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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Why open source adoption in federal IT is poised to accelerate

In the private sector, adoption of open standards-based technology has been on a roll for years. Federal agencies have been slower to embrace these models, though adoption has been climbing steadily. 

Embrace of standards-based technology may be about to accelerate amid increasing recognition in Washington about the need to modernize federal IT systems. The government still heavily relies on proprietary legacy systems that can be expensive to maintain, more vulnerable to cyberattacks and often struggle to meet the expectations of digital-savvy citizens.

As a Deloitte report put it: “For most agencies, core systems have delivered reliable and consistent results for decades. In many cases, however, they have become difficult and costly to maintain. Federal budgets have not kept pace with increasing maintenance costs, limiting investments in new capabilities. What’s more, security vulnerabilities continue to increase risk of exposure. Additionally, as mainframe developers decrease in number, the critical knowledge required to maintain these systems disappears.” 

In addition, many agencies habitually renew enterprise license agreements (ELAs) with proprietary vendors rather than explore open options that could be less expensive and higher quality. For some, it’s just easier to stick with the trusted vendor they’ve been working with for years.

There are several signs, however, that support for open standards is growing and may be reaching a tipping point in federal IT departments. These factors include: 

  • The pandemic effect. COVID-19 has placed even greater emphasis on agencies’ digital capabilities, from better and faster services for citizens to accommodating federal employees working from home. Platforms based on open standards allow legacy applications to be moved to the cloud and new applications to be developed more quickly.
  • New leadership. In one of his first appointments, President Joe Biden named David Recordonas the White House technology director. Recordon’s open source DNA is very strong; he’s a long-time developer who once led Facebook’s open-source projects and who co-authored the OAuth open standard for authentication and authorization. In the past, Recordon has described federal IT modernization as “sorely needed,” and it’s a good bet he will make open standards a strategic centerpiece. 
  • TMF funding. The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that Biden signed into law in early March contained a $9 billion allocation for the General Services Administration’s Technology Modernization Fund, aimed at helping the federal government launch new IT and cybersecurity initiatives. In January, then-president-elect Biden characterized IT modernization as an urgent national issue and called for “more innovative and impactful projects.” It’s impossible to imagine federal technologists not relying on open standards in the much-needed infrastructure upgrade. 
  • Increased use of reverse auctions. More and more, federal procurement officers are using reverse auctions to increase competition for technology contracts. In a reverse auction, multiple vendors vie for a contract by reducing the price for which they’re willing to sell the product or service. This benefits innovative companies offering standards-based, cloud-enabled tools that often are less expensive than proprietary solutions. 
  • The huge foot in the door that open source technology already has established. There are many examples of open-source technologies gaining traction in federal agencies, including an open-source relational database that is starting to see impressive uptick in the government. Additionally, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence has called the standards-based technology “must-have tools” in advancing the government’s AI development. These are just two examples of the value open source already is showing, and it’s momentum to build on. 

As these points show, we can expect agencies to start catching up to the private sector in a wholesale shift away from proprietary solutions. The truth is, no single company can match an open ecosystem of multiple vendors in providing faster and more agile applications.

The time is now for this important trend to accelerate. 

About the Author

Bob Dunn is vice president, global governments, with Juniper Networks.

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