Shawn McCarthy | Internaut: Open source's impact will only grow

Shawn P. McCarthy

Government data center managers need to be aware of a set of trends that could soon alter both the systems they select and the way they purchase and manage enterprise software. These trends are directly related to the rise of open-source software, but they're also indicative of external forces that affect how government does business.

The first trend is an ongoing decline in non-Linux Unix systems. Traditional Unix was once the dominant player in federal data processing. Just eight years ago, more than 70 percent of servers at some federal data centers ran Unix. Now, at least when it comes to new server shipments, Unix controls about 33 percent of the total federal market, and that's expected to decline to 31 percent by 2009.

Two popular government vendors have borne the brunt of the traditional Unix decline. SGI declared bankruptcy last month, although it will continue to produce machines. Meanwhile, revenue declines at Sun Microsystems Inc. have led to an executive shake-up. There's a new CEO, and Scott McNealy is now focusing directly on Sun's top government customers.

At the same time, Linux is on the rise: It controls more than 12 percent of the government server market today and is projected to have over 15 percent by 2009. It also already controls more than two-thirds of the nation's supercomputer market.
The second trend is the acceptance of open source in general, a direct result of Linux's proven viability. Today, many types of open-source solutions are evolving. In a major shift of resources, large systems integrators are willing to invest money and developer resources to enhance open-source software. We saw this in the development of Trusted Linux, which benefited from thousands of development hours donated by SIs.

Why would SIs give this work away? Because in the long run it lets them save money on software licensing fees when they fulfill government services contracts. IBM Corp. says it has invested well over $1 billion in various Linux development projects and has recouped that investment through additional services.

Public-private open source

The third trend is government involvement with specific open-source projects that serve its unique service-to-the-citizen needs. Technical agencies such as NASA have long produced open-source or public-domain software technology.nasa.gov), and now other agencies are seeing the value in such coordinated efforts. Last year the Government Open Code Collaborative (www.gocc.gov) received lots of attention for setting up a cooperative taxonomy of government open-source applications and software components. And there are other government open-source resources, such as the University of Mississippi's National Center for Open Source Policy and Research and its associated GovernmentForge server (www.governmentforge.org).

While none of these efforts can be called thriving at this point, they hold great potential. Through these organizations, state and local governments, and many federal agencies, are learning the best ways to share development resources and establish community ownership of new software.

States may be in the driver's seat of this effort, since a solution created for one state could meet the needs of 49 other states that need the same solution.
So here's a prediction: Up to 2 percent of state applications will be open-source programs by the end of the decade. That may not sound like much, but Linux wasn't even entrenched a decade ago, and look how far it's come.

Former GCN writer 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.

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