Open source solutions are at a key inflection point. That means huge opportunities for agencies, but also some important concerns.
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.