The CASS leadership team: Carrie Hertel (BSG director), Carlos Jensen (CASS director), and Lance Albertson (OSL director)

A new Oregon State University center offering services in product testing, software development and hosting in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) formed this fall and has hit the ground running with their first client, Oregon Sea Grant.

Fortunate timing facilitated the partnership of the Open Source Lab (OSL) and the Business Solutions Group (BSG) to create the Center for Applied Systems and Software (CASS). Just a year after the OSL changed affiliation from Information Services to EECS, the BSG was looking to switch from the College of Business to a new home department. The idea for a center that could be an economic engine for Oregon and a training ground for students in electrical engineering and computer science was the brain child of Terri Fiez, director of strategic initiatives for the School of EECS.

At first glance it might seem to be bringing together two opposite camps — the BSG has worked primarily with proprietary software like Microsoft, and the OSL was on the other side of the spectrum dealing only in open source. But both groups could see the potential in expanding their services by working together.

“We can now cover the breadth of technology. The collaboration has allowed us to be open to whatever technology fits the project best,” said Carrie Hertel, director of the BSG. “I’m really excited that we've developed this awesome group and we’ll have the support to really grow and take some risks to try new things.”

Carlos Jensen, associate professor of computer science, and a proponent of student involvement in open source, stepped in as director for CASS and has been shaping the direction of the new center. He said that although the two groups have been working on different types of projects, their basic structure was the same.

Both organizations have for several years delivered products and services to clients, both external and internal to Oregon State, while providing real world training opportunities for students. The students interact directly with clients, and are supervised by professional staff who provide mentorship and ensure the products are delivered as promised.

The student experience is the main focus of CASS. There are currently about 60 students working as developers, systems engineers, systems administrators and test engineers. For Jensen, this was the main driver for focusing on innovation.

“In an educational environment and a research environment you need to be stretched. If you're not pushing the boundaries then you're not really imparting all the knowledge and experience that you could be for the students,” he said.

The first CASS project was one that neither group had undertaken previously — mobile applications. Oregon Sea Grant contracted with CASS to develop two mobile apps for iOS and Android. “Oregon Catch” will be an app to help visitors buy fresh fish directly from ocean fisherman, and “Working Waterfronts” will provide educational information about industrial sites on the coast to tourists.

For student, Michael Freeman, who is designing the user interface for the apps, it was a new experience to collaborate with the students from the OSL who are providing the server hosting. “It’s been a really valuable experience to learn how to communicate with another group to solve problems in transferring information from the database to the user,” he said.

Despite the fact that CASS was delving into new territories on their first project, the experience for client Mark Farley, manager of the Hatfield Marine Science Center Visitor Center, has been seamless.  He was especially impressed with the professionalism of the students, who he could not distinguish from the staff. “I was on the look-out for problems, but in meeting after meeting I was just delighted. It’s been fantastic,” he said.

OSL director, Lance Albertson said another benefit of the collaboration is the opportunity to learn from each other — taking the best of both operations. He recognized that the BSG has a very good structured approach to project management that the OSL side can learn from. “I'm also excited about seeing how we can integrate a DevOps philosophy into how the BSG builds and deploys applications. They've historically taken a more traditional approach with applications and we can help them experiment using new DevOps tools and methodologies,” Albertson said.

Jensen also plans to build on the strengths of the BSG and the OSL in providing experiential learning for students by facilitating a smoother transition from project work to career opportunities. Beyond the obvious advantage for the students, he sees it as a benefit to the clients.

“The ultimate selling point for someone to come and partner with us is that you get to introduce students to a technology that you really care about, and make sure that by the time they graduate they are very familiar with your technology and your workflow,” Jensen said.

Although currently the two groups are housed in their original locations, there are plans to eventually co-locate to make collaborations easier. Both groups will maintain their separate identities for consistency with current clients. This was especially important for the OSL which has become known nationally and internationally as a neutral hosting site for industries to collaborate on emerging technologies. 

Combining two groups naturally comes with some growing pains but Hertel, Albertson and Jensen agree that it has all gone relatively smoothly. Even though the BSG and OSL were formed and developed in very different locations, they have found a natural home together in the School of EECS.

“It’s a partnership that made sense and it was the right time to make the move,” Jensen said. “We have an assertive, aggressive, optimistic view of the future that will drive innovation.”