David Orrell speaking at an OpenAthens conference in 2016

David Orrell: Pillar of the OpenAthens we know

01 November 2023 • Candela Valle Silva, senior product marketing manager

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others,” Pericles.

In the early days, OpenAthens used to be very small. Our office was in Bath, and the team was working to lay the ground of the service we know today. Many in that initial team are still part of our now much bigger organization, and David Orrell was one of them. He became a core pillar in the development and success of the product.

David was the OpenAthens’ principal architect for over two decades and a key part of our team. His impact was big, personally, and professionally. David had a drive to adopt open standards, to the point that it is to him whom we owe our name. It was he who designed and delivered the change from the old Athens protocol to SAML and established the OpenAthens Federation. This move changed the "old" Athens to the modern OpenAthens, and helped us thrive during changes to our funding model.

OpenAthens feels like a family that has grown over the last 28 years. David was one of those members that saw us expand from Eduserv to Athens and finally, to OpenAthens. He was key to our growth until last August, when the news of his sudden passing shook the team.

Today the OpenAthens’ family is battling with the emotions and deep sadness of the news. Aware of how unmeasurable David’s contributions are. David was the driving force in developing our service into what is today. His ability to look forward, his understanding, and his expertise underpinned the development of a service that currently helps users in nearly every country in the world, every single day.

Constant contributions to our growth

Always at the forefront of innovation, David was aware of everything ongoing in the industry. Many of OpenAthens' current features are heavily influenced by him. Our administrator tools are an example. They provide librarians with the control to configure OpenAthens, being a key differentiator of our library product. David designed and contributed much of the code for their development.

As customers moved to using authentication systems like Microsoft Active Directory for their authentication needs, his work on Local Directory integration allowed customers to link OpenAthens directly to those systems. Not only that, but he also delivered the Redirector, a unique service to OpenAthens that gives libraries a standard way to link to resources.

We all remember the celebration of the team when he engineered and delivered the transition to the cloud for OpenAthens. It was a tough and risky project, but was achieved with minimal disruption to customers. This big milestone and his success resulted in the decrease of our running costs, as well as a more reliable, secure, and flexible infrastructure.

David also designed OpenAthens Keystone, our flagship product for publishers and service providers. Easier to integrate with publisher websites, fully hosted, and easy to use with most common languages. It saves service providers money every day. He really cared about making a difference and held a personal passion for education and learning. His ethical stance on data, accessibility, and sustainability, is embedded in all aspects of the products he developed.

Customers and colleagues at heart

David excelled at coding. He delivered the OpenAthens proxy service in a “ridiculously short time,” ensuring customers could access resources outside of those available in a federation. He had an outstanding understanding of new and emerging technologies and how they can benefit customers. David applied it to his work daily. To help us better meet customer needs, he also led the remodeling of our database. The changes introduced role-based access so again customers could have more control and flexibility.

David, of course, worked on all these and other projects along with the rest of the team, being a key pillar to all of us with his contributions. But apart from being an excellent architect, he was a great teammate. Many got to enjoy his great sense of humor and sarcasm, share pints after work, and some, even long hikes and longer cycle routes.

Today, we all miss him, and he will continue to be missed by all who knew him. His memory might not be engraved in a monument, as the Ancient Greek statesman Pericles once said. But is woven into the lives of those who knew him, and will be forever bound to the product he helped develop. To OpenAthens.

In honour of David’s memory we’ve set up a tribute page for memories and donations to the United Kingdom National Autistic Society for research into mental health.


David Orrell