L.A. investigates open source to cut costs

City officials in Los Angeles are considering switching to an open-source platform for their computer systems to potentially save millions of dollars that could be redirected to other services.

Three council members — Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greul and Jack Weiss — introduced a motion last week asking the city's Information Technology Agency to provide an initial report on potential savings in 30 days and a transition plan in 90 days. Although city officials already use some open-source software, they spent $5.8 million on proprietary software licenses for the fiscal year that ran from July 1, 2003, to June 30, 2004.

With open-source programs, users can read, modify and redistribute the source code for free. The most widely known example is the Linux operating system, although some vendors charge for their Linux distributions.

Garcetti's spokesman, Josh Kamensky, said city officials are aware of transition costs. But the issue is worth investigating, he added.

"This is something local, state and federal governments around the world are doing and there's a reason for it," he said. "It pretty much stands to reason that if support and the software are available for free, that are going to be some cost savings."

For example, Kamensky said city officials could save $5.2 million by switching to OpenOffice, an open-source desktop computer suite that includes word processor and spreadsheet programs, rather than purchasing a Microsoft Office product at $200 per license for 26,000 desktops. The savings would go to a special fund to hire more employees for the police department, a major focus for city officials right now, he added.

Gordon Haff, a senior analyst and IT adviser at Illuminata, said business value should be the main concern in transitioning to an open-source environment.

"The decision-making for the state or local or federal government could be essentially the same as for a corporation," Haff said. "Does it save money when all the costs [are] taken into account? And that includes conversion costs, retraining costs, perhaps costs of getting and writing or converting software that doesn't run on an open-source platform."

Thom Rubel, vice president of government strategies at META Group, said one benefit of open source is that it forces government officials to inventory, map and review their IT systems, platforms and applications. But he said they must consider the business value before making a

decision.

"The jury's out, but I think it has a lot of potential," Rubel said. "It's a movement that isn't going to go away soon."

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