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Big Apple Considers Taking Bite from Open Source

Apr 30, 2003, 20:30 (9 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

While Oregon, Texas, and Oklahoma hash out their policies on open-source software procurement, the City of New York is quietly progressing on its own fact-finding mission on the advantages and disadvantages of open source.

Yesterday morning, the Select Committee on Technology in Government for the New York City Council led a meeting on "Oversight - An Examination of Municipal Policies on Open Source Software Procurement." The meeting, chaired by New York City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, sought to address the question on what, if any, legislation might be needed regarding the purchase of open-source software by the city.

No legislation has yet to come up regarding this issue, and Council staff members were quick to point out that "there is still a lot of fact finding to do." But the meeting did fall into a mirror of the debates currently going on in the Oregon State House regarding that state's proposed open-source legislation. The NYC debates, however, were described as "polarizing" by participants, but not rancorous.

The proposed legislation in Oregon would, if passed, stipulate that any software procurement process in that state would also have to include bids from open-source software projects. Brewer's committee is taking the first steps towards exploring whether such an option would be feasible for New York City.

If the goal of the meeting was fact finding, that goal was certainly reached, according one of the private citizens who helped the Committee organize the event. Bruce Bernstein, President of the New York Software Industry Association, said that the debate in the meeting drew down to the two sides that are present within his own organization. NYSIA, Bernstein said, considers itself netral in this debate, becuse among its membership there are pro-open source and pro-proprietary camps.

NYSIA assisted the Committee in gathering particpiants for Tuesday's meeting. "We thought it was good that all of these issues were aired," Bernstein said.

According to Bernstein, there were witnesses at the meeting who testified both for and against open source software legislation, and many of the presenters were very articulate and very persuasive regarding their views.

Among the participants at the meeting was Aron Trauring, CEO of Zoteca, a Manhattan-based IT business. Trauring said that he wanted to make three points to the Committee during his testimony.

First, he wanted to address the TCO arguments that are currently being presented by Microsoft that indicate that total cost of ownership for Microsoft products might be lower than using Linux products. In his opinion, TCO differencesmay indeed tilt in that direction sometimes, but only because of the lack of knowledge on the part of a company's IT staff on open-source products. If their knowledge of open source is up to date, then such concerns are rendered null.

Secondly, Trauring pointed out the advantages of using open-source software from a jobs persepctive. Currently, large consultant firms are being squeezed between customer demand and the rising costs of licenses. Often times, this may force the firm to seek labor in lower-cost overseas arenas.

While Trauring emphasized that there is nothing inherently wrong with using overseas contractors, any time a project is managed remotely there is a greater danger of slippage in overall product quality. By using open-source software, licensing fees are removed or greatly reduced, allowing firms to channel resources into local employees.

Finally, Trauring argued against vendor lock-in, using a recent example of an IT administrator of a New York City hospital who needed to extract data from an existing database. Unfortunately, due to the conditions of the procurement contract, the administrator could only get to the data by using the original vendor that created and sold the hospital the software.

This anecdote relates, Trauring emphasized, the growing problem of increasing vendor lock-in that could burden the city with even more costs down the road.

And there is a lot of money at stake here. The city's IT budget is around $750 million, a big pie for any software vendor to want a piece of.

But some opponents to these ideas are resistant to let any form of software, open, closed, or otherwise have a leg up on the rest of the software field.

Such was the case made by Andrew Brust, President of Progressive System Consulting, Inc, also in Manhattan. In his view, Brust does not believe that there should be any added legislation to the procurement process.

Progressive, Brust pointed out in the interests of disclosure, is a consultancy that uses Microsoft tools and products to get its projects done. But in his testimony before the committee, Brust was emphatically not anti-open source.

Brust emphasized "IT professionals should have a free hand in getting the software they need." Additional legislation is simply not needed. IT professionals' knowledge and market forces should be what drives procurement decisions, he believes.

Brust, who has worked in the city's IT department before, knows full well that the procurement process is already a cumbersome effort, and he doubts that very little has changed in the 15 years since he left the city for the private sector.

"There are unintended consequences to any well-meaning legislation," Brust said. An attitude shared by the representative of the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT).

Roy Bergman, a Deputy Commissioner of DoITT, testifed to the comittee that New York does not need more legislation in this area. Already, Bergman told the Committee, the department has already decided to standardize on open-source software for some projects, so further legislation was simply not needed.

Brust agreed with this assessment, adding that there are no restrictions on procuring open-source software now in New York, nor should there ever be.

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