include community collaboration, searching, news feeds, and customization.

The agency has re-engineered the front end of EdNA Online for Web services with open source software that includes Linux, the PostgreSQL database and the Jahia content management system.

“We ( have a think tank…people from across Australia who each year discuss what they’d like us to offer,” White said.

About 18 months ago, a discussion on EdNA Online earmarked two areas for improvement, he said.

“The first thing was that people had trouble getting down into the resources,” he said. “Secondly, the people at Education Australia said we need to personalize EdNA so people will go back (to the service).”

The redevelopment of EdNA has helped educators across Australia and overseas gain more specific content via a number of Web services.

EdNA provides users with RSS (Rich Site Summary) news feeds on desired content, which can be syndicated by any education site. A distributed search tool lets users scan other repositories of educational information, and users can personalize EdNA to choose what information is displayed.

“The (government departments across the) states don’t need to replicate this information any more,” White said. “We provide the aggregation of a single service. This way we reduce duplication and costs for our users.

“For example, I can now do all my news reading on one screen with nine major news feeds,” he said.

As customization was critical to EdNA’s revamp, White said open source software suited the project’s business case.

“Open source cut down the major service into parts, what we call portlets, for user customization,” White said.

“We constantly travel overseas to find out what people are doing (in online education)…We had to hunt around the world for the most appropriate solutions for this project.”

The discovery of the Swiss-built, open source content management system Jahia, however, was the first “reason” to delve into open source, he said. Jahia offers “granular control over content”, said White.

The open source front end of EdNA consists of Linux, the Apache Web server, the Tomcat J2EE servlet engine (for open source Java), HTML templating engines such as Velocity and JSP, PostgreSQL and Jahia.

“We have used open source as parts of other services, but we haven’t done anything as large as this. In saying that, we don’t run everything in open source,” White said.

EdNA’s back-end has remained proprietary. EdNA uses six Solaris servers, with an Oracle database. This database does the “hard grunt” work compared to PostgreSQL usage, White said.

“PostgreSQL was chosen as it’s simple, it wasn’t overloaded, and it operated in a Unix environment,” he said.

A team of three developed the new front-end over 10 months.

Asked about the costs of open source, White said his project team had to become part of the open source community, but had been overwhelmed by the support of the community.

The low cost of open source software was “a factor” in the decision, but not the main one, he said.

Finding workers with open source expertise, however, proved one of the drawbacks of the decision.

“Our IT people had experience with other open source software, but finding the expertise for this project wasn’t easy,” White said.

It was almost five months before the agency found the appropriately skilled workers, he said.

Despite this, White said the project had resulted in a robust system.

Whether the agency will use open source for its other services, such as the Australian Careers Information Service, will be decided on a project basis, he said.

“We’ll never say one platform is better than another. It’s the factor of risk. We said this is what we’re going to do, what do we need, what fits, and what is the risk (of that solution),” White said.