Seeking middle ground in the open-source debate

SAN DIEGO – There’s room enough within governments to adopt open-source and proprietary software solutions, several technology experts said yesterday.

“Clearly, it’s changing the landscape of the technology industry for better and worse,” said Alan Yates, general manager of Microsoft’s information worker business strategy, referring to the growing use of open-source software.

Some groups want to remove intellectual property completely, but Yates said commercial companies such as Linspire produce operating systems based on Linux, the most widely used example of open-source programs. He said such companies stand by their products and provide a balance between the open-source and proprietary sides, a middle ground of sorts.

But Yates said government agencies and organizations need to understand the benefits of using open source and balance that against implementation costs. He said they need to understand licensing privileges, indemnification issues and an ecosystem of service providers, among other considerations.

Open source has been touted as a way for organizations to adopt cost-effective software solutions that would allow interoperability, maximize the use of existing systems, provide innovation and have the support of many service providers because a software program’s source code is available to everyone.

Peter Quinn, Massachusetts’ chief information officer, said that in the past 18 to 24 months, the conversation has shifted from whether agencies should try open source to how much they should use it. He said there were several watershed events such as IBM investing in the open-source arena, Hewlett-Packard providing a maintenance contract that would indemnify organizations from lawsuits and the involvement of venture capital firms.

The venture capital firms “really ratified a couple of things that there were dollars to be made, and there was a real differentiation between products and opportunities and that many opportunities have real economic sustainability,” said Quinn, who moderated a discussion on the issue during the National Association of State CIOs’ (NASCIO) annual conference here yesterday.

Massachusetts recently said it plans to use applications built around OpenDocument, an open document file format for text documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Although Yates said Microsoft has created an open, royalty-free format, Massachusetts’ decision disallows the company’s format. He added that Microsoft would like to talk with state officials about the company’s standard, which the state had earlier approved.

Not everyone is on the open-source bandwagon, though.

Nevada CIO Terry Savage said open standards are an alternative to open source. He said he doesn’t want all programmers in the state “tinkering with the code of how something works,” but open standards means “you know how it works, how it faces the outside world.”

“In an open-standards environment, the interfaces are stable and it promotes collaboration and interoperability, whereas open source is just like a bunch of kittens tied together with rubber bands [that] move off in sort of many different positions,” Savage said. “It’s harder to coordinate, it’s harder to support, it’s harder to collaborate.”

He said he’s been looking for a study on the full life cycle costs of using open-source products that has benefited organizations. However, he said he believed open source would be less problematic to use in smaller operations.

But Bill Welty, CIO at California’s Air Resources Board, which conducts air pollution research, said his organization has been involved with open source for about 11 years and has found success.

Open source is “cost-effective for us, particularly where we can get really good software for very low cost,” he said.

Welty said 63 percent of applications run on Linux, 88 percent of Web applications run on an Apache server, 61 percent of applications require a database using open-source products and 83 percent of scripting languages are nonproprietary, he said.

Among several benefits, he said open source provides a low-cost alternative to prototyping capabilities. Organizations can build things and throw them away if they don’t work and not feel like they wasted a lot of money, Welty said. Also, employees are not concerned about violating licenses and sharing applications with other agencies.

“Is open source a free lunch?” asked Thomas Welch, Linspire’s chief technology officer. “I don’t think it’s a free lunch, but I do think it can be a very nutritious and cost-effective one.”

Welch said that not all proprietary software is bad and that Linspire has some. But he’s seeing a lot of change in the software industry, and companies need to be more innovative in how they charge for software.

He also said using open-source software programs enhances security because within hours, someone in the open-source community can deploy a patch when a vulnerability is found.

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