Presidential panel urges use of open-source software

Presidential panel urges use of open-source software

Dwindling ranks of high-end computing vendors prompts call to support open-development efforts

By Christopher J. Dorobek

GCN Staff

The President's Information Technology Advisory Committee has recommended the government support open-source software development.

The committee's Open Source Panel for High-End Computing said that such support could spur the development of software for high-end computing.

Because of the underlying national security and scientific importance of high-end computing efforts and the critical need for high-end software, the group called for the government to devise a plan before October for moving to an open-source environment, said Susan L. Graham, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, and a member of the open-source panel.

Open-source software can be freely distributed, along with the binaries, which let users modify, study or augment the software, Graham said.

The most well-known open-source program is the Linux operating system.

Five years ago, there was a robust set of vendors in high-end computing, but their ranks have dwindled, said Larry Smarr, director of the Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the panel's chairman.

'This is a very sick business,' said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president for technology and strategy for IBM Corp.'s enterprise systems group and co-chairman of the presidential committee. 'We're looking for alternative ways to support what is a critical need.'

Robert E. Kahn, president of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives in Reston, Va., said the consequences of moving to an open-source development environment are difficult to predict.

'The open-source phenomenon typically has happened on widely available platforms, and it happens in a bottom-up meritocracy where people self-select themselves to work on what they find interesting,' Smarr said.

Unique view

The users of high-end computers are admittedly unusual and make up a niche group that demands particular performance levels, Wladawsky-Berger said, calling them 'an orphan community.'

Any change would necessitate a shift in thinking, Graham noted. 'A nontraditional model of funding and project management needs to be developed in the federal government,' she said.

The government needs to participate and invest in open-source software, she said, although funds are not currently available for open-source developers.

Additionally, open-source development in the Internet age is an international activity, so it would be unrealistic for the government to develop a policy that focuses only on the United States, Graham said.

A report about the recommendation is posted on the Web at

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