By Phil Hill
After last year’s disastrous outage at UC Davis due to Scriba Corp’s change of data center for the Sakai LMS (branded as SmartSite at UC Davis), it turns out that there is more damage to be done as the company slowly disappears. What appears to have happened in the past few months is that Scriba has not been paying this new data center provider (IO Data Centers), and that company is withholding the data on its servers until the issue is resolved. The end result is that several remaining Scriba customers have lost not just a live Sakai site but also the underlying current and historic course data. In at least one case, this dispute has caused a distance education program to be halted until the school figures out how to set up a new LMS site and to recreate their course content.
Based on two people familiar with Scriba’s recent operations, despite several remaining schools continuing to pay hosting fees, Scriba was not fully paying IO Data Centers. While I have no information on whether there was a legitimate complaint or whether this was simply non-payment to save cash while Scriba died, I will point out that last Spring Scriba’s contract with the Apereo Foundation to remain a commercial affiliate was cancelled under similar circumstances. Scriba simply stopped paying Apereo until the foundation’s board voted to terminate their contract.
One remaining program that had been using Scriba’s services was the Naval Postgraduate School’s Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace (LDESP), a graduate program combining distance education courses and seminars. On one of the program’s websites is the message:
The secure LDESP site is down. We regret to inform you that the LDESP courses are not accessible at this time. We are attempting to migrate the content to an alternative site. We apologize for the inconvenience.
A source directly involved with that program confirmed that the program lost access to their course data after the Scriba site went down.
Just under two years ago we reported about the strange circumstances of Scriba’s current ownership.
It looks like we have another name and ownership change for one of the major Sakai partners, but this time the changes have a very closed feel to them. rSmart, led by Chris Coppola at the time, was one of the original Sakai commercial affiliates, and the LMS portion of the company was eventually sold to Asahi Net International (ANI) in 2013. ANI had already been involved in the Sakai community as a Japanese partner and also as an partial investor in rSmart, so that acquisition was not seen as a huge change other than setting the stage for KualiCo to acquire the remainder of rSmart.
In late April, however, ANI was acquired by a private equity firm out of Los Angeles (Vert Capital), and this move is different. Vert Capital did not just acquire ANI; they also changed the company name to Scriba and took the company off the grid for now. No news items explaining intentions, no web site, no changes to Apereo project page, etc. Japanese press coverage of the acquisition mentions the parent company’s desire to focus on the Japanese market.
So from the beginning this setup showed problems, and there were serious questions about Vert Capital’s operations. Just over one year later came the move to IO Data Centers as the data center provider, and the massive outage for UC Davis and other schools happened as part of this move. Despite UC Davis paying for premium support and disaster recovery services, Scriba’s CEO Mike Sanders described to me how their database mirroring failed, and they failed to give the required notification for the outage in the first place. I summarized:
I’m sorry for being so direct, but this outage that significantly affected a campus of 32,000 students for the last three weeks of the term comes down to a case of gross negligence. Scriba had no business signing the amended contract terms last year, as they clearly had inadquate staff and processes to actually meet the service levels promised. Scriba did not even attempt to meet their contractual obligations in complying with freezes, 6-week notification, 24-hour recovery, and communications during events.
During the outage, Scriba stopped communicating with most schools, who had no access to course materials and no idea of when the problem might be resolved. UC Davis eventually set up their own Sakai instance while they continued their transition to Canvas. For several other schools, other Sakai commercial affiliates (primarily Longsight) proactively set up new Sakai instances to help the schools out, at least those who still had access to their data. This move continued through the rest of 2016, although not all schools had fully moved off Scriba. Kudos to Longsight and others, by the way, for helping out during these problems.
Scriba slowly ceased to operate as a hosting provider company, and most employees left. I am not aware if anyone is left at this point.
In the meantime, Scriba’s web site is still functioning, soliciting orders for new Sakai instances. Vert Capital’s web site contains no references to Scriba, but they do have two other ed tech companies in their portfolio – Genesis Collaboration and Poolworks.
Now we apparently can add the new problem of data center disputes and inability for customers to get course content and data they own. This raises the question of what it means to actually own this content. By and large, institutions own their course data in any LMS, regardless of hosting model. Since Sakai is open source, there is no question that the Naval Postgraduate School owns their course content and data from a licensing perspective. But what if Scriba’s contract with IO states that the data center does not have to release any content upon non-payment? I suspect this case will have to be resolved in the courts, or at least with threats of lawsuits. But in the meantime several programs are left without any meaningful access to or usage of the stuff they own. Ownership is a hollow term until this dispute is resolved.
While Scriba Corp has clearly been a bad actor in the ed tech field since their acquisition by Vert Capital and therefore are somewhat unique, this ongoing story should be a wake up call to other schools. Do you have a disaster recovery plan in place, and more importantly, have you tested it? Can you verify that you have access to your course content? There are important considerations.
We do not often run stories at e-Literate purely from anonymous sources, but in this case it seemed important as each independent source backed up what the others were saying. But if I have got any portion of this story wrong, or if Vert Capital wants to correct the record, I will update accordingly.
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