Open source bookmarks Australian heritage

With 500 staff, two buildings, seven public readings rooms and information sharing relationships with 1100 libraries globally, the National Library of Australia is an organisation bound to have unique IT requirements.

Couple its physical scope with the plethora of media types maintained by the organisation, ranging from books and manuscripts to complex digitised maps, images, audio and online data, and the need for providing innovative services has made adaptable software from the open source community appear a necessity.

NLA director of IT business systems Mark Corbould said a willingness to invest in the skills of the library and a commitment to standards as whole has seen the organisation employ a variety of open source solutions over recent years.

“Open source didn’t magically appear from out of the ground,” Corbould said. “We have used it consciously over the past five years…We have a demonstrated track record of using open source.

“But now it’s fashionable, so people are more willing to talk about it.”

The use of open source software has enabled the organisation to deliver its many content-related services innovatively, Corbould said.

Since 1997, the NLA’s IT infrastructure has transitioned from a mainframe setup to a Unix base and from an external procurement policy to a “fit for purpose, value and money” mindset.

Corbould said the organisation’s approach has been to implant an individual server box into its network for each type of service. This has seen the NLA’s server capacity grow to 43 Unix servers, including 19 Sun, 18 Linux, five AIX-based and 1 Mac OS-based boxes. The organisation also manages 23 Windows servers.

Linux boxes are now used to run functions at the edge of the NLA’s network, using SMTP, FTP, SSH and Proxy.

On the local applications side, the organisation features Model-View-Controller (MVC) architecture for separating data access, business logic and user interfaces. Open source components, ncluding TomCat and WebMacro are then employed to produce the organisation’s Web statistics and reports – an important set of tasks for any government department, Corbould said.

Running the NLA’s reporting applications on Solaris rather than Linux would be much more expensive, he added.

Open source sells itself

Although open source is opportunistic because it is so cheap, Corbould is quick to point out the NLA has not used open source simply because it is “free”.

“But we can manage the costs and start small and grow. This way, we can afford to test and if a solution works, put it into production,” he said.

Using MVC also allows the organisation to separate the interface design from the actual base code, he said.

Corbould said another benefit of open source software is that it gives the NLA a good way of preserving content by allowing unlimited access to the code base.

The NLA works with a timeframe of aiming to preserve content for a period of 100 years, he said. This includes digital information, such as Web sites. While he acknowledged that guaranteeing the validity of any IT product or solution for such an extended time period was impossible, he pointed out that today’s users would be lucky to open a document saved in a version of Word more than three versions ago.

At least with open source, the code is “always there”, he said.

Asked about whether open standards would be a better way of addressing the issue of longevity of content, Corbould likened such standards to “noses”.

“Everybody’s got one and they all smell”, but each is distinctive to the other, he said.

“Open standards are pervasive, but aren’t enough to grant long-term preservation of data.”

So while open standards such as HTML and XML are recognised and used within Web sites globally, subtle variations in how people employ them to fit the Internet browser of the time makes relying on such standards insufficient for ensuring future content access, he said.

Open source support

Corbould said the highlight of using open source was the depth of support provided by interaction with the open source community.

“Support has never been an issue with open source,” he said. “It is superior to the support we'd pay for library-specific proprietary software, which is appalling. Microsoft is marginally better."

There are still issues with open source however, in terms of the legal framework for utilising public licence software within government agencies. Lawyers are still coming to grips with the dissemination of intellectual property, contract and licensing issues related to “giving away” software, he said.

Corbould said recruitment of open source staff can be another impediment to using open source software.

“Staff need to be disciplined - the openness of the technology means people can get caught up in the ideology and not its practical uses,” he said.

Additionally, while the NLA uses open source software extensively across its server space, it has hesitated to implement open source products as front-end applications across its 700 desktop PCs.

“Windows is so entrenched in the desktop space that it would take a nuclear war to remove it,” Corbould said.

“We know there’s a good story to tell with Open Office, print, e-mail and file sharing using open source….but not for [desktops with] our issues. It’s been too hard to do.”

Corbould said the NLA’s 150 or more desktop applications, which range from specialist genealogy programs to Asian character applications and custom-made map products, “are barely supported by Windows, let alone open source”.

In the meantime, the NLA continues to find ways of building new systems and services using open source, he said. The organisation is currently evaluating the French open source mail manager Sympa, with plans to implement the tool to run its e-mail list management server within the next month.

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