Why consolidation will boost use of open-source systems

As agencies reduce data centers, new technologies and strategies could fuel a migration

After months of planning, the federal government's data center consolidation initiative should ramp up in January. Through the next year, that effort also could have an interesting ripple effect: a spike in the use of open-source systems.

Here's why.

The software used in complex government systems must work across multiple systems. To achieve that, sets of solutions, named stacks, have been developed. The concept of integrated software stacks has been around for many years, but what's new is the way open-source software is starting to creep higher up the stacks.

Most IT managers are well aware of the LAMP stack, which includes the Linux operating system, an Apache Web server, a MySQL database and a dynamic programming language such as Perl, PHP or Python. But other open-source system groups are growing rapidly. Some obvious examples are the JBoss Application Server with a JAX-WS Web services stack, the Zope object-oriented Web application server — written in Python — and the Plone open-source content management system that works with Zope.

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We believe government IT offices are entering a two- to three-year window of opportunity in which they can help influence the evolution of open-source stacks that large systems integrators choose. Many government offices, especially state and local government offices, have similar needs when it comes to the types of applications they use to conduct public-sector business. The website Civic Commons was launched in September to help government offices share software they have developed. That site joins similar efforts such as There's even an annual open-source government conference named GOSCON.

Here are some additional factors that could make open-source systems a favorite for consolidated data centers.

Cloud computing. NASA is deeply involved in Rackspace's OpenStack effort that works to integrate open-source components in the solution stacks used by government offices. Parts of OpenStack will integrate code from NASA's Nebula platform. The result is that cloud solutions offered through Nebula, and eventually through other government cloud installations, will be built atop open-source software.

Big systems. IT systems integrators are receiving an ever-larger percentage of federal IT dollars. According to IDC Government Insights' "U.S. Federal Government IT Spending Guide," the government spends more on IT services than it does on hardware and software combined. Integrators often seek robust, enterprisewide open-source systems when handling large government installations because they sometimes can submit lower bids if they eliminate software licensing costs.

Programming plans. Big integrators have shown they are willing to dedicate some programming and engineering efforts to open-source projects. Even though they don't make money directly from open-source efforts, they do receive powerful platforms and applications that they can install and maintain under government contracts.

Middleware. Open-source middleware systems are emerging to help developers tie various systems and business functions together. FuseSource and the Java Message Services are two examples.

Virtualization. System consolidation often means the use of more virtual servers. Thus it's worth noting that open-source virtual machines are growing in popularity. VirtualBox, Palacios and XEN are three examples. There are nearly 20 other open-source virtual server systems waiting in the wings for a chance to grab a chunk of this emerging market.

Flexibility. In June, the Office of Management and Budget announced that it's reforming the certification process for some types of large systems integrations, particularly financial systems, by shifting the accountability for software performance to the vendor through self-certification. That indicates that IT vendors will have more flexibility with the types of software they choose to integrate into their systems as long as they can make them work reliably. Although vendors will be assuming more of the risk, they also might reap specific rewards from their choices, including open-source choices.

However, it's not at all fair to say that the expansion of open-source software is happening because open solutions are somehow better than commercial IT solutions. In fact, systems from Microsoft, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, SAP, IBM and many other vendors continue to be some of the most robust and reliable solutions available. But open-source presents the potential to eliminate several layers of software licensing fees.

Is that a good thing? I've heard some IT managers complain that open-source software is more difficult for them to maintain and troubleshoot. But for large systems integrators, who make their money by building and maintaining complex systems, that seems to be less of an concern, and it will be the large integrators that build and manage many of the large, integrated shared-service centers.

The bottom line: Agencies will see savings not only from consolidating redundant systems but also by eliminating unnecessary software licensing fees and reducing the costs associated with staffing, space rental, energy consumption and data retention.

Open source will be a powerful tool to help make that happen. But what government IT managers really need are the right tools to measure and significantly improve IT economics across their enterprises. Only then will they be able to predict which software and staffing decisions are the best choices to help them further their commitment to citizen services while trimming operating costs.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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