GSA makes the case for open source

Casey Coleman, the chief information officer of the General Services Administration, spoke at a Federal Open Source Alliance Web seminar held earlier today.

Coleman noted that the GSA does indeed use a wide variety of open source programs. The agency started using open source for information systems, though is increasingly using the software for transactional mission-critical systems. For instance, the agency is using the JBoss application server for many of its acquisitions systems, and Linux for its data centers.

(In addition to those workhorses, Coleman also mentioned that GSA is using a number of other programs, some of which surprised us: Bugzilla, for bug tracking, JUnit testing software, the JMeter Apache performance monitoring tool, and Eclipse, which can be used for application development and as a run-time engine.)

While Coleman saw many advantages to using open source software, she mentioned that, somewhat counter-intuitively, saving money may not be one of them.

"If you are looking at open source because of perceived cost benefits, you should know there is no guarantee it will be cheaper," she said. "Open source does not mean free."

"We try to look at total cost of ownership and lifecycle costs," she added.

Sure, downloading the software might be free, but you must factor in support costs. And, as anyone who has worked with open source knows, you'll need outside help at times.

Fortunately, GSA has found plenty of companies willing to support open source software. "Vendors are competing on the quality of their support, and they'll take responsibility alongside your agency, for the maintenance of your application."

Nonetheless, there are good reasons for considering open source, she said. By using open source, the agency won't be locked in to using a proprietary software program, at least for the duration of the contract.

Not having sunk costs in a commercial software program also means the agency can move to a new program more quickly should its needs change. The general openness also means the agency could become a collaborator in the further development of the software itself.

"You get much more transparency and interoperability, and that reduces your risk," she said.

And the general openness also means the agency can choose its own level of support, which could save money over the long-run.

Coleman said that while GSA has hired a company to support the instances of Linux in its data center, the agency saved money by discontinuing support of its knowledge management software, KnowledgeTree, because the software was stable and the agency no longer required a lot of changes.

By doing so, the agency was able to drop the $20,000 per processor support fees.

So even if you may not save money over the long run, you will have more control over how the dollars are spent.

"You don't have to commit up front for a large licensing expense," she said. "By controlling when you
you can better map your project cycle to the federal budget cycle."

The Alliance plans to post an archived copy of the presentation within the next day or so. We'll post a link here when it is posted.

NEXT STORY: D block proves to be tough sell

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