JASIG, the organisation formerly known as the Java Architectures Special Interest Group, but which now is known more simply by its acronym, celebrated its 16th conference in Denver in June. JASIG was in many senses the first of the small wave of 'Community Source' organisations formed within Higher Education, mainly in North America, and largely spinning out of Andrew J Mellon Foundation-funded projects, in the first half of the decade.
Community Source attempts to draw together elements of open source software development, but, to one extent or another, blend these elements with the central coordination and direction of a more conventional consortium-based approach. Historically - if one can use the term for organisations so new - JASIG has always tended towards the conventional 'open source' end of the Community Source spectrum. For the last few months, however, JASIG has been an organisation in transition. The June conference can therefore be seen from a number of perspectives; as providing an update on the JASIG 'products', uPortal and CAS (Common Authentication System), as a meeting point for many of the Community Source projects, such as Sakai and Kuali, and as marking a new stage in the evolution of JASIG as an organised community. In a very real sense, JASIG conferences have also provided a useful bellweather role for indicating the issues taxing Higher Education IT. The June conference was no exception.
JASIG is probably best known as the parent organisation for the uPortal framework. Portals may not be this year's Higher Education technology 'fashion item', but three interrelated discernable trends were noticeable from presentations at the conference:
Institutional adoption, whether of the open source uPortal framework or the commercially integrated and supported Sungard Luminis portal offering (which incorporates uPortal), continues to rise. It's often difficult to come up with hard figures for the adoption of open source software; it is, after all, freely downloadable, even if all downloads do not result in enterprise deployments. Taking the Luminis instances, and known uPortal deployments, it seems highly likely that uPortal is in use at around 1000 institutions worldwide. Whilst a strong signal of the success of uPortal, this large installed base brings with it a raft of issues to address, both technical and organisational. Although designed 'by and for' Higher Education, uPortal is also beginning to be used in a number of commercial environments, and is operating at significant scale. The Pearson deployment, which is an interesting example of a large-scale service-oriented approach to systems design fronted by uPortal, is running to 80,000 users per hour.
Customisation and Content
A small number of institutions are beginning to experiment with portal frameworks as a means of integrating social software and a range of external "Web 2.0" technologies. This is being accompanied by an increased tendency to enable customisation by users of institutional portals, and improvements in usability in the means by which users can manage customisation. Personalisation and customisation were always a significant part of the early promise of portals, but have proved difficult to implement practically for a number of reasons. Personalisation relies on a consolidated identity infrastructure that many institutions are only now beginning to put in place. Many institutions were understandably wary of enabling customisation without a deeper understanding of the impact this might have on performance, and the potential impact on support and helpdesks. The Yale contribution of Ajax-based customisation tools to the uPortal codebase has dramatically improved user experience in this respect.
Ease of customisation is, however, far from providing a compelling reason for users to customise. The experience of Duke University is of interest in this respect. Duke began providing a number of configurable social tools, such as Facebook and del.icio.us portlets in addition to its largely administrative existing content. Student usage rose by 400% in the course of 12 months. The portal is now being used as a place where institutions can begin to experiment with creative content combinations.
Common Specifications and 'Portalisation'
Portal deployment and usage is maturing, and there are signs that common specifications and standards surrounding portals are maturing similarly. Few institutions with a deployed instance of uPortal have developed anything but JSR168  portlets, despite many perceived limitations, in the last eighteen months to two years. The injection of Pluto1.1  portlet reference implementation into uPortal 3, and a proposed merger of the 2.x and 3 uPortal lines, positions uPortal not only to take advantage of existing JSR168 portlets, but also for the next iteration of the specification, JSR286.
Charles Severance of the Sakai Foundation presented a further perspective. In addition to the reuse of Pluto code in uPortal, Pluto has been incorporated into the latest version of the Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment. There is therefore the perspective not only of re-using JSR168 conformant portlets between conforming portal frameworks, but also learning and research collaboration environments. Given the range of resource discovery, grid-enabled and other portlets being produced, this potentially marks a significant step towards a more component and 'toolkit'-based approach to research and learning collaboration. As institutions move towards more personalised and customisable environments to support learning, teaching and research, these developments can only be welcomed.
The Common Authentication System (CAS), a widely used single sign-on service for the Web, originally developed at Yale, is the other major JASIG 'product'. CAS is a typical middleware success story, which is to say, it is largely invisible to end-users. CAS has achieved a similarly sized installed user base to uPortal, but is already used much more widely in the commercial sector. Organisations as diverse as Sony and World of Warcraft make use of CAS for Web ISO, in addition to many hundreds of Higher Education institutions. In a presentation on the latest release of CAS, version 3.1, the lead architect Scott Battaglia of Rutgers highlighted support for standards and a number of new features. CAS offers support for both Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) and OpenID. The latter is currently generating much interest as it offers a decentralised framework for user-centred digital identities. CAS 3.1 also includes an attribute repository allowing the secure release of attributes as required to specific services.
In addition to the themes relating to specific areas of JASIG activity, Identity Management, and the organisation of the community, were recurring themes of the conference. Jens Haeusser of UBC gave an extremely valuable survey of Identity Management developments and projected developments, from today's centralised systems through Federated ID and towards distributed and user-centric ID . The integration of identity information users carry with them when joining a college or university is likely to be a considerable challenge for the future.
As an organisation and as a community, JASIG continues to evolve. The active participation of the ESUP-Portail consortium, representing around ninety French institutions that have organised to produce a pre-integrated open source software stack for Higher Education (including uPortal and CAS, but also Moodle) has shifted the focus from North America and the UK. JASIG is now a membership organisation , with relatively modest fees designed to sustain coordination and collaboration. Elections for the Board of Directors, and formal project management groups for the JASIG 'products' are to be held shortly. The latter groups are designed to bring together developers and other strategic stakeholders both to chart a forward path and act in an advocacy role. However, the new organisational structures are designed to be flexible and enable growth and further development, rather than be constraining.
The Educause Catalyst Award
The strength of adoption of uPortal, and its maturity as a component in an enterprise framework was marked by the announcement at the JASIG conference that uPortal had been named as the recipient of this years Educause "Catalyst Award". The award is granted to "...innovations and initiatives centred on information technologies that provide groundbreaking solutions to major challenges in higher education. "
The JASIG wiki has a page which acts as a repository for presentation materials and Birds of A Feather notes from the JA-SIG Summer 2007 conference . Presentation materials are linked from their session slot.
- Java Specification Request 168 is a standard for developing those fragments which render content into a portal framework - portlets.
- Pluto http://portals.apache.org/pluto/
- Jens Haeusser, The Future of Identity Management in Higher Education. Presentation to JA-SIG, June 2007. (Powerpoint file) http://tinyurl.com/2c96xt
- JA-SIG Membership http://www.ja-sig.org/membership.html
- The full text of the Press release is available from http://www.ja-sig.org/ or as MS Word document http://www.uportal.org./news/resources/educause-award.doc
- JA-SIG Wiki: JA-SIG Conferences: Denver 2007 presentations http://www.ja-sig.org/wiki/display/JCON/Denver+2007+presentations