Tight budgets soften resistance

Many information technology vendor and product names have become part of the average American's lexicon. Microsoft Corp.'s Windows and Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh are more famous than some rock bands. Even products that the average Joe would have no use for, such as Oracle Corp. databases, have amazingly good name recognition.

On the other hand, with the possible exception of Linux, few people outside the IT industry know much about open-source software. But that hasn't kept these freely available programs from playing an increasingly important role governmentwide, especially as budgets tighten.

From the Defense Department, where a recent study showed widespread use of the software, to civilian agencies such as the Census Bureau, which is considering moving some desktop users from a commercial system to Linux, the use of open-source software is growing fast. Of course, that trajectory is not always apparent, because open-source projects typically fly under the radar of procurement offices.

The reasons for open source's growing popularity are clear. First, such products are either free or relatively inexpensive. Second, the source code is open, allowing users to modify it themselves or use one of the many patches or add-ins built by hundreds of other developers.

Laura Shane, deputy staff director for the Interagency Working Group (IAWG) on U.S. Government-Sponsored International Exchanges and Training, thinks open-source software deserves a fresh look. In fact, she thanks open-source products for making her group's primary project possible. A few years ago, the IAWG, which is within the State Department, began developing a clearinghouse for international training and exchange programs. The system would allow the federal government to make better use of resources by, for example, reducing the need for redundant services.

Ironically, the IAWG itself was given only minimal resources to handle the project, including a budget of a little more than $100,000. With the help of Development InfoStructure (devIS), an Arlington, Va.-based solutions provider, IAWG built a system using a mix of commercial and free open-source software.

The product mix includes Linux OS, Apache Web server, PostgreSQL database and Resin XML Application Server. All products are open-source and all are free — with the exception of Resin from Caucho Technology Inc., which is "commercial" open-source (you have to pay for it, but the code is open).

Shane said the system, which is now used by more than a dozen departments and 28 independent agencies, runs smoothly. Good thing, because the group had no other options. "We had to do this on a shoestring," she said. "It wouldn't have been possible using commercial products."

Lisa Wolfisch, senior Internet technology architect with the Census Bureau, wishes she had a shoestring. In 2001, she completed a project using open-source software called State and County QuickFacts. The system helps people access data from different Census programs. In the past, tidbits such as financial, housing and occupational data had to be accessed separately. The new service allows users to type in a ZIP code and receive data from 40 datasets about that geographic area.

The program may have won Wolfisch's department some recognition — it received Census' 2001 Director's Award — but it received no hard cash. "We had to do this without any budget whatsoever," she said. Wolfisch estimates that if they had used proprietary solutions, they would have had to pay $41,000 for a production server alone.

By using existing hardware and open-source software, including Perl (a programming language derived from C), mySQL, Apache Web Server and Linux, the Census staff managed to complete the project without spending a dime.

Shane and Wolfisch cited cost savings as a primary benefit of open-source software, but neither thought she settled for the blue-plate special just because sirloin was out of range.

"I probably would have opted for open-source even if cost were not an issue," Wolfisch said.

She credited the free software for the system's rapid six-month development time, because the bureau was able to use in-house staff. In addition, in the bureau's mixed hardware environment, open-source enabled the project group to switch server platforms when necessary. For example, the project was initially deployed on an SGI server and then moved to SGI and Sun Microsystems Inc. Solaris-based servers.

Bureau officials are also studying the possibility of moving at least some desktop users from Windows to Linux.

Despite such success stories, it is difficult to know exactly how widespread the use of open-source software is in government. "There's sort of a 'don't ask, don't tell' attitude about open-source software in federal government," said Tony Stanco, associate director for open source and e-government at the Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute in Washington, D.C.

He said that because they often bypass the procurement process, open-source projects sometimes remain invisible. There's also some bias against open-source tools because some people believe you get what you pay for. "Open-source as a model takes time to understand because we are so used to paying for the software rather than just the services," Stanco said.

One Measure

DOD is one of the few federal departments that studied its employees' use of open-source software. Mitre Corp. conducted an e-mail study of DOD users to determine how important open-source is to the department's operations.

Terry Bollinger, IT analyst at Mitre, said the analysis showed that open-source software "is playing a much more critical role at DOD than many had thought." Bollinger co-authored the study, titled "Use of Free and Open-Source Software in the U.S. Department of Defense."

Bollinger said open-source applications are most important at DOD in four broad areas: infrastructure support, software development, security and research. One unexpected result was the degree to which security efforts depend on open-source software, most notably OpenBSD, a Unix-like OS that is known for its strong security features.

Open-source software may finally emerge from the shadows, partly thanks to reports such as the one mentioned above. "The last six to nine months has been very important for Linux and open-source software in terms of increased support and certifications," said Deb Woods, director of product management at Red Hat Inc., which provides Linux support and services.

For example, earlier this year, Red Hat Linux Advanced Server was the first Linux platform to achieve the Defense Information Systems Agency's Common Operating Environment (COE) certification. COE is the department's software security and interoperability specification recognized as a critical computing standard across the federal government. Other open source-related announcements this year include IBM Corp.'s and Dell Computer Corp.'s introduction of Linux-based PCs, and IBM servers running mySQL.

Open-source software might also benefit from the growing need for systems interoperability, due in part to the creation of the Homeland Security Department and new e-government initiatives.

Peter Gallagher, president of devIS, said that as the federal enterprise architecture moves toward Web services, "a premium will be placed on sharing not just data, but the services and component objects that enable those services." An open model, he said, is the best way to share applications without forcing organizations to reconfigure their systems or purchase licenses.

The use of open-source applications has generated hot debate. Some loyal boosters hope for an all open-source world free from the "tyranny" of powerful OS, database and server vendors. Detractors argue that large, successful companies such as Oracle and Microsoft have the resources and track records to prove that they have stable and secure products. And, if something breaks, at least you have somewhere to turn.

The important thing is not whether open-source or proprietary products "win," but that government IT leaders know the facts about each option and biases on either side are rooted out. Armed with that knowledge, managers can then make objective decisions about the best product or suite of products for each project.

Stevens is a freelance journalist who has written about information technology since 1982.

***

How it works

Open-source software covers programs, operating systems and development tools in which the source code is available for anyone to use and modify. The source code is typically created by a group of programmers, and often many more provide patches, application program interfaces and modifications, which anyone can download and use.

Open-source software is usually free, except when obtained from a vendor that bundles the software with support services.

Some of the most popular open-source products are:

Linux: An open-source operating system that runs on a large number of hardware platforms and can be used to replace proprietary systems such as Unix, Microsoft Corp.'s Windows or Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh OS.

Apache Web Server: A popular, free, Unix-based Web server from the Apache Group. The name comes from the many available add-ons and patches which make the product "a patchy server." MySQL and PostgreSQL are open-source relational databases that use standard Structured Query Language, or SQL.

***

By the numbers

A convincing case

The cost of open-source products ranges from free to relatively low, compared to analogous proprietary products. Some organizations, such as the Census Bureau, have actually been able to complete entire information technology projects with no procurement budget. But many cannot realistically use a product for which they have no vendor support. They will often purchase the open-source product from a vendor, who certifies its version of the product and provides documentation and support for it.

An IDC study, the "Role of Linux in Reducing the Cost of Enterprise Computing," compares the three-year cost of ownership of companies deploying Red Hat Inc. Linux on the Intel Corp. platform and those using Unix on reduced instruction-set computing-based systems. The study states that costs associated with Linux are "dramatically lower" for hardware and software and are also comparable or lower for staffing.

2014 Rising Star Awards

Help us find the next generation of leaders in federal IT.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above