Internaut: What's next for open-source software in government?

Shawn P. McCarthy

Open-source initiatives continue to have a significant impact on long-term government IT planning. Now that the open-source Linux operating system is firmly established, can open applications be far behind? A few recent events illustrate how much momentum open source has gained.

Rhode Island, working closely with Massachusetts, has been instrumental in launching the Government Open Code Collaborative. Hosted on a Rhode Island government server, the Collaborative allows participating states to share, at no cost, computer code developed for and by government entities'at least when redistribution of such code is authorized. Details can be found at www.gocc.gov.

The site even includes a documentation Wiki, based on the open-source Wiki software, which allows sharing and collaborative editing of Web documents through any browser.

Only a handful of applications are available on the GOCC site so far, for tasks such as coordinating open-meeting notifications and automating RSS data feeds. But the site's list of government 'members and observers' boasts active participants from almost all states, plus several federal agencies, including the Patent and Trademark Office and the Defense Logistics Agency.

With such broad participation, it's not unreasonable to expect the eventual development of larger open-source government enterprise applications. Although things like open-source financial management or human resource applications might seem like massive undertakings, hasn't the ongoing development of the Linux OS been pretty massive too? There is ample precedence for such large-scale coordinated efforts.

Nudging the market toward open source

Other events are nudging developers in the direction of open source. There are new tools that allow programmers to develop and maintain code in a Microsoft environment while making it available for reuse on other platforms. Example: Mainsoft's Visual MainWin product line can help C++ developers export code for Unix or Linux.

Meanwhile there is renewed pressure on procurement officers to stop naming specific brand names in their acquisition requests. Last month, a note from OMB and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy urged agencies to 'take steps to mitigate brand name usage.' Instead, agencies are encouraged to describe the functions they need without naming names. This could help nudge the door open a little wider for Linux and other open-source efforts.

Of course, the negatives of open-source initiatives include issues such as the lack of central accountability and product support, plus ill-defined liability for potential security problems. Agencies that seek open-source solutions as a cost-savings strategy should never turn a blind eye to challenges that could complicate their operations in the future.

Furthermore, as agencies start delving into open-source applications, they should keep in mind that this migration may challenge their current policy process, and make it difficult to calculate a return on investment because of all the variables that must be considered.

No single policy or procurement strategy may by itself be sufficient for the job. But the trend is clear: Open source is growing, and its potential for government applications will not be ignored.

Shawn P. McCarthy is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC of Framingham, Mass. E-mail him at smccarthy@idc.com.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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