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Open Source in Government--Myths & Realities

Jun 30, 2005, 19:00 (0 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Jacqueline Emigh)

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 force.

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 noted.

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 them."

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 group.

"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 said.

"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.

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