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Jumping-for-Joy With Open Source in a Box

Man-jumpingWhether you use Moodle as a learning management system, Wordpress as a blogging engine or Drupal to run your websites, there are a lot of moving parts with these installations making management of them an ongoing support issue. In a day when you're experiencing profound budgetary constraints, finding a better-cheaper-faster way to use technology in your district or school is likely to pay off quickly.

One of the reasons cloud computing has taken off is not just the explosion in hosted applications, increased broadband and always-on & always-connected via mobile wireless internet, but instead is best summed up in the words of one Fortune 500 company CEO who said, "We outsource and offload as much of our I.T. infrastructure to the cloud as we can because we're in manufacturing, not the software business." That statement is all about how expensive it's become to deploy and maintain core software and how necessary it is to focus ones organizational resources on your core mission, not in areas which are ancillary to your goals and objectives.

As open source has accelerated in delivering mission-critical features and functions in a wide array of categories, cloud computing and open source projects have become indispensable for those interested in cutting costs, tapping in to a global ecosystem of rabid developers and what they're creating around those open source projects, and how global demand for cutting edge capabilities in those projects is driving ever faster feature and functionality releases.

Then when you see how the Obama Administration is embracing and driving open source adoption within the public sector with initiatives like Apps.gov (a must-visit site if you have any interest in open source or cloud computing and why it matters), then you can see there is little reason for you not to examine ways in which you can leverage all of this momentum and energy surrounding open source.

But your limited resources and, in many cases, your staff's modest technical skills at either the district or school level make it more challenging to adopt and deploy open source software instead of commercial offerings in K-12 education. Too often open source comes with limited hand-holding and technical support which means your mission-critical systems would likely suffer from downtime that might take longer to fix than if you were running those systems using commercial software.

Not only is that "open source vs. commercial" software paradigm changing quickly -- especially as the adoption of open source software continues unabated in most categories -- but the volume of support resources for these projects (i.e., in the form of books, how-to video sites, and local support groups of other I.T. professionals to name a few) has mitigated the risk significantly for any of us to choose open source software for our needs.

One company has taken a giant step forward in bring even greater efficiency and cost reduction to the world of open source software, and this is a firm you need to know about as you make decisions about your software infrastructure. 

This new company (begun in 2006) has delivered a highly scalable series of "open source projects in a box" that is already proving to be a major accelerator for open source adoption. That firm, JumpBox, has an approach that is likely to save you money, decrease installation and deployment support needs (and costs!) while allowing you to quickly test, develop and deploy open source software that you may never have tried before due to the obstacles and effort required to install an open source project. 

What is the JumpBox approach? They say it best on their site:

JumpBox simplifies server software deployment with pre-built, pre-configured software applications packaged for deployment on virtualization platforms. Our skilled engineers have packaged the application's software, dependencies, and application data into a single ready to deploy virtual computer that will save you hours or days over the time required to manually install and manage the software. We call these virtual computers, JumpBoxes and each one captures years of system administration experience and best practices in a format that requires minimal technical knowledge to deploy. That translates into time savings and the comfort to know that each deployment is done right, each time, every time.

Joomla-jumpboxMy first exposure to JumpBox occurred when I saw a tech blog review and went to their site. Since I run the virtualization software Parallels on my MacPro (primarily to run Windows and Ubuntu Linux), I downloaded one of the non-subscription (i.e., free) JumpBoxes for Joomla (the open source content management system), double-clicked it and watched Parallels launch. Next thing I knew the Joomla JumpBox was instantly available and I launched it.

I was stunned. In front of me was a completely self-contained and running installation of Joomla, ready for me to use, and this five minute JumpBox download and launch would've normally required an installation procedure that would've taken me approximately one hour to install and configure at my hosting provider! 

Without getting too technical, there are many other variables that one needs to examine before installing software like this: what database version you're running; PHP version; operating system version; and so on, and all of the exact versions were contained within the Joomla JumpBox I was running.

Backing up is also always an issue with server-installed software and it's much easier to backup an entire "container" (like you can with a JumpBox) than it is the database...and then all the content...and then all the Joomla files, let alone the operating system too! Again, everything to be backed up is within that self contained "container" and optimized for that release, so backing up the JumpBox is like cloning your computer hard drive with 100% of it copied to an external backup drive. Wow.

Kimbro  Wanting to understand more about JumpBox and how it could fit in the K-12 education space, I talked this week with Kimbro Staken, Chief Technology Officer of JumpBox, about their approach and why K-12 education might be interested in JumpBox solutions.

The reasons K-12 education would entertain the notion of using JumpBoxes is the same ones that drive business, public sector and higher education: save time, save money, explore and experiment with open source, and offload as many of the headaches and support problems as possible.

Before our discussion, one issue bugged me after reading through their entire site, talking with some senior leaders at software companies who are friends of mine, and thinking about the sorts of server infrastructure that many districts and schools own or use: What is the "overhead" of running an open source project within a virtual container vs. running it installed (or "raw") in a district server environment?

Turns out that -- like my running Windows on Parallels on my MacPro -- any virtualization software has to translate commands to the operating system it's running on and, in turn, to the hardware which slows things down just a tad bit. The good news? With so much emphasis on optimizing virtual environments within which JumpBoxes run, the only significant requirement is memory (i.e., RAM) which most hosting companies deliver and you can install in your own servers since RAM is cheap these days, and in most cases any performance degradation wouldn't be noticeable.

The other consideration Mr. Staken outlined are the places where you can run your JumpBoxes. On your own servers? In the cloud? If the latter, a growing number of todays web software developers use Amazon's infrastructure for both computing and storage (see Amazon Web Services (AWS)). Venture capitalists often demand that startups use these sorts of cloud computing architectures since it requires zero investment in ones own servers and infrastructure and it can scale up and down as demand for an application rises and falls.

Though AWS offers virtual private and secure clouds (so it's just like having your own servers in your own data center), the issue I have with AWS is the variable cost model and what this means for educational budget management. While AWS costs are laughingly low in comparison to buying and maintaining your own server infrastructure, unknown demand might make projecting those costs a challenge since you pay for computing time, bandwidth, storage and any other services you choose to use. 

Add to that the cost per year of using JumpBox virtual containers for your open source needs and starting with JumpBox might have too many negatives for you to bother with even though choosing your own host would allow you to choose any JumpBox in the library. Starting with one project might be the way to go so you could try out the service and run one open source software project. 

Fortunately, JumpBox has anticipated the problem of variable hosting costs and partnered with Genesis Hosting Solutions with an offering called, "JumpBoxHosting". For $45 per JumpBox per month, you have a fixed cost that covers everything from the JumpBox license to bandwidth. All your I.T. team needs is a web browser to setup, run and maintain your chosen open source software projects running inside of their respective JumpBox.

JUMPBOX, THE CLOUD & YOU
If you read this blog regularly, it probably goes without saying that the sort of cloud-based scaling JumpBox provides -- along with the low costs -- is more evidence of how quickly the internet is becoming central to our computing lives.  

I would encourage you to analyze your current I.T. infrastructure and consider this for any open source deployments you're currently running or likely to deploy this, or the next, academic year. I'm convinced it will save you money, streamline I.T. operationally, and enable you to experiment with open source software projects you might've previously considered to bothersome to pursue.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Accelerating Change are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.