5 factors to consider when selecting an open-source vendor

Brian Paget

Brian Paget is technical director of content and analytics at Adobe Systems.

Government agency adoption of open source in many ways mirrors the path followed by many in-demand technologies in the public sector. Early on, agencies evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of the emerging technology -- whether it is open source, big data, cloud computing, mobility, etc. -- relative to the traditional, legacy alternative. Then, as more agencies experience the tangible benefits of the technology and demand increases, the market follows, and suddenly agencies are facing not one or two vendor options but dozens.

After several years of being used in a broad range of situations, open source finds itself at this inflection point. The most familiar open-source platforms for government agencies include Red Hat Linux (operating system), Red Hat JBoss (application platform), Oracle MySQL (database) and, of course, Apache HTTP Server, the most successful open-source platform deployed in the public sector today.

But the open-source community has expanded significantly beyond those leading platforms and technologies, and as agencies move forward with open-source projects and evaluate new solutions, there are several key factors to consider.

1. The credibility of the open-source stack

The barrier to entry for making code freely available and “open” on the Web for public consumption is not a formidable one. For that reason, it is critical for agencies to ensure that the open-source stack they are evaluating comes from a credible source. Apache, for example, does not allow just anyone to put code out there. An Apache project must be reviewed, incubated and evaluated by the community to earn promotion to a top-level project.

However, many other open-source communities accept almost everything in order to build their numbers. Therefore, government agencies must evaluate the standards and credibility of an open-source stack to ensure that it is committed to the highest level of quality for projects.

2. The vendor’s commitment to support, services and innovation

Good open-source vendors recognize the importance of providing support and services and the need to deliver value-added software capabilities on top of the open-source stack. Those differentiating capabilities contribute to a better overall product for the agency, the same way that Amazon and Samsung often deliver a better Android experience than Google can.

Agencies are best served by partnering with an open-source provider that focuses on support and services and also delivers a large, dedicated team of engineers with an incentive to innovate at an accelerated pace in order to keep a large and satisfied customer base. Companies that only provide support, hosting and professional services can be disincentivized to push innovative new architecture that cuts back on hardware requirements or new features that could be used by all their customers, because it could drive down revenue from hosting and professional services.

Finally, when evaluating a company’s service, support and value-added software, look at its list of commercial customers and the scale of those customers. Although a vendor’s government customers can be instructive for determining whether its products have been accredited to run in a secure environment, they do not speak to the innovation embraced by leading commercial entities. That innovation is relevant when the open-source stack will provide user-facing services, such as Web content management, mobile apps, digital publications and portals.

3. The platform’s commitment to open standards

Agencies might assume that the act of moving to an open-source stack eliminates the possibility of vendor lock-in. In reality, open source can still result in vendor lock-in if an agency selects a solution that does not adequately take advantage of open standards.

By selecting an open-source stack that embraces open standards as core components of its architecture (not just as an interface layer) and uses those open standards in its development process, agencies can avoid lock-in when they decide to migrate to another stack in the future.

Many leading open-source entities embrace that model, which is why top-tier open-source communities like Apache have projects broken down by functional areas that integrate using agreed-upon standards. The best-executed stacks leverage dozens of open-source projects and integrate those components based on open standards, thereby reducing the likelihood of vendor lock-in while simplifying configuration, integration, installation and support.

4. Mobile capabilities and the future compatibility of the stack

Evaluating the mobile capabilities of any stack provides a window into how future-proof it is. Most platforms that lack leadership in the mobile space state that they have mobile covered because they support responsive design. Although responsive design is an important component of mobile, it does not deliver the core capabilities required to manage and deliver the content to an ever-evolving set of digital channels.

To truly support mobile and future-proof itself, a platform must first be able to manage the components of a digital experience, which can include text, images, documents and videos. The stack must also have the ability to create renditions of those assets automatically for phones, tablets, desktops, digital publications and whatever is next.

Those management and optimization components are critical to ensuring that adding channels of interaction is only a small incremental decision rather than a monumental one.

5. The platform’s value beyond software cost savings

Although agencies are initially drawn to open source for software cost savings, extracting full value from an open-source stack requires combining the best software with adoption of open standards and the expertise of the open-source community.

Upfront costs associated with commercial software are indeed higher than downloading free open-source software. But the cost of the entire IT transformation is largely based on the labor associated with implementing the transformation, and those costs are driven higher or lower by the implementation tools being leveraged. In the software world, the best tools combined with the best people will deliver the best project on time and on budget. If you substitute one of those ingredients, you can end up spending more to deliver the same product.

Many systems integrators have realized that and have embraced open source as a way of locking themselves into long-term contracts. To avoid that trap, agencies should look at a long-term (three- to five-year) total-cost-of-ownership model that takes into account a platform’s current and future needs in order to avoid lock-in with a vendor or integrator.

Genuinely participating in and sustaining an open-source effort requires dedication, knowledge, leadership and a commitment to making the projects effective today and in the future. Most successful open-source projects on the Web today are spearheaded by vendors that realize the future does not reside with proprietary software. They see the potential in innovative modern platforms that capitalize on the best of open source, avoid the pitfalls of a purely proprietary approach, and deliver rapid innovation to gain and retain large customer bases.

About the Author

Brian Paget is technical director of content and analytics at Adobe Systems.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Shutterstock image: looking for code.

    How DOD embraced bug bounties -- and how your agency can, too

    Hack the Pentagon proved to Defense Department officials that outside hackers can be assets, not adversaries.

  • Shutterstock image: cyber defense.

    Why PPD-41 is evolutionary, not revolutionary

    Government cybersecurity officials say the presidential policy directive codifies cyber incident response protocols but doesn't radically change what's been in practice in recent years.

  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

Reader comments

Fri, Nov 29, 2013 Ziad El Helwe Lebanon

Interesting article, Good Job Brian.

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

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group