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BeSTGRID's Sakai Virtual Research Environment

Discussion Document Version 0.2

March 2007

A/Prof Paul Bonnington
Director of eResearch, University of Auckland, Director - BeSTGRID

Sam Searle
eResearch Coordinator, Victoria University of Wellington

Nick Jones
Project Manager, BeSTGRID,

[edit] Abstract:

Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment supports teaching and learning, and group collaboration (e.g. for research). This document discusses the BeSTGRID-Sakai Virtual Research Environment(VRE) for supporting collaborative groups. This VRE demonstrates use of KAREN to support collaborative research.
New Zealand BeSTGRID Sakai deployment data

BeSTGRID's Sakai Virtual Research Enviroment (VRE) facilitates collaboration and communication for specialist research communities within New Zealand.

[edit] Current Situation

[edit] Background: Virtual Research Environments

Many overseas organisations in research and education are developing what are becoming known as "virtual research environments" (VREs).

At their most basic, these are collaborative environments that enable administrators and participants to undertake a range of activities including:

  • communicating via both asynchronous (email, bulletin boards) and real-time (instant messaging, text chat, and less commonly, voice- and videoconferencing) channels
  • sharing documents
  • managing a "virtual organisation" e.g. meeting calendar, project management tools
  • aggregating information e.g. through RSS feeds from sites of relevance.

At first glance, there is considerable overlap between the concept of a VRE and other tools and services such as:

  • commercial suites of groupware products from vendors such as Microsoft (Live Communications Server, Exchange, Sharepoint), IBM (Workplace Collaboration Services) and Oracle (Collaboration Suite);
  • commercial portal and content management systems (CMSs) for intranets and websites, such as the Luminis platform used to develop MyVictoria;
  • open source products as wikis and blogs;
  • hosted web services, provided on a free basis (e.g. Yahoo!Groups, Google Groups, MSN Groups) or by companies that may also provide value-add services around design and facilitation;
  • peer-to-peer filesharing networks and ’social networking’ sites such as MySpace;
  • virtual learning environments (VLEs) or learning management systems (LMSs) that support group communication for teaching and learning. A range of well-supported and widely-used commercial products are available (e.g. Blackboard, WebCT) and open-source products such as Moodle also have a significant user base.

Unlike most of these products though, VREs are developing in ways that specifically support e-reseach.

The long-term vision is that VREs could support e-researchers in their day-to-day work by providing collaboration functions alongside other tools such as portals, repositories, hardware and scientific equipment, software applications, library resources and knowledge management tools (e.g. for collecting resources into a personalised 'bookshelf' and annotating them), and common desktop applications.

[edit] Sakai internationally

The Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment has been implemented at more than 100 research and education organisations internationally. It supports both e-learning and e-research functions.

Sakai appears to be gaining ground as the de facto base product for VRE development, particularly within the UK JISC Virtual Research Environments (VRE) programme, which started in 2004 and was recently allocated £2 million for further work.

[edit] Sakai in Australasia

The BeSTGRID project recently set up a Sakai Collaboration Server, which they are making available to other members of the KAREN community on a trial basis.

At the University of Auckland, Sakai is already being used by BeSTGRID and some of its constituent groups. A controlled rollout to further research groups will take place over the next few months, with a production rollout to follow (based on an assessment of ongoing support requirements).

As we move forwards, the NZ community should be able to draw on the experience of Australian colleagues working with Sakai at ANU, Charles Sturt, Melbourne and Monash.

[edit] Support for collaborative research

Support of research groups is driven by the needs of individual projects / schools / faculties and tends to be provided at that level.

Because of the need for research groups to share information often in a secure and private environment, it is difficult to gauge if freely available tools such as as wikis and hosted web services are being used. It seems likely that more researchers have been "making do" with tools such as email and project websites, and are sharing data by email, FTP, and in some cases, physical transport on storage media such as CDs/DVDs and portable hard drives.

[edit] Goal

The goal of the BeSTGRID Sakai pilot project is to evaluate Sakai in terms of its support for groups involved in research collaborations.

[edit] Objectives

  1. Act as a demonstrator that showcases New Zealand's use of KAREN.
  2. Promote the use of KAREN for research through the introduction of high bandwidth and/or collaborative applications.
  3. Raise the awareness of individuals and groups in the University about the opportunities KAREN presents.
  4. Develop New Zealand's knowledge base with regard to applications that will enable us to maximise use of KAREN.
  5. Foster relationships with REANNZ and with other KAREN members.

[edit] Success Criteria

  1. Sakai is used by a small group of researchers in the context of their everyday research activities.
  2. Evaluation of the project leads to firm recommendations about a path forwards, either with Sakai or another similar product.

[edit] Approach

  1. Recruit participants; participants will be research groups with an identified lead participant who will be responsible for setting up and maintaining the Sakai worksite.
  2. Work with lead participants to set up worksites for their research group.
  3. Provide a demo / training session, either as a group or one-on-one with researchers.
  4. Provide ongoing support, both technical troubleshooting and also encouragement. Preferably support should be done using Sakai, e.g. through a particular strand on the discussion board.
  5. Evaluate the project by monitoring ongoing usage on a weekly basis and holding a workshop session with participants.

[edit] Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment

[edit] Functionality

Sakai includes a wide range of tools, not all of which are appropriate for supporting research groups (i.e. some are more e-learning oriented).

Some of the functions likely to be desired by research groups are:

  • Announcements
  • Chat Room
  • Discussion
  • Email Archive
  • News
  • Resources
  • Schedule Tool
  • Wiki

A range of management tools for the administrator are also available.

[edit] Development history and user base / community

An overview of the Sakai features is provided at:

Sakai grew out of collaborative work by Indiana, Michigan and Stanford universities to develop an open source test and survey tool.

In December 2003, these universities, along with MIT and Uportal, received a Mellon Foundation grant to develop an open source CMS application within 2 years. Total funding for the project included US$4.4M in shared staff (27 FTEs), $2.7M project grants and additional investment from community partners.

By December 2005, there had been a number of releases: 1.0 (Oct 04); 1.5 (Mar 05); 1.5.1 (May 05); 2.0 (June 05); 2.0.1 (Aug 05). A number of organisations had deployed Sakai, and the community was developing.

The Sakai distributed development team now consists of more than 100 volunteers from 30+ organisations.

The number of Sakai partners has grown rapidly to over 100. More than 200+ implementations worldwide: a list of many of these is available at:

Many implementations are serving large numbers of users: e.g. 100,000+ at Indiana; 11,000-50,000 at Berkeley, Cambridge, Cape Town, Michigan, Virginia Tech and Yale; 1,500-10,000 at more than 10 other sites, including Charles Sturt University in Australia.

There are links between the Sakai initiatives and other e-research activities such as NEESgrid and the National Middleware Initiative grid portal project in the US.

Four Australian universities – ANU, Charles Sturt, Melbourne and Monash have joined the Sakai partnership and are at different stages of uptake. Auckland University’s BeSTGrid project have recently set up a Sakai Collaboration Server. This will be made available to the KAREN community in NZ on a trial basis.

[edit] Business model

The Sakai Initiative aims to develop large-scale software applications for collaborative research and teaching.

The Sakai project is managed by the Sakai Foundation, a non-profit institution.

The overall operation of the Foundation based on a "community source" model whereby partners interested in influencing the strategic direction of development work can pay annual membership fees of US$10,000. NB: Membership is optional.

[edit] Licensing and costs

Sakai software is open-source, and is distributed under the Educational Community Licence v.1.0 (

It is therefore free to acquire, use, copy, modify, merge, publish, redistribute and sublicense for any purpose provided a copyright notice and disclaimer are included in all copies of the original or derivative works.

The ECL encourages a wide range of use including commercial production of derivative works. Derivative works do not have to adopt the Sakai license or publish the source code as open-source (this is very different from GPL).

[edit] Technical requirements

According to the Sakai knowledgebase:

The Sakai software will run on a wide range of systems, from desktop computers through a small multiprocessor system through a clustered scalable environment. Sakai provides configuration options for small, medium, and large installations, and is targeted to meet the scaling, localization, and support demands of all such applications.

NB. These requirements relate to installing a Sakai Collaboration Server locally. For the pilot project we will be accessing the server hosted by the University of Auckland.

  • Java SE 1.5.0
  • Tomcat 5.5.17+ andand the JDK 1.4 compatibility package
  • Maven
  • MySQL 4.1.12+ with InnoDB OR Oracle 9i+

Sakai is web-based, so there is no requirement to install clients. Sakai is designed to work with the following browsers:

  • Windows: Internet Explorer 5.5 and newer, Netscape 7.1 and newer, Mozilla Firefox
  • Macintosh: Netscape 7.1 and newer, Mozilla Firefox
  • Other platforms: Netscape 7.1 and newer, Mozilla Firefox

Some functions will not work well or at all in Macintosh Safari, Macintosh Internet Explorer, Camino 0.7, Netscape 7.0 or older, and Opera.

Software downloads and further technical information are available at:

[edit] Demos

International and local demos are available:

Sakai Project Demo
BeSTGrid Sakai VRE in New Zealand Demo
BeSTGRID Sakai VRE - Production/Pilot deployment details

[edit] Further information