June 22, 2006

Irish college gives open workflow software good grades

Author: Tina Gasperson

The Republic of Ireland is investing almost a billion pounds in technology research in 2006 to make Dublin a "technology research magnet." The Knowledge and Data Engineering Group (KDEG) at Trinity College in Dublin is right in the middle of the activity. KDEG is focusing on pervasive and adaptive systems, ubiquitous computing, and smart space management. When KDEG was having trouble with systematic workflow and document collaboration, it turned to a Linux-based solution that allowed Windows and Linux users to seamlessly share and edit documents.

KDEG needed to streamline its workflow and implement cross-platform compatibility, since the group comprises a mix of OpenOffice.org and Word users. Researchers had tried to collaborate using email, but version control was a major problem. KDEG found an answer to the problem right across the street at IBM's Advanced Center for Technology Studies. "When we first encountered IBM Workplace Collaboration Services, we were interested in it as part of our research," says Alex O'Connor, a postgraduate student in KDEG whose work is funded by the Embark Initiative of the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology. "But we quickly realized that the product could also be a useful tool for managing our research and resolving publishing needs. Ultimately, we decided that it could help our teams perform more efficiently."

IBM Workplace Collaboration Services is an application that allows everyone in a company or organization to share, edit, and save documents so that everyone always has the latest updated version. It also provides email, calendaring, scheduling, instant messaging, and Web conferencing, so that users in disparate locations can all view the same document, have a discussion, and view edits on the fly.

O'Connor has been an "avid" user of Linux and other open source software for years. He says he uses a mixture of open and closed source software in both professional and private capacity. KDEG, as part of the colleges Department of Computer Sciences, was already using Linux and Apache to host its network of Web sites, and within KDEG many individual researchers use Linux as their desktop operating system. "A lot of our code is written in Java," O'Connor says, "and we have a number of projects that are hosted on Linux, using Tomcat and JBoss. Many projects within the group also have a Web services aspect, particularly those related to eLearning and the Semantic Web. In these projects, our investigators often employ open source toolkits such as the Jena and Axis projects to help in prototype development."

Because open source software is already a part of the infrastructure of KDEG, it wasn't too difficult to convince the project coordinators to go with Workplace on Linux. "The open source model is a natural one for researchers," O'Connor says. "Many investigators seek to open the results of their work to scrutiny and further use by other members of the community. In general, we have found that there is a natural synergy between the open source model and the results of research."

He says that sometimes the group's research partners are so focused on commercial development of their projects that they are resistant to the use of open source software, but in this case there were no such obstacles. "There was little resistance to the use of Linux or other open source systems," O'Connor says. "Our investigators tend to be expert technical people, very familiar with the insides of programs and systems, and like to have the option of manipulating or inspecting the source of a tool in use. Furthermore, it is a great advantage to be able to access the source of a tool in use to adapt it for research use."

The biggest challenge with the deployment of Workplace has been keeping everyone informed and up-to-date on new versions and tools. But the benefits of having a standardized workflow for publications and for storage of documents has more than outweighed any obstacles, according to O'Connor. And having the source code for software gives the researchers at KDEG the freedom they need to use the software the way they need to. "If a piece of software is directly useful, then it is simple and easy to deploy between our different users," O'Connor says. "If the software is itself something that can be a potential subject for investigation, then the open source model means that KDEG investigators can improve and expand the boundaries of that piece of software, benefiting the research community and the development community by sharing what has been learned in a practical way."

O'Connor says the group will continue to use open source software in its research and as part of its own infrastructure. "We will likely also release the results of some of our projects as open source applications themselves," he says, "though this is still in the pipeline."


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