IT panel will endorse open-source software

IT panel will endorse open-source software

By Susan M. Menke

GCN Staff

Around Sept. 20, the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee will send the White House a recommendation to fund open-source software for the government's high-end computing needs.

The committee, a star panel of computer experts from government, industry and academia, has never before recommended such a software initiative, said the National Science Foundation's Robert Borchers, a government liaison representative.

'We've had shareware for a long time, but never a consistent suite of open-source software,' Borchers said. 'It would benefit our supercomputing centers, where there's lots of interest in PC and Linux clusters. PITAC recognized that something important is going on. It's a fine idea for the government to be taking a stand' on open source.

Although the recommendation is in near-final form, 'it's just a recommendation at this point, and the implementation is unclear,' committee spokeswoman Carolyn Van Damme said.

If the White House gives a thumbs-up, she said, the recommendation could 'turn into the government's R&D agenda' for high-performance computing.

Krish Namboodiri, a staff contractor who worked on the draft, said the move foreshadows an 'emerging fusion of high-end Unix and Linux clustering. Nobody in government is going to say, don't use proprietary software' such as Microsoft Windows NT. But, Namboodiri said, widespread use of the Linux operating system and free programs developed by groups such as the Apache Software Foundation of Forest Hill, Md., has proved that open-source code deserves to be in the mix with proprietary products.

A presentation about the committee's working draft, at www.ccic.gov/ac/pitac-18may00/oss, asks the White House to define a policy framework for open-source development, identify barriers to its adoption and form open-source budget models for public institutions [GCN, July 3, Page 8]. The committee will recommend that the framework take shape before fiscal 2002.

On the bright side

The advantages of such a move, according to the presentation, include faster and more efficient bug correction for open code plus elimination of the back doors generally embedded by programmers of proprietary code. Despite unending efforts to close them, such back doors still permit numerous security violations on government systems and Web sites.

Disadvantages of the move include disparity in open-source licensing requirements, lack of a clearinghouse for the software, and national security and export concerns.

Another worry, Borchers said, is that big software vendors might jump in and add proprietary extensions that would gradually render the open-source programs less than open.

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