Big vendors give open source added clout

Familiar suppliers provide a higher comfort level for agencies

Government agencies are no strangers to open-source operating systems and applications, but that’s not to say they are completely comfortable with nonproprietary software. Some open-source packages, such as Apache Web server, are enormously popular governmentwide, while others are more specialized and serve specific agency needs.

However, as the saying goes, it’s not who you are, but who you know. Open-source systems may be gaining credibility in government circles because they are increasingly associated with large, well-respected suppliers such as IBM, Novell, Sun Microsystems and Unisys.

“When we see big-name vendors and large systems integrators offering and supporting open systems when historically they made their money from proprietary systems, we have to take notice,” said Charles Riechers, principal deputy assistant secretary for acquisition at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force. “They wouldn’t be moving in that direction if open source didn’t make sense for their businesses, and therefore it makes sense for us.”

It’s hard to overstate the clout those large vendors and system integrators have with government information technology managers who rely on them to design and implement major projects, said Peter Gallagher, president of Development InfoStructure, which develops open-source applications for the federal government.

“The acceptance of major open-source projects is strongly dependent on systems integrators that the government knows and does a lot of work with,” Gallagher said.

Because large integrators often help agencies and departments develop requests for proposals, they can play a major role in specifying open-source systems, said Andy Gordon, director at Unisys’ open-source federal business unit.

“The job of Unisys, as I see it, is to help the government exploit the open-source model so they can achieve quicker access to resources and be in a position to choose the best solutions without being tied down to a single vendor,” Gordon said.

Gordon added that simply specifying in an RFP that the government must be able to add new functionality quickly often leads integrators to bid an open source-based solution because those aren’t tied to a proprietary vendor’s product development schedule.

Bandwagon effect
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of large vendors and systems integrators are at least supporting, if not providing, open-source solutions.

For example, IBM does not sell opensource products or customer support. Instead, it refers customers wanting Linux to Red Hat or Novell. But IBM is heavily involved in open-source software development.

“Our most typical engagement is to support an existing community,” said Daniel Frye, vice president of open systems development at IBM Systems and Technology Group. IBM has hundreds of employees devoted to open-source development, Frye said.

“Open source is extremely important, and we want to be sure our hardware products are compatible with the standards,” he said.

Sun is another vendor that has hopped on the open-source bandwagon. The company has opened up the source code for its Solaris Unix operating systems. Now any programmer can use the code to develop new features and solutions. In doing so, Sun claimed the rights to every line of code, reasoning that developers can trust Sun and won’t have to worry about anyone challenging their ownership rights to work done using the source code.

“This kind of indemnification process helps government people feel much safer using the operating system,” said Bill Vass, president and chief operating officer at Sun Federal.

Large vendors are also able to make open-source systems more palatable to government agencies because they can support those systems in much the same way they do their proprietary offerings.

“Agencies are looking to maintain the traditional support model,” said Mike Balma, program manager for government solutions at Hewlett-Packard’s Open Source and Linux Organization. “They want cleared personnel to support them.”

Service contracts
Support costs are to open-source systems what licensing fees are to proprietary applications and operating systems.And with big guns such as HP, Novell and Red Hat providing support, the savings that backers of open-source systems once expected might not be possible, at least initially. Federal entities need assurance that their opensource projects will be supported, and often they’re willing to pay the freight charged by well-respected vendors.

However, unlike traditional support contracts, the costs for open-source service contracts have a set of built-in brakes, Frye said. “What drives down cost is choice,” he said. “Support costs will never match licensing fees because you can’t cancel a license without installing a new system. But you can always choose to get support from someone else.”

Backers of opensource point to other savings inherent in open-source implementations. For example, unlike proprietary products, agencies can do a lot with opensource applications before they spend money.

“The majority of customers download open-source products for free,”Vass said. “Developers can test it, run pilots on it and configure it before anyone pays anything.” That kind of software development flexibility, and not cost, is one of the primary reasons for the government’s interest in open source, Riechers said.

“We’re not looking at open source as a way of saving money,” he said. “We want to make sure we can bring in functionality when we need it, not wait for the next proprietary version to come out.”

In addition, having large systems integrators and vendors in the game sweetens the benefits, Riechers said. “We can get the flexibility of open source and also the support and safety of big-name vendors that we have come to rely on.”
Aiming for the open-source limelightWhich open-source package is going to be the next Apache, the Web server software that powers more than 60 percent of the world’s Web sites? No one knows the answer to that, but anyone can attempt a guess after reviewing some of the interesting open source projects in development. Here are four of them.

Alfresco
Alfresco Enterprise Network is an enterprise content management system that competes with heavy-hitters such as EMC Documentum and IBM FileNet. Alfresco provides enterprise content management, document management, collaboration and versioning, records management, Web content management, and document imaging. Several states and federal agencies use it.

As an open-source project, Alfresco benefits from a wide base of contributors, which allows it to provide functionality similar to commercial products but at lower cost, said Ian Howells, Alfresco’s chief marketing officer and a former Documentum developer.

“We developed the core of code, but a lot of the work was done by contributors,” Howells said. For example, Alfresco supports 12 different languages. “In the old days at Documentum, translation was a very big and expensive project. [Alfresco] got it for free,” Howells said.

Kathleen Reidy, an analyst who specializes in enterprise software for the 451 Group, said Alfresco is a credible product with a large and growing set of features. However, it still lacks some of the richer features in FileNet and Documentum, she added. “If a government agency wants to implement a document management system from the ground up, they may be very happy with Alfresco,” she said. “But 18 months is too short a time for a product to acquire the respect and the feature sets that come with the older packaged solutions.”

Asterisk
Asterisk is an open-source Internet telephony project. Digium, the original creator and primary developer of Asterisk, also sells telephony hardware products. Asterisk offers voice mail, interactive voice response and conferencing features, and the ability to access dynamic content, such as account information. It can handle voice-over-IP calls and works with a variety of VOIP protocols, including the Session Initiation Protocol and H.323. It can also serve as a gateway between IP phones and the public switched telephone network.

Bill Miller, vice president of product management at Digium, said he is well aware that the dial tone is strategic to government agencies and that breaking into a market dominated by traditional telephony players is a hard sell.

“It’s not that government officials are gun shy about open systems in general, but with telephony, they want to be very sure they won’t lose phone service,” Miller said.

Asterisk may enter the government market by providing VOIP services, possibly embedded in handset products, said Abner Germanow, director of enterprise networking at market research firm IDC.

“Government agencies might be able to benefit from a less expensive, nonproprietary technology for VOIP from a product like Asterisk, but they will have to do a lot of testing before they feel comfortable with it,” Germanow said.

Vyatta
Vyatta provides the functions of a network router and firewall in software. You can buy it as a package that you install on an industry standard PC server or as integrated software and hardware appliances based on Dell’s PowerEdge 850 server.

A major benefit of Vyatta is that it separates the hardware and software functions of networking, said Dave Roberts, vice president of strategy and marketing at Vyatta. “If you can get a good deal on hardware from, say, IBM, Dell or HP, you can run Vyatta” on those platforms, he said. The industry Goliath to Vyatta’s David is Cisco Systems, which embeds most of its networking functionality into proprietary hardware.

Germanow said Vyatta includes support for many of the most popular network interfaces and standards-based routing and management protocols. But most customers tend to use it for small office-to-office rather than enterprise routing, he said. And because of Cisco’s reputation in the market, that company poses a big challenge for an open-source competitor, he added.

Xen
Xen offers server virtualization, a technique that allows a server to be divided into several discrete virtual environments. Each environment can run its own applications and operating system. Xen runs on PC hardware and supports Microsoft Windows and Linux operating systems.

Many mainstream vendors are developing or testing Xen on their machines, or they are supporting development and testing by partners, said Simon Crosby, chief technology officer at XenSource, a supplier of Xen products and support.

IT distributor Tech Data’s Advanced Infrastructure Solutions Division said it will provide IBM servers preconfigured with XenSource’s XenEnterprise. Several other major players also offer Xen; Sun includes it in Solaris. Xen is also built into Suse Linux, and it will soon be part of Red Hat Linux.

— Larry Stevens

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