Interview with Harry Chan, CEO of MediaFlex

NY State school libraries fund flexible software

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Recently, I was having breakfast with a colleague who is a former school librarian. She was telling me that the local school district had adopted OPALS (Open Source Automated Library System). Naturally, my curiosity was aroused. I did some checking and Googling on what my friend had told me about a man named Harry Chan. Harry is the CEO of Media Flex, a company headquartered in Champlain, New York and Montreal, Quebec.

In 1985, Media Flex began developing PC-based library software. The MARC record, with its 999 fields, subfields, and subfield indicators, is very difficult to program for. However, back in 1985 and the days of IBM PC XT, MediaFlex was able to do this with only 512k of RAM and five-megabyte hard drives. In the early 2000s, Harry read Tom Friedman's book, The World is Flat. In it, there's a chapter on open source software that made him take a second look at open source. His foresight enabled Media Flex to see that although they had automated many libraries with their previous systems, there were many more that had not been automated, and those libraries would become increasingly web-based. They also saw that the kind of funding that existed in schools would preclude the use of very expensive systems. The tipping point for OPALS development came when they were approached by a half dozen school libraries in New York State who had grown tired of looking for support of an inflexible cataloging system they were currently using. They offered to provide the funding if Media Flex would do the development.

Harry is an "erstwhile" history teacher who studied the history of open source movements. His study convinced him that the most successful open source venture was Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). He studied Red Hat's model of development and sought to replicate that. Media Flex saw the value of free software, but also that, like Red Hat, they would need a core of developers and support people to maintain. They, therefore, decided to make their software open source.

Because of their experience selling to schools since 1969, they knew that they needed to bridge the gap of uncertainty that might hamper the development of OPALS within a school environment. By collecting relatively small service fees from client library systems, they're able to provided development and support for various modules and functionality within the OPALS software, while at the same time providing the necessary support to carry the business venture forward. Media Flex provides support for OPALS with a staff of fourteen fulltime developers.

Their goal was to help "the last be first." They wanted the poorest libraries to be able to have the best system. While that goal may seem idyllic and unattainable to some, the company remains fixed on their goal. What also intrigues me about their business model is they provide support "pro-bono" for a given number of schools each year due to the overall success of the business.

OPALS is licensed under a GPL license, and libraries can elect to support it on their own hardware or have it hosted by Media Flex in the United States, or by Bibliofiche in Canada and internationally. Media Flex hosts nearly two thirds of the 2,000 libraries worldwide currently using OPALS. The other third are self-hosted and supported by MediaFlex.

The system runs on Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 or Centos 5 and uses Apache, Perl, Zebra, and MySQL. The server requirements are modest: Pentium 4 with 2 Ghz processor, 8 gigabytes of RAM, and a minimum 200 gigabyte SCSI hard disk. The Western New York Regional Information Center, which provides library services for a large number of public school districts in New York State, is one such self-hosted system. Client systems are very modest and access to the system is via a browser as no client side software is required. A complete list of overall system requirements is listed here.

The mission statement of MediaFlex is "listen, communicate, innovate and serve." That could well be a maxim for the open source community as a whole. Though OPALS has a well-established presence in schools, it is just beginning to gain traction in public libraries as well. Harry was quick to point out that OPALS is used in a public children's library in Montreal, which of course needed to support two languages, which is easily handled by OPALS. Users can easily customize OPALS due to its design and the following introduction to the system comes from their website:

"OPALS is an economical, sustainable, state-of-the-art solution for over a thousand school libraries around the world. Web-based OPALS is a 24/7 information source for students and teachers wherever they are. Design your own unique portal using OPALS widgets to add pictures, news, new items thumbnails and descriptions, RSS feeds, Pathfinders and widgets."

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About the author

Don Watkins - Educator, education technology specialist,  entrepreneur, open source advocate. M.A. in Educational Psychology, MSED in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator, CCNA, virtualization using Virtual Box. Follow me at @Don_Watkins .