The real cost of open source

In Hollywood parlance, U.S. marshals are the good guys and gals in the white hats. But now, this venerable group of federal law enforcers, who trace their lineage to George Washington's administration, are making a new fashion statement.

Like dozens of other federal, state and local entities, the U.S. Marshal Service is adopting open-source software for some information technology projects, a move that's making Red Hat a potent symbol within the service's IT department. Red Hat Linux may not directly nab more criminals, but it is helping the service run more efficiently.

"We don't have all the money in the world, so we're always looking for innovative ways to meet our mission in a cost-effective way," said John Campbell, IT specialist for the service's Justice Detainee Information System, based in Crystal City, Va. "Open source is an excellent way to do that."

For the past few years, the Marshal Service has been replacing SCO Group Unix with Linux in some back-office systems. Earlier this year, officials began implementing JBoss Web application servers, another open-source package, across the agency's 94 district offices. Traditional commercial alternatives would have cost $50,000 per processor in software licenses, and "that would have been cost-prohibitive," Campbell said. "JBoss is free upfront; we only have to pay for maintenance."

If all of this sounds too good to be true, it just may be, say officials at a handful of technology research organizations and commercial software vendors. Open-source skeptics argue that upfront licensing fees are only a small piece of the total cost of ownership that accrues during any software's lifetime, which can span three to five years or more.

"With open source, who's going to support the hundreds of thousands of users?" asked Quazi Zaman, platform technology specialist manager for Microsoft's federal division, based in Washington, D.C. "With commercial software, end users have direct vendor support, third-party systems integrators and help desks. Then there's the training piece. How am I going to reduce enterprise costs if I have to get thousands of people up-to-date in using open source?"

Hidden costs

Those are valid concerns that are certain to grab the attention of IT managers squeezed between tight budgets and growing end-user expectations.

However, open-source operating systems, Web servers, databases and desktop computer applications promise to deliver needed capabilities at significantly lower costs than traditional commercial software, and many IT managers are hearing the message. Linux now accounts for 25 percent of the market for new server operating system installations, said Philip Dawson, an analyst at META Group. The proportion could reach 40 percent by 2007, he added.

Public-sector penetration mirrors the private sector. About a quarter of federal Web servers run on open-source technology, said Keith Thurston, the General Services Administration's assistant deputy associate administrator in the Office of Electronic Government and Technology.

Federal users of open-source products read like a government who's who list, including divisions of the Commerce, Defense and Energy departments, the Census Bureau, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service and the U.S. Courts. Recognizing open-source interest, Office of Management and Budget officials recently advised federal procurement officials to consider open source when making purchases.

Officials at open-source vendors love hearing such statistics. "Customers are voting with their wallets," said Billy Marshall, vice president of North American sales at Red Hat. The numbers indicate that "Linux has reached a level of credibility as a mainstream product," said Wendy Steinle, a spokeswoman for Novell, which owns SuSE Linux.

But are these open-source converts in for an unpleasant financial surprise? "The money a company may spend for technical service, support, training, customization and testing open-source applications is greater at this point than in the [Microsoft] Windows or the [Apple] Mac world, which are known entities," said Laura DiDio, senior analyst at the Yankee Group.

"The so-called hidden costs mean that a total conversion to Linux could cost an enterprise three to four times more than remaining with Windows," she said. "Those [organizations] that are having the most success with Linux are the ones that are very self-reliant with in-house expertise."

Earlier this year, a study written by DiDio concluded that large Linux installations need between 25 percent and 40 percent more full-time support resources than Windows or commercial Unix systems. Making financial matters worse, high-demand Linux experts can charge premiums as high as 40 percent more than what their Windows and Unix competitors charge.

George Weiss, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, believes that a big component of calculating the total coast of ownership is the total cost of acquisition, which includes factors such as moving data from Unix to Linux systems and sorting out the variances in the distributions and architectures of various Linux products.

"We believe that users have seen the dramatic upfront cost savings, especially when compared to obsolete hardware, and that alone was taken as sufficient justification to make the change," Weiss said at an IT symposium this fall. The total cost of acquisition "will drive many users to continue migrations. However, as the process continues, users should not be lulled into thinking that [that cost] will equate to similar [total costs of ownership] as configurations and projects become more complex."

Real savings

But some federal and state officials who have made the open-source commitment say they're pleased with their investments' returns. For example, the experience of the Marshal Service's 50-person IT staff quelled fears of rampant support costs. "We feel confident we can maintain the software," Campbell said.

Similarly, when Indiana officials installed SuSE Linux earlier this year to run an Oracle database-hosting service, they knew the state's support budget wouldn't take a hit because of a service contract the state held with Novell, said Laura Larimer, Indiana's chief information officer.

Phil Brummit, a strategic support manager for the state, said moving to an open-source environment also saved the state money on hardware because officials switched from Unix machines to Intel-based computers. He doesn't have hard numbers, yet, but he believes "there was a significant price difference in the hardware."

Donald Heffernan, CIO at GSA's Federal Supply Service, agreed that open-source cost benefits can be difficult to gauge. GSA officials estimated that they saved the agency as much as $200,000 in hardware costs by going with Red Hat for two components of GSA's new Web-based application for processing schedule contracts.

NASA officials see another cost benefit for the agency's internal application development activities: They can consult diverse IT and subject matter experts in-house and in the greater scientific community, all of whom contribute to new applications in the collaborative tradition of open-source software development.

"Pulling that skill set together within one full-time development staff would be highly challenging," said John McManus, NASA's deputy CIO and chief technology officer. "We are resource-limited in terms of skills and dollars. But thanks to open source, we have access to a highly motivated [group of people with a] very diverse set of skills working on common sets of problems."

Despite the praise, open-source software users acknowledge some ancillary costs. Brummit said Indiana's traditionally Windows-centric employees will need Linux training. State officials have not yet determined the training costs, he said. Other undetermined costs will come from integrating Linux into Indiana's existing directory services and identity management applications.

"With Windows, we have [Microsoft's] Active Directory," he said. "How we deploy this with Linux will take a little time to research and come up with a strategy."

GSA officials had high training fees to educate the IT staff about the open-source world. For now, Heffernan's group pays for a Red Hat support contract, but that may be temporary.

"A lot of people worry about support in an open-source environment, but our Unix people are picking it up very quickly, so the transition hasn't been difficult," he said. "We probably won't need a support contract going forward."

And although Microsoft support is ubiquitous and competitively priced for routine applications such as local-area networks and Web servers, support price differences blur "for mission-critical applications support, where you've got to have some really skilled Microsoft folks," Heffernan said.

He added that he views the open-source initiatives as an investment. "We're comfortable enough with Linux to say it's time to try it on a real application," Heffernan said. "We want our application teams to get more experience in that environment because we think it will become even more important in the future."

Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at ajoch@monad.net.

Making the most of open source

The success of open-source projects may not be guaranteed, but information technology managers can boost the odds.

Federal and state government officials should look for opportunities to reuse open-source applications in other agencies, said Peter Gallagher, president of Devis, an Arlington, Va., application developer and hosting service that targets the public sector.

Avoiding or reducing licensing expenses is a financial plus, but "if I look at reusing a software package 10 or 20 times,

all of a sudden, it's tremendously cost-effective," Gallagher

said. "The challenge for procurement officials is to look more broadly outside an immediate use to see the potential for shared investments."

Officials should honestly assess the open-source skills of their IT staff and third-party consultants, said Reed Hyde, director of the Justice Systems Center of PEC Solutions, a Fairfax, Va., IT services supplier that supports the federal law enforcement community.

"You need knowledgeable people," Hyde said. "There's enough difference between Linux and other operating systems so that it's not enough to take someone from a [Microsoft] Windows or Unix environment" and expect them to be immediately successful.

Officials should also think globally. Laura Larimer, Indiana's chief information officer, helped organize an open-source committee that represents a cross section of state departments.

"We're looking at open source from an architectural, strategic and application development perspective" to provide a framework for future installations, she said.

— Alan Joch

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