Big vendors give open source added clout
Familiar suppliers provide a higher comfort level for agencies
- By Larry Stevens
- Mar 19, 2007
Government agencies are no strangers to open-source operating systems and applications, but that’s not to say they are completely comfortable with nonproprietary software. Some open-source packages, such as Apache Web server, are enormously popular governmentwide, while others are more specialized and serve specific agency needs.
However, as the saying goes, it’s not who you are, but who you know. Open-source systems may be gaining credibility in government circles because they are increasingly associated with large, well-respected suppliers such as IBM, Novell, Sun Microsystems and Unisys.
“When we see big-name vendors and large systems integrators offering and supporting open systems when historically they made their money from proprietary systems, we have to take notice,” said Charles Riechers, principal deputy assistant secretary for acquisition at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force. “They wouldn’t be moving in that direction if open source didn’t make sense for their businesses, and therefore it makes sense for us.”
It’s hard to overstate the clout those large vendors and system integrators have with government information technology managers who rely on them to design and implement major projects, said Peter Gallagher, president of Development InfoStructure, which develops open-source applications for the federal government.
“The acceptance of major open-source projects is strongly dependent on systems integrators that the government knows and does a lot of work with,” Gallagher said.
Because large integrators often help agencies and departments develop requests for proposals, they can play a major role in specifying open-source systems, said Andy Gordon, director at Unisys’ open-source federal business unit.
“The job of Unisys, as I see it, is to help the government exploit the open-source model so they can achieve quicker access to resources and be in a position to choose the best solutions without being tied down to a single vendor,” Gordon said.
Gordon added that simply specifying in an RFP that the government must be able to add new functionality quickly often leads integrators to bid an open source-based solution because those aren’t tied to a proprietary vendor’s product development schedule.Bandwagon effect
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of large vendors and systems integrators are at least supporting, if not providing, open-source solutions.
For example, IBM does not sell opensource products or customer support. Instead, it refers customers wanting Linux to Red Hat or Novell. But IBM is heavily involved in open-source software development.
“Our most typical engagement is to support an existing community,” said Daniel Frye, vice president of open systems development at IBM Systems and Technology Group. IBM has hundreds of employees devoted to open-source development, Frye said.
“Open source is extremely important, and we want to be sure our hardware products are compatible with the standards,” he said.
Sun is another vendor that has hopped on the open-source bandwagon. The company has opened up the source code for its Solaris Unix operating systems. Now any programmer can use the code to develop new features and solutions. In doing so, Sun claimed the rights to every line of code, reasoning that developers can trust Sun and won’t have to worry about anyone challenging their ownership rights to work done using the source code.
“This kind of indemnification process helps government people feel much safer using the operating system,” said Bill Vass, president and chief operating officer at Sun Federal.
Large vendors are also able to make open-source systems more palatable to government agencies because they can support those systems in much the same way they do their proprietary offerings.
“Agencies are looking to maintain the traditional support model,” said Mike Balma, program manager for government solutions at Hewlett-Packard’s Open Source and Linux Organization. “They want cleared personnel to support them.”Service contracts
Support costs are to open-source systems what licensing fees are to proprietary applications and operating systems.And with big guns such as HP, Novell and Red Hat providing support, the savings that backers of open-source systems once expected might not be possible, at least initially. Federal entities need assurance that their opensource projects will be supported, and often they’re willing to pay the freight charged by well-respected vendors.
However, unlike traditional support contracts, the costs for open-source service contracts have a set of built-in brakes, Frye said. “What drives down cost is choice,” he said. “Support costs will never match licensing fees because you can’t cancel a license without installing a new system. But you can always choose to get support from someone else.”
Backers of opensource point to other savings inherent in open-source implementations. For example, unlike proprietary products, agencies can do a lot with opensource applications before they spend money.
“The majority of customers download open-source products for free,”Vass said. “Developers can test it, run pilots on it and configure it before anyone pays anything.” That kind of software development flexibility, and not cost, is one of the primary reasons for the government’s interest in open source, Riechers said.
“We’re not looking at open source as a way of saving money,” he said. “We want to make sure we can bring in functionality when we need it, not wait for the next proprietary version to come out.”
In addition, having large systems integrators and vendors in the game sweetens the benefits, Riechers said. “We can get the flexibility of open source and also the support and safety of big-name vendors that we have come to rely on.”