In a move that continues its ongoing drive to accumulate a broad set of library automation components, OCLC has acquired EZproxy from Useful Utilities, a one-person company based in Peoria, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. The acquisition of this product gives OCLC control of an important piece of the infrastructure that connects individual libraries to the content and services on the Web.
This issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter describes what the EZproxy software does and why it is important, provides some information on the business acquisition, and offers some background and perspective.
An Essential Tool to Access Electronic Content
Proxy servers like EZproxy facilitate access to Web-based information. A typical academic library spends a significant portion of its collections budget on subscriptions to electronic content with the intent to provide access to that content to its users. Libraries generally need to enable access to their patrons not only when in the library but also from off-site locations. EZproxy was developed specifically to help libraries deliver access to subscribed electronic content to off-site patrons.
When a publisher licenses its content to a library, it needs some mechanism to ensure that only the users of its subscribers gain access to the product and not the general public. Most publishers rely on IP address to regulate access, requiring that a library provide a list of the IP address ranges used within the organization it serves. This provides a convenient mechanism for on-campus or in-library access, but fails to accommodate off-site users. In order to serve off-site users, various types of proxy servers can function as an intermediary between a user and a remote service, effectively delivering to them a library IP address so that they can use these restricted resources. The key challenge lies in implementing a secure authentication system that ensures that access continues to be restricted to individuals associated with the organization with the minimum of inconvenience for library users.
A crucial component of EZproxy involves authentication—the ability to determine whether an individual is associated with the institution and has the right to access a given resource. Providing access to on-site users can easily be accomplished by virtue of their IP address of their computer. The library must use some alternate authentication mechanism to allow access to off-site patrons.
Most academic institutions maintain some type of authentication service for its user community. Practically all colleges and universities offer an authentication service as part of the campus network to support access to courseware or virtual learning environments, e-mail systems, and the like. Such an authentication service might be implemented using protocols such as LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol), CAS (Central Authentication Service), RADIUS (Remote Authentication Dialin User Service), Kerberos, or Athens. Many campuses are working toward single sign-on environments where all the network services available to the community work through a single centralized authentication service. Academic libraries increasingly rely on campus-wide authentication services rather than maintaining their own independent service.
Public libraries, however, usually don't have the luxury of authentication services provided by their higher-level organization and tend to rely on their integrated library system's patron database as the authority for identifying valid remote users. A key component of the ILS involves a database of registered library patrons, which is used for in-person circulation transactions as well as Web-based self-service features. Many of the ILS products provide an API (application programming interface) to allow it to function as an authentication service for other applications.
EZproxy was specifically designed for libraries and can take advantage of the authentication services available to both academic and public libraries. In addition to the major protocols used on campus networks, it can authenticate against library automation systems including Millennium from Innovative Interfaces, Web2 and HIP from SirsiDynix, as well as the SIP protocol supported by all the major ILS products.
Integrating EZproxy into Library Content Delivery
In order to make access seamless to its users, the library can implement a few simple changes to integrate EZproxy into the various systems it uses to point its users to its electronic resources. To invoke EZproxy, the library will reformulate the URL for each of its resources to one that routes access through the proxy server. The links provided through the library's online catalog through the 856 field in the MARC record as well as any menus, link resolvers, finding aids, or other Web pages used to provide access to restricted content will prepend the EZproxy URL to the resource's native location. For example to access the resource located at http:// tvnews.vanderbilt.edu, all access points would be adjusted to use http://proxy.library.vanderbilt.edu/login?url=http://tvnews.vanderbilt.edu. With this version of the URLs in place, as long as users go through the library's Web site, they will be able to access its resources from any location. EZproxy will detect whether they are off site and perform authentication as needed. In most cases prepending the EZproxy component of the URL can be accomplished programmatically without the need to change each one individually.
Useful Use Statistics
Given the large financial investments that libraries make in their collections of subscribed content, it is essential to measure the level of use each product receives. Content publishers routinely provide libraries with usage statistics. EZproxy also gives the library an additional means to monitor use counts through its logs. Libraries can use standard Web server log analysis tools to create reports that show the use of each product as mediated by the proxy server. These reports can be especially helpful in helping libraries measure the levels of use by patrons from off-campus locations versus those in the library or on campus.
Integration with eLearning Environments
True to the academic library orientation of EZproxy, work has been done to use the utility to help integrate library resources into the Blackboard course management system. A Blackboard building block integrates authentication mechanisms providing access to library resources listed in a course without the need for the dual logins that would otherwise be needed.
EZproxy was created by Chris Zagar, a librarian employed by the Maricopa Community College system in Arizona. The software was initially released in 1999 and by the time that it was acquired by OCLC had been purchased by over 2,400 libraries spanning sixty countries. While academic libraries comprise the majority of its users, it has also been sold to many public and special libraries. Zagar maintained a tight focus on the company, developing and supporting a single product. This focus has resulted in a reputation for highly reliable software with stellar support. The product has become the de facto proxy server used in academic libraries.
The cost of EZproxy has held steady at $495 since its initial release. At this price, EZproxy ranks as an extremely inexpensive, but essential, infrastructure component for libraries. Unlike most other software products, Useful Utilities offers perpetual free maintenance once an institution purchases the product, which includes the access to new releases of the software and technical support. Sales of EZproxy have generated revenue of just over $1 million since its initial release.
EZproxy is not open source software. Useful Utilities developed EZproxy using the traditional closed source licensing model, but with extremely liberal terms and at a very low price.
In 2006, LITA, the Library & Information Technology Association, a division of the American Library Association, awarded Zagar the Brett Butler entrepreneurship Award in recognition of his work in creating EZproxy.
The purchase of EZproxy transfers to OCLC the ownership of the software and responsibility for support to its existing customers. OCLC indicates that it will honor the commitment made by Useful Utilities for ongoing technical support and software updates to libraries that have previously purchased EZproxy. The software continues to be available at the same price from OCLC as it was from Useful Utilities prior to its acquisition.
Zagar will join OCLC as a full-time consultant for at least the next year, taking a leave of absence from his position in the Maricopa Community College Libraries. In this role, he will help OCLC integrate EZproxy into WorldCat.org and further develop authentication services.
The acquisition of EZproxy by OCLC has sparked a few blog entries expressing concern about OCLC's new ownership of this ubiquitous software and suggesting the development of an open source alternative. (e.g., http://synthetic librarian.com/2008/01/12/ezproxy -to-be-acquired-by-oclc-time-for-an-open -source-alternative)
OCLC's supporters will interpret this move as a savvy strategy to strengthen the organization's ability to expand services related toWorldCat.org into libraries. Those skeptical of OCLC, including its commercial competitors, might view this acquisition with more concern. In either case, the acquisition of EZproxy may rank as a small financial maneuver for an organization with $235 million in annual revenue, but one that gives to OCLC a strategic technological advantage. Although the terms of the purchase have not yet been released, from a financial perspective, this transaction ranks far below OCLC's other recent acquisitions such as that of Sisis Informationssysteme ($4.5 million), Fretwell Downing Informatics ($8.9 million), and Openly Informatics ($1.95 million). As OCLC aims to develop new services through WorldCat, by acquiring EZproxy it gains ownership of a critical piece of infrastructure already positioned deeply within the networks of over 2,400 institutions.
[Note: EZproxy, developed by Useful Utilities, should not be confused with ezProxy offered by LavaSoftware, a utility that allows multiple computers on a small business or home network to share a single connection to the Internet.]