Open Source in Government--Myths & Realities
Jun 30, 2005, 19:00 (0 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Jacqueline Emigh)
Desktop-as-a-Service Designed for Any Cloud ? Nutanix Frame
By Jacqueline Emigh
Linux Today Correspondent
Government is often mythologized as an early hotbed of open
source activity. But really, government deployments of Linux and
other open source software vary widely across different sorts of
government entities, said a panel of open source participants,
during a session at this week's C3 Expo in New York City.
In the US at least, some local and state government agencies
have leaped into open source a lot faster than their federal
counterparts, the speakers cited.
Whenever a news story about a government open source
implementation hits the tech headlines, a local agency is typically
the test site, said Brad Westpfahl, Director, Global Government
Industry Programs, at IBM.
"Part of the job description is open source software. You need
to know that in order to work here," concurred Dan Gilday, Director
of Network Design for HR (human resources) Administration in the
City of New York.
Yet some federal agencies, such as the GAO, are also taking to
open source licensing and development relatively quickly, noted
Howard Heller, director of e-Government Programs, Applications
Development and Maintenance Unit, Lockheed Martin.
Similar sorts of deployment differences crop up on the
proprietary software side, too, according to Heller
"Some agencies will develop in Oracle only, (while others will)
develop in (Microsoft) SQL Server only," he illustrated.
But open source implementations are driven by some different
factors, the panelists said during the session, which was moderated
by Jill Aitoro, a senior editor at GovernmentVAR.
"Open source is (both) a licensing method and a development
method," pointed out IBM's Westpfahl.
Across all levels of government, agencies are interested in cost
reduction, and open source licensing constitutes one way of
reaching that goal.
On the other hand, government agencies generally have much more
trouble than private companies justifying a software deployment on
the basis of its potential for generating revenue.
Meanwhile, although with some exceptions, actual open source
development tends to be more commonplace at the local than the
federal level, the panelists suggested.
The speakers cited a number of reasons why this is so. For one
thing, local agencies typically face greater cost constraints.
"Local agencies like to share code," according to Westpfahl.
Consequently, the ability to "open up the kernel" is a compelling
Conversely, federal government agencies are up against tighter
regulations around IT purchases. Organizations tend to be much
bigger, too, said Robert Borochoff, Senior Computer Scientist,
Administrative Office of the US Courts.
"In the Department of Defense, a rollout that takes five years
is considered [rapid]," Borochoff quipped. "But the large guys [in
the private sector] face the same problem."
Further, in many instances, federal software development
activities tend to be outsourced to third parties, according to the
senior computer scientist.
Also, federal open source implementations might be more
prevalent than is widely known, panelists indicated. Unlike private
companies, federal agencies don't find "much advantage in
advertising what [they're] doing" in the IT arena, Borochoff
But generalizations don't always make sense, Westpfahl said. One
reason why local open source deployments get the lion's share of
media attention boils down to sheer numbers.
Not all local agencies, by a long shot, are at "the lunatic
fringe" of open source development, Westpfahl said. "It's not that
everyone is so progressive. It's that there are so many of
Where do deployments at state government organizations fall?
Somewhere in the middle. Like federal agencies, state agencies tend
to be bound by policies and procedures, according to Borochoff.
"Some states have definite budgets, too."
Yet developers and VARs can find it tough to make money on
software applications geared to state agency needs, since
preferences can vary a lot from one state to the next.
Moreover, everywhere in the government space, the success of
open source applications hinges a lot on the "maturity" of the
specific software componentry itself, the panelists said.
The open source community has already produced "well established
offerings" such as the Apache Web server, Westpfahl told the
"If you surf the Web, you're using Apache, whether you know it
or not," Westpfahl added.
Older and more popular open source offerings tend to be very
well supported by the community with code debugging, for instance,
whereas some newer or niche-oriented components might not get as
much support, according to the speakers.
Geographic preferences are an even stronger consideration at the
international level than inside the United States.
Germany tends to be especially "big" on open source development,
observed Lockheed-Martin's Heller.
The United States is sometimes said to be lagging behind Europe
in open source deployments. But one factor playing into this is
that, in contrast to the US, some European governments actually
require their agencies to abide by "open standards," Borochoff
"I don't know that the US is 'behind,'" countered IBM's
Westpfahl. "(The US) is not the most aggressive, but we're in a
very appropriate place for us."
Importantly, the US has many more legacy systems already
deployed than a lot of other countries, Westpfahl said.
"[These are] transitioning [to open source] at a very
comfortable pace," he told the C3 audience.