Thursday, September 24, 2009

GTC East 2009: open source

This afternoon, I attended a great GTC East session, “Emerging Technology: Open Source,” which featured former Pentagon CIO and current Sun Microsystems Federal COO Bill Vass and two State agency CIOs: Robert Vitello of the New York State Department of Labor and Andrew Hoppin of the New York State Senate. It’s always really encouraging to see government IT professionals champion the value of interoperability, collaboration, and novel ways of serving the public.

Bill Vass highlighted the advantages of open source software:
  • Better security. The national security community has embraced open source in part because all of the major proprietary vendors have outsourced their programming work to India, China, and Russia. Overseas programmers -- who are as talented as any coders out there -- can thus insert hidden code into commercial products. Proprietary vendors may tout expert certifications, but even experts can examine millions of lines of code. Open source code is fully open and can be reviewed completely by developer communities and others. Security should not be embedded in the code but managed outside of it.
  • Reduced procurement time. Procuring proprietary software requires a long lead time. However, with open source software, it’s possible to download the software, verify that it works, then procure support services.
  • No vendor lock-in or lock-out. Your data (i.e., your records!) won’t be trapped in a proprietary system, and you can secure support services from multiple vendors.
  • Reduced cost. Open source support contracts are sometimes more expensive than proprietary support contracts, but there is no cost of acquisition for open source software. Moreover, it’s often possible to get 90 percent of the functionality of proprietary software (i.e., the most heavily used features) for 10 percent of the cost.
  • Increased quality. Owing to the nature of the development process, open source code goes through about 3 times as many quality assurance reviews as proprietary code
Andrew Hoppin discussed how he and his staff use open source software to create a more transparent, more participatory, and, in particular, more efficient Senate. Use of open source results in cost savings, increased speed to deployment, absence of vendor lock-in, recruitment of top talent (the most talented people like to work with open source software), and leveraging of tax dollars and the innovation that comes with community-built software.

The Senate uses open source for server software (Linux, Apache), databases (MySQL), programming languages (PHP, Java), and platforms and applications (Drupal and WordPress for content management, SugarCRM or CiviCRM for relationship management, and RedMine, Trac, OpenAtrium for task management). It makes use of Creative Commons licensing and has developed some of its own open source software; its News 2.0 makes news clips available to the staff and to the public. The Senate also creates legislative data in open formats using open schemas and standards and publishes it as RSS feeds and with an API so that other can reuse it.

Robert Vitello noted that one way to defuse potential objections to use of open source is to note that, in all likelihood, one’s agency is already using it. Open source products are defined as such by their licenses, and many of the commercial products you’re currently using likely contain open source code. Most open source licenses specify that use of the code renders the product open source, but vendors don’t always realize this fact. When procuring software, the Department of Labor forces vendors to expose the licenses for all of the code embedded in their projects, and a lot of vendors were surprised to find that they were selling something that they really couldn’t.

Vitello also debunked a number of potential objections to the use of open source software:
  • In most instances, open source products offer functionality sufficient to meet one’s business needs.
  • A lot of people like commercial software because of product integration, but the integration isn’t that great, and open source communities can help to integrate software.
  • Open source doesn’t require extensive coding and programming knowledge. It depends on how much customization you want to do.
However, he also noted that in some instances, it might be possible but not practical to move from a proprietary product to an open source one; the move might require extensive research, staff training, and other work.

DOL uses Moodle for learning management, wikis, and used GForge to create, via which it distributes our open source software.

During the question-and-answer period, the panelists made lots of great points:
  • Proprietary software is generally built to enterprise scale, but open source software is built to Web scale (e.g., Google uses MySQL) and is thus highly scalable.
  • If you’re contemplating an open source solution, assess the size and health of the community that supports and develops it and determine who else is using it. Some communities are too tightly controlled, while others are too disorganized to be effective. Have your developers devote some time to interacting with the community.
  • Assess the skill sets of your employees and make your software choices accordingly. Open source tends to be fun, and people who love the technology love it; people who don’t love the technology want to administer contracts. Purchasing third-party support may also be an option.
  • Some vendors produce proprietary products that really do meet your needs. There is always a choice, and that choice should be driven by business need and what the payoff will be.
  • When submitting RFP’s, encourage open source providers to submit responses and educate you. Ask proprietary providers to do the same.
  • Many people respond to “scary” new things by banning them, but have no choice to embrace them hastily once they’ve become too popular to ban. The appropriate approach is to understand new things and to manage them.
I was particularly intrigued by something Robert Vitello discussed: DOL is thinking of using an open source application to create a virtual world on its CareerZone Web site, and could allow other agencies to build onto this virtual world. Virtual State Archives reading room: YES!

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