OMB splits the difference on open source

OMB's Karen Evans says many agencies have been asking if and when they can adopt open-source software.

Susan Whitney-Wilkerson

The Office of Management and Budget evidently exercised good diplomatic skills in a new memorandum on federal software acquisition.

Advocates of open-source software applauded the M-04-16 memo to senior procurement officials issued this month by Karen Evans, OMB administrator for IT and e-government. They believe it gives agencies the go-ahead to use freeware.

But commercial vendors also praised the memo, claiming it puts their proprietary software on a more competitive footing with open source in federal procurements.

Agency use of open-source software is hotly debated because the source code can be altered to customize programs and fix bugs'and, vendors say, to get around procurement laws. Some say agencies' use of open source will harm the U.S. economy.

Evans said OMB has been getting a lot of questions from agencies about when and if they could use open-source tools. 'The memo provides direction to acquisition officials on a series of matters, including proprietary and open-source software,' she said.

The brief memo says procurements must be 'technology- and vendor-neutral,' as required by OMB circulars A-11 and A-130 and the Federal Acquisition Regulation. It notes that proprietary and open-source software have different licensing restrictions, and that open-source licenses typically require that the source code to modifications be made widely available.

'For us, the memo was very important because OMB is clearly laying out a level playing field,' said Peter Gallagher, president of Development InfoStructure Corp., an Arlington, Va., IT consulting firm that helped the Labor Department build an open-source application called Workforce Connections.

'They are clearly saying to procurement officials, 'Hey, open source is one alternative,' ' Gallagher said.

Some commercial vendors were equally enthusiastic.

'We think it's a great memo,' said Bill Guidera, policy counsel for Microsoft Corp., speaking at a recent meeting sponsored by the Forum on Technology and Innovation. Guidera likened the memo to one issued by then-Defense Department CIO John Stenbit last year. Both admonished agencies that open-source code is 'subject to the same license terms and conditions as regular code,' he said.

Guidera contrasted the two directives with a growing number of state bills requiring procurement officers to consider open-source software when making purchases, or to use open-source instead of commercial software.

'There are bills that say you cannot use [Microsoft] Windows because Windows is not open-source,' Guidera said. 'There are lots of reasons not to use Windows, but having a state law that says you can't seems awfully prohibitive.'

Most such bills have been defeated so far, 'but it's still something that is out there,' Guidera said.

The OMB memo stressed the importance of applying procurement policy to open-source acquisitions.

Morgan Reed, vice president of public affairs for the Association for Competitive Technology, a Washington advocacy group, argued that agencies can use open-source software to circumnavigate federal procurement policies. Reed said he has heard a Census Bureau employee advocate using freeware, largely because there is no long wait for procurement.

Evans said agencies must carefully evaluate free software, reviewing the license thoroughly 'to ensure that restrictions on government use and future costs for operations and maintenance are integrated into the total cost of ownership.' Even though the software itself is free, they must calculate costs of migration and training, she said.

Microsoft promotes a total-cost-of-ownership metric rather than purchase price.

'We think open source requires more staffing resources and flat-out more effort to match all the things that commercial software brings to the table,' said Keith Hodson, spokesman for Microsoft's public sector unit.


One issue OMB did not cover in the memo is how agencies should license the open-source software they modify in-house.

Reed said agencies are paying to develop open-source software they later make publicly available, as required by the Gnu General Public License. The GPL requires any organization that alters a piece of open-source software to make the changes freely available.

Reed said federal research laboratories have long used more restrictive licenses that allow individual U.S. companies to purchase exclusive rights to federally developed technology. The exclusive rights provide an incentive to commercialize the technology, thereby boosting the economy and giving other agencies cost-effective access.

Following the GPL, Reed argued, does not help the U.S. economy because no companies would want to sell software that is available free.

But Development InfoStructure's Gallagher said that when Labor contracted with his firm to develop e-learning software compliant with the Sharable Content Object Reference Model, the company requested the resulting code have an open-source license.

Normally, an agency grants exclusive rights to the developer through a cooperative agreement, Gallagher said. But in this case, he thought his company could make money simply on the services it would offer to other agencies that use the free software.

The concept of making software freely available was novel to Labor officials, Gallagher said, and 'we had to work with them because it was a new business model.'

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.


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