MIT makes heterogeneous IT systems work

Open source lends the flexibility needed to meet disparate departmental needs

The IT staff at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has to be prepared to work with just about anything. It manages a delicate balancing act, promoting core IT standards for security and networking while still giving each department the freedom to choose its own technology platforms and applications.

Often, the departments choose open source technology. According to Patrick Jaillet, who heads MIT’s Civil & Environmental Engineering Department, the flexibility that comes when IT staff, skilled researchers, and savvy students can modify the software to their needs is a big reason why. “We don’t want people to stifle their ingenuity. Open source is a big plus,” he says.

Open source technology helped MIT’s Distributed IT Resources Group manage the departments’ far-flung technologies while maintaining basic order and service across the campus. “You can easily do new functions based on what the [users’] new needs are,” says network analyst Tom Coveney.

Access to the open source software’s raw data structures and code also makes it easy to integrate applications and develop new ones, Coveney says. For example, MIT is developing a common identity management system that integrates the various portals and servers in use across the campus. Open source development tools and access to source code make that possible. Likewise, MIT uses the open source Asterisk telephony system connected to a database and Web portal to make campus shuttle schedules available via both the Web and interactive voice prompts.

Coveney spends most of his time supporting departments’ intranets and Web servers, ensuring they perform well and remain secure. He also helps the departments take better advantage of their portals and servers. Most departments choose open source portal tools, he notes; four use the Metadot portal development and management platform.

Some departments run Metadot on Linux, some on Windows, and some on Mac OS X, but that diversity doesn’t hinder Coveney’s ability to manage them all. “I’m able to switch platforms and use the same software,” he says. Yet Coveney can also tie platform-specific technologies into Metadot, such as using the FileMaker database system as the database engine for one department’s intranet portal for scheduling. This means he can support users’ individual requirements while working across a common base.

Flexibility in support options is yet another benefit. “We’re not tied to any specific vendor for the maintenance,” Coveney says. He recalls that when one department’s proprietary portal vendor went out of business, it took a year to redo the system. That wouldn’t have been an issue for an open source portal because IT could have relied on the user community for interim support, Coveney says. Plus, it’s easier to migrate from one open source portal to another because they tend to all use the LAMP stack, and access to the underlying code makes redeployment easier than working with a black-box commercial system.

Ultimately, open source brings MIT the transparency and control needed to manage a diverse IT toolbox. Although enterprises typically keep a tighter rein on their technology toolbox’s contents than academia does, Coveney notes that heterogeneity is a fact of life almost everywhere, and he counts on open source to manage that diversity more easily.