25 Sep 2013
What’s Ahead for Open Source in Government?
(originally published at opensource.com. Republished with permission. http://opensource.com/government/13/9/trends-open-source-government-2013)
It’s a relatively quiet time for most governments around the world right now. Typically, during this time there are few new initiatives, policies, or announcements related to open source.
So, it’s a good time to consider the trends of the first half of the year and ponder what the remainder of this calendar year holds.
Here are a few that come to mind.
Open Source will continue to be the ‘go to’ approach for governments around the world facing budget constraints amid growing demand for innovative services and citizen engagement.
More than 40 governments, by my conservative count, have policies that create a positive environment for open source use.
These policies are important to level the playing field: on the one hand highlighting the benefits of open source to governments (saying ‘it’s ok to use it’) as well as providing meaningful answers to commonly asked questions by government IT professionals.
The more potent driver toward open source software utilization, I’ve come to realize in recent years, is the fundamental shift in IT architecture, away from coupled hardware, software, and data to more modularity, reuse, and a central focus on interoperability—all of which is enhanced by tigher government IT budgets and the goal of avoiding vendor lock-in.
More recently, open source use has grown with the rise of high profile ‘digital agendas’. As a means of enhancing civic engagement, governments are using community-powered innovation to build open data and digital services platforms that are almost entirely built on open software and applications. We may truly be on the verge of the ‘citizen CIO’.
Increasingly, governments are wrestling with the ‘how tos’ of open source choices; not ‘whether’ to use it.
As broader acceptance of open source grows, governments are seeking to understand how to grasp the broad array of open source offerings that are available.
Their challenge has grown as governments move beyond use of open source in traditional server environments. Today, the cloud, big data, and mobile—which are heavily enabled by open source—are driving IT strategies. They make the question of How? especially acute: How do I take advantage of all this innovation, while still ensuring long-term reliability and consistency with my procurement goals?
To start, it’s important to understand the differences. There are OSS products which have commercial support from firms with proven track records of service and integrity. There are also “insourced” projects where agencies share software with each other, but not with the private sector. Finally, some agencies download community (also known as “freebie”) projects without any commercial support.
If government IT professionals rely solely on ad hoc rules or seat-of-the pants judgement, this exposes government agencies to significant risk that is not, at present, properly documented or understood:
- There are distinct risks associated with choosing a “freebie/insourced” model for use of open source software. In particular, community/freebie projects or “insourced” projects are likely to lack key security certifications, regular updates, support from third-party vendors, and interoperability with your critical applications.
- Relying on ‘freebie/insourced’ open source software effectively means a strategy of relying on internal support for critical mission which is unknown territory and potentially expensive, given the difficulty of obtaining and retaining qualified IT and management personnel.
- We could see a repeat of the failures and long-term costs associated with ‘government-off-the-shelf’ (GOTS) solutions. Although the projects may be, technically, commercial items as generally understood by governments, they present the same risks and economic liabilities as government-off-the-shelf software.
On-going policy discussions will continue about ensuring an ‘open’ cloud.
In a recent opensource.com post, long-time open source advocate Georg Greve writes of the ‘storm triggered in the cloud’ by recent disclosures of access by intelligence agencies (US and others).
The challenge for open source software advocates is to continue to press for ‘openness’ in the infrastructure and implementation of open source, even as the critical issues of access to information is sorted through.
It won’t be easy. Even prior to these disclosures, it was becoming clear that government initiatives on the cloud were testing the community’s ability to maintain ‘openness’ in implementation of those strategies, even where there were long-standing public commitment to open source and open standards. Some have even spoken of the prospect of a forthcoming ‘cloud war’ between Europe and the US, which would undermine even basic efforts to promote open source cloud offerings globally.
That’s my quick take at the rest of 2013. What are your thoughts?