The inauguration has come and gone (wonkette.com) and as the Mall puts itself back together and licks the wounds left by 2 million interlopers and their discarded hand warmer wrappers, the Obama administration is taking office. Since I am currently working in (well, next to) government IT, I continue to be very curious how a new, and very possibly technically hipper, administration will effect every day goings-on in government data-centers and on Beltway desktops. As a campaign that embraced all sorts of web technologies that came of age on the consumer web it will be interesting to see how this group shapes policy as it reconciles with entrenched opinions and federal record keeping statues. Word has it that their first glimpse of the technology that is standard on government desktops failed to thrill (washingtonpost.com).
Open Source for Uncle Sam?
A blurb over on CNet (CNet.com) asks the question: “Obama wants to know: Why open source?”. The debate over the benefit of open source adoption in government IT is neither new nor original. Open source advocates will roll out their list of benefits of open source use including:
- improved security,
- higher-quality software,
- lower costs,
- higher reliability
The argument above and beyond the free-as-in-beer adoption cost is that open software developed and maintained in the bazaar (wikipedia.com) has the benefit of such a massive pier review that defects and shortcomings are flushed out before becoming problems. Additionally, the open nature of the software enables the users themselves to to correct any problems without relying on manufacturers to observe the problem, care about the problem, and distribute a patch in a timely manner.
The are certainly other opinions, many centering around the idea that the TCO (Total Cost of Operation) of open source software is actually much higher than its “free” price tag (ZDNet.com). The usual argument is that ripping desktop users or system administrators away from their accustomed interface and sets of expectations and replacing them with entirely new alternatives will create a huge and expensive demand for support and retraining.
As with any heated argument I think that the truth lays somewhere in the middle and that the advocates at either end of the spectrum miss solid business cases for either type of product. Personally I certainly lean toward the use of open source solutions where possible. As far as the desktop goes, my anecdotal experience says there certainly is a case to be made that the switch from Office 2003 to Office 2007 that has stymied so many of my customers can not possibly be all that much more dramatic than a switch to Open Office. Additionally, government agencies all currently contract out massive desktop support solutions. Whats really required is not money spent on the retraining of government support staff, but rather changing the text in government RFQs that mandate the support of whatever systems they deem fit. These poor support people are going to be answering interface questions about Office 2007 and eventually Windows 7, why not OO and Ubuntu?
This is not a new idea. The German government began adopting open source software almost a decade ago and claims that where it is used, open desktops provide lower costs (osor.eu) than their competitors. Our own Defense Department inserted language (CNet.com) into the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009 singling out the use of open source software as a cost saving, security enhancing, and quality ensuring measure.
Building IT Infrastructure
However, there is a larger meta-point to be raised when listing the benefits of open source solutions in government. President Obama’s coming economic stimulus plan is said to be large on building infrastructure (NYTimes.com) rather than just cutting every citizen a check like Bush style tax cuts and stimulus checks. The rational is that you get multiplier effects both from creating new jobs to build the infrastructure and from harnessing the benefits that the new infrastructure provides to your community.
I would argue that the exact same rationals are reasons to use open source software in the government. By introducing thousands of new use cases to the bazaar you are adding quality and security to the product that the government is spending tax dollars on. Rather than the government’s IT dollar being spent on licensing fees that wind up being transitioned rather directly into dividends, the dollar is better spent on support solutions that will contribute back to a wider community. Code optimization and customization that would be developed in government data-centers and support centers could wind up in the hands of of the projects that they are using.
In my head the analogy is fairly direct. In the same way that an economy leverages tangible economic benefit off of government dollars spent on roads and bridges, the wider IT community leverages real economic benefit off of government’s use of open source software. Licensing fees are stimulus checks. Infrastructure investment is Apache and Tomcat in the data-center. Does use necessitate contribution? I’m not really sure, but again – the Germans did it by releasing their desktop packages to the public.
All Good Things in Moderation
As a previous paragraph said, the truth is somewhere in the middle. While I do think that there are great business cases for integrating open source, forcing it in will be detrimental to the government and to open source’s reputation as a whole. An interesting Ask Slashdot (slahsdot.com) shows that given the right set of circumstances, even in the den of the most strident FLOSS advocates, advocating proprietary technology can be modded Insightful.