During a summer job in 2005, Polvi helped to design the Mozilla system. In computer-speak, he says he was a “dedicated sysadmin monkey.”
To Polvi and the other nine students at the OSL, open source has become as much as part of their days as cell phones and e-mail. At the lab, they contribute to software projects, solve network problems and interact with organizations that could provide future career opportunities.
One of Polvi’s co-workers, Eric Searcy, a sophomore in computer science from Medford, Oregon, manages a Web site for participatoryculture.org, the Participatory Culture Foundation. PCF software powers a free Internet-based TV system. As open source programmers around the globe modify the software, Searcy works behind the scenes to maintain PCF’s repository and track changes.
Another OSL student, Brandon Philips, a junior from Sherwood, Oregon, has helped to run OSU’s own computer network. Philips modified and coordinated updates to an open source program known as Maintain, first developed by OSL Associate Director Scott Kveton. Maintain helps manage OSU’s wired and wireless network. In addition to computer science, Philips is working on a minor in English literature.
“Open source” refers to the free sharing of software, but this is not the Wild West of computer programming. There are rules. If you use someone else’s software and change it, you must also share your own work openly. Modifications are reviewed by other programmers before they are adopted. Author and Portland radio talk-show host Thom Hartmann calls it “power-to-the-people software.”
The OSL hosts about 100 open source projects, including some of the most popular names, at least in high-tech households — the Linux operating system (known as the “Linux kernel”) and the Apache Web server. The movement has attracted attention in education, industry, government and even the military. “We’re going to start to see these tools mature and get easier for average people to use,” says Kveton, who was named by Information Week in December, 2005 as a “change agent,” someone likely to change the information technology industry in the coming year.
2005 was a banner year for the OSL. Among highlights were a national conference on open source software in government, a $2 million donation of bandwidth from TDS Telecom and a $350,000 donation by Google for open source development at OSU and Portland State University.
In Beaverton, Kveton’s hometown, the nonprofit Open Source Development Laboratory focuses on Linux. Also active in the movement are three of Oregon’s high tech giants: IBM, HP and Intel.
“Our students have extraordinary opportunities to be directly involved in some of the largest and most significant open source projects in the world,” says Curt Pederson, vice-provost for information services. “Their experience, combined with their degree, should make them very sought after in the IT marketplace.”
In its first 18 months, the OSL leveraged a $450,000 investment into about $2 million worth of software, says Jason McKerr, the lab’s operations manager. With support from the OSU Research Office, the OSL is working with Indiana University, Cornell and other universities to develop software to manage academic research programs.
“Indiana has already written the budget management piece for grants and proposals, and we wanted to add conflict of interest, our financial system integration and other things. We get the features we want, on a system we want, for less than we would have spent. And we end up with a lot more than we would have gotten because we get all of the features someone else wrote,” McKerr explains.
“In the computer world, open source is hot and cool right now,” says Polvi. “To have that in-house is like being a rock star, a nerdy rock star.”