Wednesday, October 27, 2010

SchoolTool & Critical Links

I drove down to New Jersey last week for a very interesting (to say the least) meeting with the folks at Critical Links. Basically, they're a company which has expanded from offering a "small business in a box" server appliance to a "school network in a box" appliance, including IT functions (firewall, web filter, vpn, etc.) and educational applications (Moodle, LAMS).

And for two years, they've been shipping SchoolTool as an integral part of the product. This is, of course, exactly the kind of thing we've always wanted, although it is somewhat baffling that they never told us about it. We did have some developer to developer communication on specific bugs, but we had no idea of what the larger project was.

They've got many existing and in progress deployments around the world. Portugal is the flagship with over 1200 schools. Other smaller customers in Senegal, Nigeria, South Africa, Malta, the Seychelles Islands. That's just from my jotted notes; I need to get a full list. They support English, French, Portuguese and Spanish. Good i18n support was key to their selection of SchoolTool.

Critical Links also has a strong relationship with Intel's education efforts. They're in the process of making their stack (including SchoolTool) an official "Intel Reference Recipe," and it is the standard server solution for Intel Classmate PC deployments.

When I first heard this, I was baffled because frankly any SIS/gradebook/attendance, etc. system, even one more mature than SchoolTool, would generate tons of questions, requirements, necessary customizations when dropped into even a few schools, let alone thousands spread over several continents.

It turns out they're currently using SchoolTool in a very specific way. Essentially, SchoolTool is used to manage student enrollment, courses and sections. They've hooked SchoolTool into the server's internal message passing system, so that, for example, when you add a student, they're added to Moodle as well. It is a familiar concept which we've explored as well on several occasions.

They've reskinned SchoolTool to blend in with their other integrated apps, and made a number of other small changes and improvements to make SchoolTool fit smoothly into their processes. Each server contains several virtual machines running Linux From Scratch instances, so they're building SchoolTool from source.

Overall, they didn't seem like the most open source savvy company. I'm trying to sort out what the technical requirements for GPL compatibility here are, but they are open to contributing back their changes and since SchoolTool is usually distributed as interpreted source code anyhow (I guess you could just distribute byte code if you wanted to), I don't see full compliance (if they're not meeting it now) as something that would constitute a strategic problem for them.

What this means is we have a big distribution channel in place, also potentially a marketing and training channel, and an installed base of users who are currently under-utilizing SchoolTool. It also means that the "bootstrapping" phase of SchoolTool's history is over -- we no longer have to worry about the problem of writing usable software without enough users. Of course, this opens up a whole set of exciting new questions, tier 2 support, training models, marketing, etc.

In fact, our overall distribution channel story is shaping up nicely here at the end of the year. We've got:

  • Critical Links appliance to Intel Classmate deployments and many other sites;
  • Progressing toward a March pilot in Cambodia to demonstrate working directly with a NGO and national government;
  • OLE Nepal should finish their RPM packages for OLPC servers this week (Fedora 13 packages are done already), giving us a pilot and channel for OLPC deployments;
  • We'll finally be back in Edubuntu for 11.4.

Lots to absorb and process!

1 comment:

matthewboh said...

Excellent! Glad to hear things are going so well!