A starring role for open source?

It was a long time in coming, but the government’s use of open-source infrastructure software, such as the Linux operating system or the Apache Web server, is no longer a novelty.

Indeed, open-source databases, middleware and network-monitoring tools have become an information technology staple in many agencies.

Government officials who support open source now find they have a new decision to make:  whether to use one of the growing number of open-source packages that could handle higher-profile agency operations, such as business intelligence analysis, content management or customer relationship management (CRM), to name a few.

Deborah Bryant, public-sector communities manager for Oregon State University’s Open Source Lab, said the applications sector has started to take off.

“We’ve definitely seen an uptrend in that kind of adoption,” she said.

Bryant said the switch to open-source generally occurs as an agency’s proprietary application reaches the end of its life or approaches the end of its license term.

Agencies that embrace open-source applications often cite two primary reasons: lower upfront cost and a greater ability to customize. But first they must weigh support options, involve key stakeholders and examine licensing modes to see whether the move makes sense.

Although open source was considered exotic a decade ago, the infrastructure variety has become commonplace.

“Infrastructure is really becoming a no-brainer,” Bryant said. “There is such a reliable suite of software available that most agencies — particularly small to midsize agencies — feel foolish not to take a look.”
As organizations move beyond that foundation, the first stop might be an open-source Web portal.

The Court of Appeals of Georgia, having previously deployed Apache, MySQL and PHP as its Web site infrastructure, is now deploying an open-source portal. The organization’s adoption of the Liferay portal came through a circuitous route.

Several years ago, the court began looking for portal software that would serve as the underpinning for electronic filing and docketing applications. John Ruggeri, the court’s director of technical services, said some of the commercial portal products he examined cost $100,000 before customization.

Court officials originally chose Novell’s exteNd platform as a less expensive solution. But they eventually backed away from that product, amid concerns that Novell would discontinue support. Now, Liferay plays the portal role and the custom e-filing and docketing applications are slated for completion by the end of 2008.

Open source’s cost advantage is among the key selling points of the technology, Ruggeri said.
“We are always looking for inexpensive methods to do the things we think are worthwhile,” Ruggeri said.

The Georgia Supreme Court also plans to use Liferay and the accompanying applications but will run separate instances of the software.

Bryan Cheung, chief executive officer at Liferay, described portals as a transitional zone between infrastructure and user applications. A portal serves as an integration platform that connects to older systems but also provides a launch pad for applications.

One of those applications is content management.

The Small Business Administration last year opted for open-source content management software, installing Alfresco. Nancy Sternberg, Business Gateway program manager at SBA, said that agency was among the first federal agencies to deploy Alfresco.

Sternberg said the agency turned to open source when the program faced significant budget cuts and needed a more flexible method for publishing content to its Business.gov site.

An analysis of open source determined that the technology could meet Business Gateway&rs quo;s content management needs, Sternberg said. And from a financial perspective, Alfresco lets SBA trim its content management cost by more than 50 percent compared with the proprietary software solution the agency had been using.

Alfresco users pay no upfront licensing fee, but enterprise customers often purchase a subscription that provides support and maintenance. Sternberg said SBA’s subscription to Alfresco costs about $64,000 a year, noting that the previous licensing cost for a commercial proprietary product was approximately $150,000 a year.

The Georgia courts also plan to use Alfresco in conjunction with their e-filing and docketing systems and Liferay portal.

Other applications
Agencies have also started snapping up open-source business intelligence software. Lance Walter, vice president of marketing at Pentaho, pointed to increased government interest in the company’s open-source BI solution. The company has seen such an increase in demand that earlier this year, it established a dedicated account management unit for the federal market, Walter said.
Customers in that sector include the Naval Air Systems Command, which uses Pentaho to analyze flight recorder data.

 However, results are mixed for two core business applications: CRM and enterprise resource planning (ERP). Bryant cited the Oregon Department of Human Services’ installation of SugarCRM, an open-source solution.

But other industry executives say the U.S. public sector trails counterparts in other countries in taking on those mainstay enterprise applications.

Stormy Peters, director of community and partner programs at OpenLogic, said countries in Europe, Africa and Asia “really see open source as something the government should promote.” OpenLogic provides enterprise open-source solutions.

The hesitancy seen in some U.S. government entities often stems from support concerns. Agencies accustomed to proprietary software vendors’ support programs question where they will get help with technical issues and custom development in the open-source world.

Yet some open-source observers believe those fears are not as prominent now as they were a few years ago.

“We have a subscription to Alfresco and that makes sure we have greater access to technical support,” SBA’s Sternberg said.

In addition, SBA has an IT contractor that supports its Alfresco development, Sternberg noted. The contractor works with Alfresco to resolve problems and raise issues that might need to be addressed in subsequent versions of the software.

Newport News, Va., also uses a combination of support sources, including community support. The city runs the Plone open-source content management system, which resides on an open-source Web application server called Zope.

“We make use of mail servers and Internet Relay Chat rooms used by Plone users and developers, and we have a contract with a company that specializes in Plone products and support that provides a set number of hours of support per month as needed,” said Sam Allgood, Open eGov senior Web developer for Newport News.

However, support isn’t the only barrier to the adoption of open source.

Allgood said adopting an open-source application requires more involvement from users than an open-source operating system, utility or middleware solution requires. However, that involvement is no more extensive than what a commercial application would require, he added.

In general, agencies should start conversations with the key stakeholders and be willing to address their concerns. Steinberg said Business Gateway sought out SBA’s enterprise architecture, security and infrastructure support teams.

“You need to have communication between all parties that are going to be involved,” she said. 

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