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Look what I found up the street

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I'd walked by here a number of times but hadn't been far enough away to notice that big sign up there.

That's the Blackboard HQ right there across the street from the NPR building. I knew it was around here somewhere, I just hadn't found it yet.

Changing student storage habits

I had to do some maintenance on my script that gathers disk-space usage, so the stats database has been on my mind lately. It's been a while since I posted any graphs. This particular graph is a unified chart of the student home-directory volumes over time. I merged the NetWare and Windows volumes into a single space-used chart.

This is a very noisy chart.The discontinuities are mostly student-account-purge events that happen once a quarter, but the fall purge is by far the largest.

Note the downward tail at the end! The same chart for staff is a pretty smooth line straight up at a pretty steady slope. This? Clearly usage-habits are changing. I don't know if this is reflected by habitual USB-drive use or if they're using the cloud in some way to store their files, but clearly student-driven storage demand (at least for home-directories) is falling.

One area where it is clearly increasing is the Blackboard Content volume.
This data is noisy in that we purge old courses, but we've also changed how many quarters of courses we keep in the system. Looking at this growth chart, it's pretty clear to me that the downtick in student home-directory and class-volume consumption is made up for in increased Blackboard usage. Each quarter more and more professors sign on, other professors increase their usage, and the average size of the files being passed into the system increases.
I'm going over some of my older posts and am reposting some of the good stuff that's still relevant. I've been at this a while, so there is a good week's worth of good essays hiding in the archives.
In 2008 the Western Front, our Campus newspaper, ran an article about the efforts of the Computer Science department to attempt to manipulate Moodle into something that could replace Blackboard. This sparked an essay on my part, and is the closest I've come to actual political advocacy in this blog. I try to avoid that, since it can get you canned. But it was on technical merits, so I felt somewhat safe.

For those of you who've never worked with education in a technical sense, Blackboard is a classroom Groupware product. It has all the things you'd expect; like whiteboards, homework and testing methods, as well as the all important grade-book. Blackboard also holds all the right patents so it's the only really serious commercial classroom groupware product out there, much the same reason that no one is really a direct for-profit competitor to Adobe PhotoShop. A lot of cash-strapped .edus out there (and there are a lot) have striven to replace the very expensive Blackboard with the very open-source Moodle.

This essay turned into a good illumination of the hurdles facing our conversion from a closed-source critical-path enterprise application to an open-source critical-path enterprise application. Some of the things in the article have changed, we're running MySQL in a couple of places and I know 'enterprise' support is available for Moodle now, but the main intent is still valid.

Overthrowing Blackboard

Overthrowing Blackboard

The most recent Western Front, our Student newspaper, ran an article about looking for a replacement for Blackboard. You can read the article online here.

And now, a warning.

This is my personal opinion, it in no way reflects the official view of this department or any WWU entity.


The Computer Science department is apparently evaluating Moodle as a possible Blackboard killer. I personally cheer this research, since I don't particularly like Blackboard. Plus, it could shave a few months off of any replacement project that may come of this. That said, there are a few bits of the article that need some amplification or clarification.
Western’s computer science department is in the process of testing a new e-learning software this summer quarter that could potentially replace Blackboard sometime next year.
Eh, not really. And the reason for this is actually alluded to in the next paragraph:
“I think students tend to find [Blackboard] more frustrating especially when it goes down and they have something due for a class and cannot access it,” said David Bover, chair of the computer science department.
If Blackboard goes down for even a single day, mayhem ensues on campus. Blackboard is, for lack of any other way to put it, critical path for us. If it goes down, the learning function of this University is significantly negatively impacted. Any instabilities are noticed, as Dr. Bover pointed out. This is a system that has to be rock stable, and always there when you need it. We have very few systems in that class of service, and SCT Banner (our ERP solution) is one of the others.

What this means is that any replacement for Blackboard has to be at least as stable as Blackboard, and provably so. It needs to come with Enterprise level support with a rapid response option, something I'm not sure Moodle has. It also needs to support the load we throw at it, and provide at least Blackboard-equivalent functionality for the exact same or less in resource costs.

Our Blackboard infrastructure right now includes 7 physical servers (only three of which are VM candidates) and 2 network load-balancers. Also involved are a large number of people on the back end to handle the Banner integration stuff that happens behind the scenes to do things like create new courses, manage enrollments in courses, and maintain the user accounts inside Blackboard. This second group, the Banner integration, is where the second largest engineering challenge will be for any presumed Blackboard-to-Moodle migration project. This second group is also the one that is hardest for the CompSci group to evaluate work-flow for.

What's more, due to various requirements, we need to have the ability for students who challenge grades to have access to course-work and grade-book for the class in question. We need something like 3 years of archive for this, so we will have to be dual-stacked for up to 3 years after migration go-live in order to handle challenges to courses done while still on Blackboard. This archival blackboard install will require us to have software and at least 2 servers to support it.

Moving to Moodle will also require us to be a bit more nimble in responding to user requests. As the article says:
With Moodle, professors will be able to install plugins or create their own to fit specific needs for their course.
This will ultimately require a dedicated Moodle programmer somewhere within ITS. That's a staff position, which means budget. Due to how WWU's accounting works, we can't just take the hardware and software savings from Blackboard and convert it into a new FTE. Whether or not this FTE is a lateral transfer from somewhere within ITS already, is up to the migration project people whoever they may ultimately be.

In short, any Blackboard-to-Moodle project will not be run to completion by Fall 2009 even if CompSci comes up with a Moodle config that reaches feature parity with Blackboard, and looks to be just as stable. The Banner integration alone will require significant engineering on the part of ITS departments, and to be blunt the group who 'owns' Blackboard is seriously short-staffed right now and can't even think of a migration project yet. Load testing and sheer re-education on the part of Blackboard users will take a lot of resources and time all by itself.

The somewhat ironic part of this is that Moodle was brought to my attention a couple of Brainshares ago. At the time we were having serious stability problems with Blackboard, so several of us got kinda wistful-eyed at the thought of giving Blackboard the ole heave-ho. Since then I've heard that Moodle is beginning to eat into Blackboard's installed base, especially in cash-strapped Community Colleges. One can hope.

And in closing, a few hints to any of those CompSci people working on this project:
  • For the love of Richard Stallman, make sure the database behind Moodle is either MSSQL2005 or Oracle. We already run two RDBMS's, we will not be running a third *cough*mysql*cough*. No matter how politely you ask. Asking us to add a brand new RDBMS onto the critical path is simply too much to ask for. There is a slight preference for Oracle since that's what Banner runs in and that eases certain integration tasks.
  • Please answer the question of, "The system is in flaming ruins, and we're all flummoxed. Who do we call?" Because the reply we give to irate Professors wondering why they can't report grades matters a lot, "We're working closely with the vendor right now," sounds way better and more professional than, "We've asked some people in the community who know this stuff better than we do, and hope to have some answers soon." We have way more Professors (and students for that matter) who don't give a wet noodle for the ethics behind their software, just so long as it works right.
  • Please account for a test environment that functions identically to production. Since Blackboard is critical path, we actually have a test environment we do things like work through upgrade problems, validate configs, and troubleshoot errors out of production. This right now is a single box with MSSQL2005 and Blackboard installed on it, compared to Production where the web-servers, content servers, and database server roles are all on different machines. Blackboard allows this, but not all software plays nice like that.
Thank you. And remember, this is just me blowing wind, it doesn't represent anything like an official viewpoint of this university, this department, or this office.

Events while I was gone

We did some work with the UPS/Generator transfer switch. That caused a spew of SMS messages that I got out in the boonies.

Also, Novell has released the Novell Vista Client. This is the full release, not a beta. It even is fully localized!

The end of classes is nigh, so we're gearing up for the mass of upgrades that'll be going in while we have no classes being taught.
  • Get a new VCS version on the EVA
  • Upgrade BlackBoard to a newer rev
  • Move BlackBoard back-end database to SQL2005
  • BIQuery upgrade
  • Banner work
  • A lot of disaster-recovery testing and setup
Gonna be a busy few weeks, there.

Getting creative with Blackboard

I had me an idea yesterday. One of those ideas that I'm not sure is a good one, but wow does it make a certain kind of sense.

We, like all too many schools run Blackboard as the groupware product supporting our classrooms. There is an opensource product out there that also can do this, but we're not running it. That's not what this post is about.

First a wee bit of architecture. Roughly speaking, Blackboard is separated into three bits. The web server, the content server, and the database. The web-server is the classic Application Server that is what students and teachers interface with. The web server then talks with both the content server and database server. The content server is the ultimate home of all things like passed in homework. The database server glues this all together.

Due to policies, we have to keep courses in Blackboard for a certain number of quarters just in case a student challenges a grade. They may not be available to everyone, but those courses are still in the system. And so is all of the homework and assorted files associated with that class. Because of this, it is not unusual for us to have 2 years (6-7 quarters) of classes living on the content server, of which all but one quarter is essentially dead storage.

One of the problems we've had is that when it comes time to actually delete a course, it doesn't always clean up the Content associated with that course. Quite annoying.

This is a case where Dynamic Storage Technology would be great. Right now our Blackboard Content servers are a pair of Windows servers in a Windows Cluster. It struck me yesterday that this function could be fulfilled by a pair of OES2 servers in a Novell Clustering Services setup (or Heartbeat, but I don't know how to set THAT up), using Samba and DST to manage the storage. That way stuff that is accessed in the past, oh, 3 months would be on the fast EVA storage, and stuff older than 3 months would be exiled to the slow MSA storage. As the file-serving is done by way of web-servers rather than direct access, the performance hit by using Samba won't be noticable as the concurrency is well below the limit where that becomes a problem. Additionally, since all the files are owned by the same user I could use a non-NSS filesystem for even faster performance.


The problem here is that OES2 isn't out yet. Such a fantastical idea may be doable in the 2008 intersession window, but we may have other upgrades to handle there. But still, it IS an interesting idea.

Blackboard patent


This will be bad. BlackBoard already has a near lock on the 'learningware' market, and this patent will help enforce that. Not good.

Let me put it this way. Of all the BlackBoard administrators I've spoken with, none of them admit pleasure involved with that part of their jobs.