College Taps Open-Source App to Solve Costly Paper Chase

By Lauren Gibbons Paul


September 11, 2006

Case Study: The UNC School of Medicine turns to an open-source system to reduce the costs of course materials.

The 160 first-year medical students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Medicine used to receive a boatload of printed course materials during their first weeks in school—four cases worth of paper per student, in fact.

Printing costs were sky-high. So it wasnt surprising when state budgetary officers zeroed in on printed course materials as a prime opportunity to slash.

But with printed materials no longer available, pressure was mounting on the electronic version of course materials, available on the SOMs intranet site. After pondering upgrading the course materials via a commercially available application, the SOMs Office of Information Systems decided to go with an open version of course management software, implemented by Cignex, a systems integrator specializing in open source and based in Santa Clara, Calif. Cignex would prove critical in helping SOM select an open application that would prove a scalable platform for future growth.

Going with an open-source application also saved the school plenty of money by avoiding the need for licensing fees, according to Charlie Hitlin, manager of application development and media services for the UNC-CH SOM. The SOMs open-source experiment also paved the way for other UNC-CH departments to get involved with the free code movement. Although the university hosts ibiblio, one of the largest mirror sites for SourceForge, an open-source software development Web site, it was not itself an open-source user.

"We really never had a large open-source solution before. UNC-Chapel Hill widely uses proprietary software solutions. Education has been slower to adopt open source," Hitlin said. Therefore, open source was not a clear path two years ago when the OIS began evaluating its options, he said.

In January 2004, the state budgetary cuts that eliminated the printing of paper course materials had stepped up pressure on the OIS, which for nearly 10 years, had maintained a Web site with electronic course materials for the first- and second-year med students. But the situation was hardly ideal—for students or faculty members. According to Hitlin, the 2,000-plus pages were static, and updating the content (which ranged from each lectures Learning Objectives to the syllabus for each course) required Web designers to manually link in the new information using Adobe Systems Dreamweaver.

Professors were not able to post their own materials, leading to delays in information being available online, recalled Kapil Thangavelu, Cignexs principal consultant. Students were reportedly frustrated at having to wait for course materials to be posted.

A SOM CMS (content management system) committee was formed in early 2004 to conduct a thorough needs analysis, with Hitlin among its members. Over the course of the next several months, Hitlin said the committee considered both commercial and open-source content management software. The committee evaluated Vignettes Vignette and Oracles Oracle Portal, which was attractive since the SOM already used an Oracle database as its back end, Thangavelu said.

At the time, cost estimates for these systems ran to a quarter-million dollars—and that was just for software licenses. That figure represented the total amount that the school could devote to the entire project.

"All that would buy us was a plain-vanilla version. We wanted a solution that fit our process," Hitlin said.

Several content management applications, both open and proprietary, have been created for undergraduate-level institutions. The SOM had special requirements. All first- and second-year students attend the same courses at the same time. Each course typically is taught by a number of different professors and clinicians, rather than one instructor. According to Hitlin, if customization was going to be a large part of the project, the CMS committee reasoned, why not go with an open-source version so that, at least, the code would be free? That way, the SOM could devote its limited resources to development and implementation.

"[The SOM] did look at commercial providers but felt that these commercial systems werent geared toward [a] graduate-level school. They realized they would have to do a custom solution no matter what," Thangavelu said. Given that, an open application seemed a very sound choice.

The CMS committee began to look at open-source projects in earnest, Hitlin said. It appraised Bricolage, Mason and OpenCMS but deemed them not quite right. Plone soon came to the forefront.

Plone is an open-source CMS built on Zope, an object-oriented application server written in the Python programming language. The Chapel Hill area has an active Plone user group, which was an advantage. Since the SOM was in the process of building up its developer staff after a few cutbacks, the committee believed it would not be difficult to find people with Plone skills in the area.

Headed by Hitlin as the project manager, the team spent several months gathering requirements, and development began in earnest in January 2005. Thangavelu and a few Cignex colleagues were virtual team members in charge of development. They sent the SOM a series of alpha releases beginning in June 2005, and regression testing began.

Thats when the project ran smack into a major hardware problem. In the test environment, the application ran on an inexpensive Linux blade server and performed well, according to Hitlin and Thangavelu. But the project team got an unpleasant surprise when it installed the application on one of the SOMs Sun Microsystems Solaris SPARC boxes.

"As soon as we installed the application locally, we saw significant latency—10 seconds to load a page, where it had been 1 second in the development environment. It turned out the SPARC hardware doesnt run Python efficiently," Hitlin said.

Cignex advised the SOM to run the open Plone application on inexpensive Linux boxes, which would run a reasonable $2,000 to $3,000 each. But, according to Hitlin, the SOMs system support group was accustomed to supporting the Sun Solaris architecture and was reluctant to add a new platform to the mix.

"Our systems people didnt want to bring in something completely new and unfamiliar. On any large-scale project, you have to compromise. We chose to migrate to the Sun x86 architecture, which was new but more familiar to them," Hitlin said.

During June and July of 2005, the team dealt with last-minute bug fixes and user training, which turned out to be trivial, according to Hitlin and Thangavelu. The faculty members intuitively understood the user interface and took charge of updating their course materials with ease. But having lost time to the hardware snafu and software issues, the project came down to the wire. The first-year students were due to arrive for orientation the first week in August.

"It was a month later than our target date. There was a lot of stress, but we got it up and running just in time, three days before the students arrived on campus," Hitlin said. Both students and faculty immediately took to the application, soon demanding more—the price of all flourishing projects.

Both Hitlin and the UNC-CH are now converts to open source. The undergrad School of Arts and Sciences is implementing Plone, as is the UNC-CH hospital.

"Being part of the open-source community has been a big positive for us," Hitlin said.

Lauren Gibbons Paul is a freelance writer in Waban, Mass. Contact her at

Copyright 2006