Local execs praise open source

Workforce Connections

Adopting open-source software isn't just a money-saving proposition for cash-strapped government entities, according to an open-source proponent.

"The main cost benefit I see is not from avoiding software licenses, but from the collaboration," said Andy Stein, information technology director of Newport News, Va. Under open source, "We no longer have to develop everything, we can leverage each other's resources. It's very hard if not impossible to do that with proprietary software."

Stein spoke during FCW's Fall 2004 CIO Summit in Boca Raton, Fla.

For example, governments can manage Web content using a free open-source application developed by the Labor Department called Workforce Connections, Stein said, who believes that adoption of open-source code in government will occur in stages.

"The first stage is recognizing that duplication of applications in government has got to stop," he said.

Information technology officials, experts say, should be aware of one open-source caveat. When it comes to application support, "there's no necks to wring, except yours, maybe," said Harold Schomaker, chief information officer of Largo, FlaSchomaker also spoke at the CIO summit.

But moving to open source operating systems, including Red Hat and SuSe, has saved the city of Largo about $500,000 annually — a lot of money for a city with an IT budget of about $1 million a year, Schomaker said.

Migrating from propriety to open-source software requires patience with the workforce as they adapt, Schomaker said.

"You have to take the heat for everything that goes on and be nice and thank them for bringing [defects] to your attention," he said. "It works wonders in the long term."

When moving from legacy applications to new ones, an open source solution is no riskier than proprietary software, Stein said. But government agencies should only use versions of open source software that are 1.0 or higher, Schomaker said. Earlier versions have not been tested well enough, he said.

"Don't install odd number releases," Schomaker said. "They're not stable. A lot of people are putting new software into it and it hasn't been fully tested."

Schomaker also touted Linux's advantages for thin clients solutions, in which users use terminals to connect to a shared server. It does require correctly sizing the server according to the number of users, Schomaker said.

"If I size the server right, you will not know the difference if Linux is running on your desktop," he said.

Several attempts have been made over the last several years at marketing thin clients as a replacement for desktops, but the concept has never taken hold as the price of PC hardware fell.

But with PC prices flattening out in recent years, thin client proponents such as Schomaker argue that open source operating systems make thin clients a more appealing proposition because they would eliminate the cycle of desktop PC replacement every few years.

"In my mind there's no question the right model is thin client, simply because of the cost," Schomaker said.

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