Open sourcers aim selves at US gov
Advocates who helped shape a major US government department's policy paper on using open-source in IT projects are stepping up their lobby.
Open Source for America plans to push for clear statements on the rules around using open source in government IT across a number of federal departments next year.
The idea is to dispel lingering misconceptions about open source and misinterpretations of the rules around procurement and community licenses that it feels have hampered government's broader use of open source in public projects.
OSA director Bill Vass told The Reg in a recent interview the group will push for policy statements similar to the one issued recently by the US Department of Defense (DoD) inside each major federal agency. The DoD document outlined the cost and technology advantages of open-source and encouraged agencies to consider open-source when pitching projects for tender.
Vass said the OSA will try to meet members of the influential federal chief information officer council. The council develops guidelines for IT policy, procedures, and standards across all US federal government. The council's director is president Obama's federal CIO Vivek Kundra, whose already shown strong early support for open source, in addition to cloud computing, with members including civilians and generals.
The OSA particularly wants each of the major agencies that are already using open source - notably the Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration and Health and Human Services - to issue policy statements similar to the DoD.
The group also plans to lobby members of Congress and raise awareness through a whitepaper it's producing that lays out six reasons why government should move to open source. Spending less tax-dollars on expensive software licenses, avoiding the need to reinvent code already in the community, and a focus on security are likely to feature.
The push on government follows October's memo from DoD deputy CIO David Wennergren designed to highlight six benefits to using open source and dispel lingering "misconceptions and misinterpretations" in laws, policies, and regulations.
Wennergren pointed to openness of the code and the fact most open-source is not charged using an expensive per-seat basis, meaning it is potentially cheaper to support and buy.
He also encouraged people to take the time to learn about the different licenses, noting confusion exists on the subject of licenses - particularly the GPL.
"There are positive aspects of OSS that should be considered when conducting market research on software for DoD use," Wennergren wrote.
Vass said a number of his group's suggestions - culled from observing how governments in other countries such as the UK and Brazil use open source - featured in Wennergren's memo. Open-source representatives began engaging with the DoD two years ago.
Vass said Wennergren could have gone further - actually saying open-source must be evaluated as part of a project rather than suggesting it should be - but he's still happy with the document because there'd been a lot of FUD inside the DoD on using open source.
"They sort of used it and wouldn't tell anyone they were using it because they weren't sure they were allowed to," he said. "You'd go to an intel agency and they'd pick open source because the care about security, and you'd go across the street to an agency in army and their CIO would say you can't use the code because it's open source. This [memo] sets a level playing field.
The adoption barrier
He said one barrier to wider adoption of open source is simply ignorance. He quoted the case where the White House is using Drupal and LAMP on its web site but he'd talked to somebody building a collaboration project elsewhere who had never heard of Drupal.
"If you are in technology you know they are there, but if you walk around and just poll the general public folks... They know about Microsoft but most people look at me with surprise because it's [open source] not advertised and there's on marketing.
"What needs to happen [now] is every agency in federal government needs to adopt a policy similar to this. When you don't adopt it, you push it [open source] underground."
The DoD's statement was certainly a major coup for the OSA and prospective suppliers of open source software and services to government. The Department has the US government's largest single discretionary spending budget for 2010 of all departments: $663.7bn, an increase of 12 per cent.
Open-source business-intelligence specialist Jaspersoft now counts the government as its consistently second biggest vertical sector, up from around the sixth, seventh, and eighth. Jaspersoft - an OSA member - lists the DoD, Department of Energy, and NASA among the 12 federal agencies using it.
But Jaspersoft chief executive Brian Gentile said barriers still exist that need to be broken down. These barriers range from people not knowing that open-source equivalents to proprietary software exists, not understanding the licenses, or procurement not being set up to pay for software or services on a flat, ongoing subscription basis.
Government procurement is typically geared up to pay a big lump sum up front and to also expect a sharp reduction in their payments in following years - or to haggle for deep discounts on a scale open-source projects that come in cheaper than closed source can't be met by companies like Jaspersoft.
"Sometimes it takes weeks and weeks and months and months before they understand," Gentile said. "If a procurement officer is bonused on discounts that puts us in a bad situation."
Jaspersoft's government business has benefited from the downturn in the economy, as departments look for lower-priced options now their IT budgets are frozen.
Still, Gentile said, open-source companies need help in dealing with departments while government needs help in understanding how open-source can help them save tax dollars. According to Gentile, while Jaspersoft has grown, it should be growing more. The fact it isn't shows government departments aren't using enough open source, he claimed.
"We absolutely do need more help," Gentile said. "More memos like we see with the DoD are required to highlight that principle as highly as it can be. A directive from the US chief technology officer and CIO that proposed commercial open-source software should be considered in every category... It would set the right tone for discussion." ®